‘I’m sorry, Mr Murrell, I find it hard to believe you’

Committee Room 1 is a squat oval on the ground floor of the Scottish parliament. It is an unremarkable room but governments like this one end up in rooms like this – one way or another.

After the glory, after the vanity, comes the banal indignity of cheap carpets and glaring lights.

Under their unforgiving beams sat Peter Murrell, the most powerful man in Scotland no one has heard of.

Members of the harassment inquiry, SNP and otherwise, were businesslike towards him but there was no mistaking the import of the moment.

As Mr Nicola Sturgeon, Murrell is co-pilot of the country and a fierce political animal – but you couldn’t have guessed it from his demeanour.

The jackal doesn’t howl. His register is low, almost soft, and his diction ever-so-slightly posh, but Scottish-posh – amongs become amongsts, but ers are still urrs.

Murrell looks like a bank manager: beady eyes, shiny head, smart suit. You’d pass him in the street never knowing his power, which may be the very definition of power.

His answers often came slowly, studded with ponderous pauses and gazes ceilingwards. The air of good-natured confusion was overdone. Perhaps he intended to come across like a mildly dotery Kirk minister who had misplaced his sermon notes, but there was something a little too practised in his routine.

Jackie Baillie wished the SNP chief executive a happy birthday with all the generosity of an executioner offering a condemned man his final cigarette.

‘I hope the First Minister finds time in her busy schedule to take you out this evening,’ she added, with a smile as sweet as acid.

‘I’m in Level 4,’ he riposted.

‘So you are. You could maybe get a takeaway then.’

‘If I’m a lucky boy.’

You could have tried to cut the tension with a knife but you would have needed a chainsaw.

‘Did you discuss your evidence that you’re giving today with the First Minister prior to coming here?’ she enquired. He told her no.

‘Hmph. Okay. That’s quite extraordinary,’ she breezed ahead, her biro scrawling ominously across a heavily tabbed notebook.

Next she interrogated him on an alleged incident from 2009 which he claimed to have learned about only in 2017.

‘Does this go on often, people not telling you things,’ she concern-trolled.

He countered that political parties were ‘strange beasts’ in which ‘we’re all just individuals – so if someone reports something to one member of the party and they don’t share that, it’s not something the SNP can be aware of’.

She was sceptical: ‘I am a member of a political party, too… and people are told things that go on, particularly of that nature, and they’re told quite quickly. So I am genuinely surprised that you didn’t know at all.’

The Labour bruiser’s staunchest blow was pointing out the discrepancy between Murrell’s claim that Sturgeon’s meetings with Alex Salmond were not party business, and his wife’s insistence that they were not government business.

‘There’s a direct conflict in your statement compared to Nicola Sturgeon’s statement,’ she needled him. ‘There’s no dubiety about that. You have both written different things.’

‘I don’t accept that,’ he mumbled in protest.

‘It is in black and white.’

The suspiciously bronzed Lib Dem Alex Cole-Hamilton gave a good accounting of himself, too.

He asked if Murrell had taken part in any meetings to plan the party’s response to allegations against Alex Salmond.

When Murrell said he had not, Cole-Hamilton was direct: ‘I’m sorry, Mr Murrell, I find it hard to believe you.’

The MSP pressed on: ‘You are legendary for your comms prowess and yet you mean to tell me that a variation in the Land and Buildings Transaction Tax debate took precedence over discussions of this nature, to prepare your party for the biggest bombshell in its history?’

From Murrell, only an icy, blank stare.

Power is unaccustomed to hard questions.

Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Letters: scotletters@dailymail.co.uk.

The coming coup against Nicola Sturgeon

Political parties, when they go unchallenged long enough, end up challenging themselves. The events of the past seven days signal that the SNP is entering this phase of its long sojourn in power. 

Elections to the party’s National Executive Committee tend not to capture headlines but last week’s results were an exception. In what looked like a trial run for a leadership coup, key Nicola Sturgeon allies such as Alyn Smith were ejected from the NEC, while the First Minister’s arch-nemesis Joanna Cherry won a seat — along with others sympathetic to Alex Salmond or critical of the direction the SNP has taken under the current leader. 

The election was also a case of out with the woke and in with the new, in the form of unreconstructed Lefties, gender-critical feminists and advocates of a harder line on independence. All of a sudden, democracy has come to the SNP. 

Factionalism is rife in politics, but most parties tend to enter office with already established tribes rather than acquiring them after more than a decade in power. Margaret Thatcher knew the Dries were devoted to her while the Wets disdained her. The Blairites and Brownites were in hostilities before their figureheads made it to Number 10 and Number 11, respectively. The SNP is different in that, under Salmond’s leadership, the party presented a united front to get itself into power and, under Sturgeon, has more or less kept it up — until now. 

It is tempting to see the Salmond/Sturgeon fault line as a revival of the old fundamentalist/gradualist debate but it is more complicated than that. Yes, Salmondites generally want to press ahead on a second referendum or even contemplate a unilateral declaration of independence, while the Sturgeonistas prefer to ca’ canny until they can be sure these new majorities for independence are solid. 

Personalities, however, play at least as big a role as questions of timing. Salmond is supported by the likes of Joanna Cherry and Kenny MacAskill, temperamentally abrasive politicians at their best in a fight, and by veteran members with long, bitter memories of hopes dashed and chances wasted. The Salmond forces are impatient but they are also dismayed by what they see as excessive timidity from the current leadership. Their nationalism doesn’t come with hand-wringing apologies attached. 

Their rivals are ideologically diverse but typically espouse a more technocratic approach to government. These are people like Angus Robertson and John Swinney, and while some may have been agitators in the past, most have come to represent a nationalism that aims not to scare Middle Scotland. Naturally, they want independence, too, but while some Salmondites seem to be interested only in 50 per cent of votes cast plus one, Sturgeonistas regard maximising support for a breakaway as vital for a smoother, less rancorous and more successful separation. 

Younger members broadly sympathetic to the First Minister also bring with them modern mores and believe these should be as intrinsic to the SNP as the national question. This is new. The SNP has always had Left and Right, and camps who wanted either independence in Europe or full sovereignty, but the 2014-15 influx introduced waves of members whose priorities are different. 

While Salmond believes in independence for its own sake and Sturgeon in independence as a shortcut (to scrapping Trident, strengthening the welfare system and creating a more equal Scotland), these late entrants believe in ‘independence plus’. Independence is a primary goal but not the only one. They believe it must go hand-in-hand with fundamental changes in how Scotland thinks about economics, social policy, race, the monarchy and much else. 

The fear is not that the NEC has become a nationalist incarnation of Labour’s far-Left Momentum but that it is home to an array of what one party old hand branded ‘mini-Momentums’, each with its own pet issue that equals independence in fervour, trumps party unity and pays little heed to the concerns of voters. 

These mini-Momentums, as described to me, comprise: the Wokes (who cross over with the Sturgeonistas and were largely defeated in the elections); the Salmondistas (who made important gains); the anti-GRA reformers (who oppose changing the Gender Recognition Act); the Plan B-ers (who want alternative routes to independence other than a Westminster-sanctioned referendum); and the Common Weal Group (who are, broadly, Leftist, republican and off-message on currency). 

An SNP source said: ‘It’s obvious that the Salmond camp asserted itself in the NEC elections but the truth is the party’s far more fractured than external observers realise. That is what is concerning the leadership and senior MSPs. They know how to win elections and they know divided parties tend not to.

‘The NEC results are a product of this factionalism but they’re a headache in themselves. The sense of entitlement is almost as palpable as the cluelessness about voters’ priorities. If voters had the first clue about what some of these people believe, they’d run a mile.

‘In a way, it’s a testament to how dominant the party is. The Tories and Labour are hopeless. The real opposition party is on the NEC.’

I understand a particular concern is the Common Weal Group, whose radical ideas about swiftly ditching the pound in favour of a separate Scottish currency are perceived by the party establishment to be electorally toxic. The NEC’s power isn’t what it once was and while a more colourful slate could cause some public embarrassment and internal friction, the policy and strategic direction will continue to be set by Nicola Sturgeon. 

Oddly enough, though, that makes further division more rather than less likely. Because the leader has concentrated so much power in her own hands (and that of her husband), events like the NEC elections can only ever be proxy battles. Sturgeon’s iron grip on the party means that changing the NEC is not enough. If you want to change the party, you have to change the leader. 

This is where the pro-Salmond forces hit their most stubborn obstacle: they have no one who can match Sturgeon in media savvy, public appeal or governing experience. No one except the man himself, and it is not at all clear that the former First Minister, now a pensioner, wishes to return to the daily grind of running a country. His proxies have their abilities but none is cut from a steel of the same tensile strength. 

Her enemies may not have an alternative leader and may suffer from a credibility gap but that will not matter if Sturgeon cannot do the only thing SNP leaders are elected to do: make Scotland independent. If she wins a majority next May but still can’t deliver a referendum, the factions will likely come for her as the Tory factions did for Maggie. Like Mrs T, Sturgeon can’t be beaten at the ballot box but she can be brought down by her own.

*****

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. Sir Keir Starmer is set to outline a new devolution settlement while Richard Leonard says any independence referendum should include a ‘home rule’ option. 

More powers for Holyrood. Why hasn’t anyone thought of that before? The Nationalists are done for now. 

Setting up Holyrood was supposed to see off the separatists. They’ve been running it for 13 years now. Devolving additional powers in 2012 and 2016 was meant to strengthen the Union. Support for independence has never been higher. The 2014 referendum was sold as the way to settle the matter. Scottish politics is now about little else, even during a pandemic. 

After two decades of ripping out the Union’s wiring, the lightbulb still isn’t clicking on for Unionist politicians. They think a bit more constitutional DIY will fix it. This myopic self-harm scunners pro-UK voters, who look at the frightened, clueless leaders of Unionism and think, in the gravelly lilt of Peggy Lee, ‘Is that all there is?’

*****

Holyrood presiding officer Ken Macintosh says it would be ‘wholly inappropriate’ for MSPs, currently on £64,470 a year, to take a 5.1 per cent salary increase. No doubt some will tut, ‘I should hope so’, while others may grudgingly acknowledge: ‘They did the right thing for once.’ Me? My first thought was: ‘We’re paying them?’

Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Letters: scotletters@dailymail.co.uk.

Queen Nicola

The £500 NHS bonus is dubious policy but great politics, so when Richard Leonard tried to question the former he fell victim to the latter. The Scottish Labour leader isn’t against the payment; he just wondered why other frontline workers weren’t getting a tidy sum in their Christmas stocking.

He told Nicola Sturgeon: ‘£500 is a welcome gesture for those key workers on the frontline in health and social care, but for those key workers who have been working on the frontline of other parts of the public sector, and for those in the private sector like shop workers, it will be of little comfort.’

He was speaking not long after the announcement Debenhams could soon be ringing up its last sale.

Sturgeon found the question cynical. ‘It’s only a matter of weeks, if my memory is serving me correctly, that Richard Leonard at First Minister’s Questions challenged me to do more to say thank you to NHS and care workers, but as soon as we do he decides that is not enough and he’s going to ask for something else.’

It’s almost as if the leader of an opposition party was engaging in opposition. The scoundrel.

A braver opposition politician — certainly braver than Ruth Davidson, who went on school holiday uncertainty — would have pointed out that, while low-paid porters, cleaners and nurses more than merit £500 a pop, handing half a grand to consultants on six-figure salaries is hardly the most progressive use of taxpayers’ money.

In fairness to Davidson, the school holiday arrangements look about as well-planned as anything John Swinney’s had a hand in.

She reckons key workers could even face a ‘childcare crisis’. At least they have some certainty: they know where their £500 will be going.

At risk of inadvertently founding a Mike Rumbles fan club, the closest thing Holyrood has to a libertarian MSP made a welcome nuisance of himself once again. Returning to a favourite subject, he needled Sturgeon on the failure to give parliament a vote in advance of introducing or changing lockdown restrictions.

‘I will contrast that with what is happening at Westminster right at this moment,’ he prodded, ‘where MPs are debating and voting on major changes in their regulations before they come into effect.’

Accusing her of being less democratic than Westminster poked the bear, as Rumbles had intended. Sturgeon reminded him: ‘If my memory serves me correctly, the last time that we put areas into level 4, parliament did vote before the changes took effect.’

Rumbles took it to the umpire. Presiding Officer Ken Macintosh always looks mildly terrified when a member calls out ‘ point of order’, like a teacher who has just made it through his first sex education talk and is silently praying no hands shoot up with further questions.

‘I would hate to think the First Minister had inadvertently misled parliament,’ Rumbles ventured, with the sincerity of a Siamese circling a fishbowl, but could the Presiding Officer clarify if there had been a binding vote ahead of the tier 4 changes?

‘It is the case that we had a vote on a motion that was non-binding,’ Macintosh wearily confirmed, ‘and I specifically said that it was not a vote on the regulations.’

His voice is so joyless these days, and he was hardly an S Club 7 backing singer to begin with. The parliament has broken him, or rather his powerlessness to fix a broken parliament.

‘I have no objection to parliament being involved up front and as early as possible,’ Sturgeon told Rumbles, ‘as long as that does not hinder any of us in doing what is necessary.’

Not long ago, a sentence like that would have rung enough alarm bells to evacuate the building. Yesterday, it barely raised an eyebrow.

Mike Rumbles might be thoroughly out of touch with public opinion – the technical term is ‘Liberal Democrat’ – but when a First Minister has taken to reigning instead of governing, you need someone to remind her the crown is in her head, not on it.

Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Letters: scotletters@dailymail.co.uk.

What if Nicola doesn’t know best?

It’s not very often I find myself in agreement with Joanna Cherry. The occasion was an interview she gave to a newspaper in which she spoke candidly about how thoroughly the leadership has come to dominate the SNP, a party with a tradition of independent-mindedness.

As Cherry put it, the SNP ‘shouldn’t be about the cult of leader, whether it’s Alex or Nicola, or anyone else’. Alex is, of course, Alex Salmond, of whom she is a firm political ally, something that has brought her a good deal of grief.

‘I was brought up to stand by my friends by my parents,’ she said. ‘That’s the sort of family I come from. That’s why I’ve stood by him. It’s rather a comment on modern life that so few did.’

That is a remark so pointed it would be classed as an offensive weapon under the 1995 Criminal Law (Scotland) Act. 

But Cherry’s comments were more than factional scuttlebutt, and that is what makes them important. She addressed a suffocating intolerance within the SNP towards anyone who dissents from the Sturgeonista line and the satellites of wokeness that swoop around her.

The Edinburgh South West MP explained: ‘This no-debate mentality is really unhealthy. It’s an unfortunate tendency in modern political discourse… It typifies a small minority in my party and has bled through from the debate about reform of the gender recognition act, to include alternative plans for an independence referendum.’

Cherry will be slated as bitter over the rule-change shenanigans that all but prevented her seeking selection for Edinburgh Central ahead of May’s Holyrood election. Frankly, she has every right to feel bitter about the least subtle stitch-up since Dr Frankenstein last took up a needle and thread.

Alternatively, she will be accused of pursuing her doubts about gender self-identification by another means. Again, who could blame her when pursuing those doubts by stating them in measured and respectful language has brought her nothing but social media bile from her own side?

Finally, she will be dismissed as a mouthpiece for Salmond, an ironic charge since some of its levellers seem to have had their last independent thought on or before November 14, 2014.

Cherry is as crafty a political operator as the best of them but that doesn’t mean she isn’t onto something. Nicola Sturgeon is an electoral powerhouse who has taken the SNP to previously unimaginable heights, yet as she has broadened its electoral coalition she has severely narrowed the scope for internal debate. Power in the SNP does not rest in branches or conference resolutions or even the National Executive Committee, but between two people in one townhouse in Edinburgh.

A party that once had a near-fetish for democracy, so much so that annual conference could be shaped by total cranks, has been transformed into an absolute monarchy. The old way of doing things helped keep the party out of power but the new way of doing things is preventing it from using the power it has.

Nationalism may still be the ideology but the prevailing practice is Nicola Knows Best. This has led the SNP down policy dead-ends without bringing independence any closer.

The Scottish government wasted time and political capital trying to ram through the most radical redefinition of gender proposed anywhere in the UK. In doing so, it took sides in a complex and sensitive dispute within the SNP membership, a section of whom are concerned about the potential for compromising women’s sex-based rights under the Equality Act.

Despite these protests, ministers and civil servants ploughed ahead until the backlash became too great and the government was forced to beat a retreat. How did this shambles advance the cause of independence? It didn’t and was never going to, but Nicola Knows Best.

The First Minister threw the government’s support behind a smacking ban that parents were assured would not see them criminalised, even as lobby groups were told smacking would be treated the same as an assault on an adult. Legal experts sympathetic to the SNP, and not unsympathetic to the principle of a ban, warned ministers that the legislation would indeed treat parents as criminals.

The law came into force earlier this month and if it does see high-profile cases of loving parents arrested and separated from their children, independence advocates might wonder what such a polarising policy will do to their newly minted Yes majority. Nothing good could be the answer, but Nicola Knows Best.

Sturgeon’s hand was not difficult to detect in the SNP’s submission to the UK Government defence review. Urging Boris Johnson to ‘commit wholeheartedly to multilateral nuclear disarmament’ hints at a future watering down of the party’s unilateral position.

Shifting stances would give the Scottish government more leeway to negotiate Trident’s future (perhaps in exchange for a currency or customs union) in the event of independence, but it is anathema to most of the membership. No matter, though, because Nicola Knows Best.

It has long been speculated that Cherry seeks the crown for her own head, though she denies it. That’s a pity because I increasingly find myself wishing Cherry or someone like her would take over the leadership of the SNP.

Not because I cynically calculate that she would struggle to recreate Sturgeon’s electoral magic but because you can have an argument with Cherry. She believes in something, states her case and joins battle. You can’t have an argument with Sturgeon. She believes in something, yes, but it’s a melange of personal power, political celebrity, modish policy and independence, seemingly in that order.

Our endless constitutional impasse is tedious and drains political energy that could be put to better use. If the SNP wants another referendum, it should make one happen. If the Tories oppose one, they should prevent it from happening. Instead, we are in a curious checkmate between a Tory prime minister who is weak on the Union and an SNP leader who refuses to make a move against him.

This is why more debate is needed in the SNP. Maybe Nicola does know best – but maybe she doesn’t.

*****

Exit stage (centre-) left, Jenny Marra. The Labour MSP will stand down at May’s election to spend more time with her two young children. The Scottish parliament talks a good game about being family-friendly but it is as outmoded as Westminster.

If Scottish Labour had any sense, it would have made Marra leader years ago. She speaks directly, has convictions and wants to get things done. Her first thought upon encountering a new idea is: how will this policy affect the people – poor, vulnerable, disabled – least likely to have had any input in shaping it? Her second thought is generally: why are my opponents against this and do they have a point?

Although a regional MSP, she is Dundee’s voice when others go quiet out of party loyalty. As convener, she is the teeth of the public audit committee and asks the questions the ordinary punter would. Holyrood has precious little talent as it is, without losing someone of Marra’s calibre and character. Haste ye back, Jenny.

*****

Mail Online has an encouraging story from Eton, where boys are fighting the dismissal of a popular master. Will Knowland was allegedly sacked amid the fallout from a video lecture which reportedly encouraged the questioning of feminist orthodoxy on ‘toxic masculinity’. The boys have circulated a petition demanding his reinstatement on free speech grounds. The kids are all right.

Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Letters: scotletters@dailymail.co.uk.

Hostile witness

It was Ruth Davidson at her exacting best.

Called for questions after Nicola Sturgeon’s latest Covid-19 statement, the obvious subject was the five-day lockdown grace period the First Minister had just announced for Christmas. The Tory group leader screeched the brakes and took proceedings in a prosecutorial direction.

As the SNP government continues to stonewall parliament on what legal advice it had about harassment allegations against Alex Salmond, Davidson turned First Minister’s Questions into a cross-examination with the First Minister in the witness box. The result was an interrogation more forensic than a CSI/Quincy double bill.

Like a good advocate, Davidson carefully laid out her terms. When she set up the Salmond inquiry, Sturgeon had promised to ‘provide whatever material’ it requested. Two parliamentary defeats later, she still refuses to disclose her taxpayer-funded legal advice and Scottish Government officials have been blocked from giving evidence.

‘The simple question is,’ Davidson concluded, ‘why has the First Minister broken her promise?’

‘That is not the case,’ the witness baulked. ‘The Scottish Government is co-operating and will continue to cooperate with the inquiry.’ She wasn’t undermining the Ministerial Code but acting in accordance with it.

If you’ve ever watched an accomplished lawyer at work, sometimes they try to reassure a witness into opening up and sometimes they pry at them with a crowbar. Davidson took the crowbar approach: ‘The blunt fact is that the only conceivable reason that she is breaking her promise is that she has something to hide.’

The she carried a faint toll of calculated contempt. In the Official Report, released by the Scottish Parliament later on Thursday afternoon, it had been replaced with the more polite First Minister.

For her own part, the First Minister’s gaze fell and her expression with it. When it came back up again, her complexion was a shade or two lighter and her voice softer than usual. Every little tic was its own study in discomfort.

‘Let us try the question differently,’ Davidson pried the crowbar a little more. ‘I will say what the legal advice contained and the First Minister can tell me whether I am wrong.’ She proceeded to surmise that ministers had been advised of their blunders and that they were for it in court, yet they had pressed ahead while ‘utterly failing the women who came forward’.

‘Can the First Minister tell the public which part of that I got wrong?’ she begged.

‘Were I to go into detail, I would stand here right now and breach the Ministerial Code,’ the witness recited bloodlessly. ‘Perhaps Ruth Davidson wants that to be the case, but I will not do that.’ The tone was flat, and in its own way just as lawyerly, but the tell-tale hands flew up and out, as though trying to spread as much blame as far as possible.

Her tormentor was not finished. ‘The SNP never tire of lecturing anyone who will listen about the will of parliament and how it should be respected,’ Davidson rebuked, ‘except when it does not suit their purpose’.

First ministerial eyes rose, then fell again; the mouth narrowed slightly; fingers strummed on upper arm, impatiently.

Now came the Tory’s closing flourish, thumping down key words like a palm thwacked on a desk for emphasis. ‘During this affair, the First Minister has conveniently forgotten key information such as dates [slap], meetings [crack] and conversations [whap]. Has she not forgotten something far more fundamental, too?’

‘The Government is acting in line with the ministerial code,’ came the cold, defeated reply.

The impromptu courtroom drama overshadowed the festive lockdown measures that had started the session 15 minutes (though it felt like hours) ago. The gist is, as Alan Rickman camply roared in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, ‘call off Christmas!’

No more than eight people across three households for five days. No changing bubbles. No meeting other bubbles. No going shopping with your bubble. And if you hark any herald angels singing, please report the matter to Police Scotland.

Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Letters: scotletters@dailymail.co.uk.

Oh stay home, all ye faithful

This is the text of my Scottish Daily Mail sketch of Nicola Sturgeon’s Covid-19 update to the Scottish Parliament on November 24, 2020. 

Christmas used to be such an innocent time. Saviours born in stables. Red-nosed reindeer pulling sleighs. Even if you got taken hostage by terrorists while collecting your estranged wife from the office Christmas party, you could take them all out single-handedly and patch up your marriage within 90 minutes.

This year, the three wise men would get done for travelling between tiers and Rudolph’s red nose would be added to the list of Covid symptoms as a precaution. So, if you were expecting Nicola Sturgeon to announce a great festive lockdown-easing, you might want to put away the eggnog now. Or tip in a couple more snifters of brandy. The message from the First Minister’s statement was: Oh stay home, all ye faithful.

‘Any easing of restrictions will be temporary,’ she told MSPs. ‘It will be limited. It will be accompanied by advice on the precautions that we should all take to minimise risk, and we will continue to ask people to err on the side of caution.’

Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus, but he’s self-isolating this year.

The First Minister continued: ‘Our overall advice will be for people to use any flexibility carefully and only if they believe it right and necessary for their personal circumstances.’

Christ is born, but keep it down.

I felt uneasy about loosening things up for Christmas, anyway. Jews got no special treatment for Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur or Sukkot. Muslims just had to make do through Ramadan and Eid al-Fitr, and even Chancellor Rishi Sunak has spoken about how ‘difficult’ Diwali was for Hindus this year. If everyone else got out of spending time with their extended families, I don’t see why Christians shouldn’t.

One of the most miserable aspects of handing monarchical powers to one woman in Bute House is how it turns the rest of us into little apple-polishers. Yes, Miss. No, Miss. Can I have three households round for Boxing Day, Miss?

Bruce Crawford, ordinarily an/the independent-minded SNP backbencher, even credited Sturgeon for placing his Stirling constituency in Tier 4.

He noted the ‘considerable disappointment’ in his area but, since the seven-day positivity rate had risen by 10 per 100,000, ‘I believe the decision was absolutely correct in order to save lives’. It was like watching that one goody-two-shoes in school who would ask the teacher for extra homework.

Fans of Michael Winner movies may recall his Death Wish series, which saw Charles Bronson stalk the streets of nocturnal New York bumping off bad guys the law was too soft to take on. The Highlands have their own Bronson in the shape of Ian Blackford, who apparently stalks the tweets of nocturnal Scotland seeking English interlopers.

After a photographer posted a breathtaking image of the Northern Lights over Caithness, Blackford rounded on the snapper (‘as you live in the south of England’) and demanded ‘a valid reason as to why you are posting a photo from the north of Scotland’.

Handwringing liberals protested that Blackford couldn’t possibly know where this cameraman lived, but the Lochaber Avenger believes in shooting first and issuing carefully-worded apologies later.

One such do-gooder was Alex Cole-Hamilton, who accused our Highland hero of ‘singling out and bullying a private citizen who had relocated here from England’ and asked Sturgeon: ‘Does she support vigilante action from her MPs like this?’

She doesn’t support her MPs voting without her instructions. Though, between this one and the one who took Covid with her on a cross-country busman’s holiday, who could blame her?

Still, a brave face and all that. ‘I suspect people watching have a myriad of things they want to hear addressed… I’m not sure that would have been at the top of the list,’ Sturgeon jabbed back.

Then came the hard part, when she had to say her man had apologised with ‘the grace and dignity I associate with Ian Blackford’. If I were grace and dignity, I’d instruct solicitors.

Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Letters: scotletters@dailymail.co.uk.

Vaccine rollout will be key test for Sturgeon

This is the text of my Scottish Daily Mail column for week beginning November 23, 2020. Subjects include delivery of the Covid-19 vaccine, Jeremy Corbyn’s future in the Labour Party, and Gillian Anderson’s portrayal of Margaret Thatcher in Netflix’s The Crown.

It has been a glum year but news of impending Covid-19 vaccines brings a glimmer of hope. There is the Pfizer vaccine, BNT162b2, of which the UK Government has purchased 40 million doses, and AZD7442, the antibody treatment which manufacturer AstraZeneca says can keep Covid at bay for 12 months. Whitehall plans to buy one million units of the latter if it passes the next phase of trials. In all, ministers have pre-ordered more than 355 million doses of seven potential vaccines, including 100 million of the Oxford vaccine.

After eight months of lockdowns, travel bans, business closures and job losses, there is a chance that our lives could begin to go back to normal by Summer. I am by temperament a cheerful pessimist but even I have been feeling more of the former than the latter lately. 

The rub, however, is that securing a vaccine is one thing, successfully administering it is another. Provided one is approved in time, the Scottish Government intends to start inoculating people from early December, with priority given to medics, care workers, over-80s and those in residential homes. Absent any hiccoughs, all Scots over 18 should be vaccinated by next Summer, which is broadly in line with the timescale set out for England, although there are hopes jabs there can be completed by Spring. These seem decidedly optimistic timescales but they are at least a beginning. 

Getting the vaccine to everyone who wants it will require an operation of uncommon scale, precision and speed. There will be no room for error, particularly if the drug is being delivered in the middle of a difficult winter flu season. 

That is where my concerns begin. This Scottish government doesn’t have an encouraging track record when it comes to delivering the annual vaccine. The memory of the 2018 enhanced flu jab debacle still lingers, not least how it exposed an underprepared and poorly coordinated health bureaucracy. 

Even this year’s flu vaccination programme has not been without its faults. Because of coronavirus, it is being administered by health boards, rather than by GP surgeries, and I know almost no one who has managed to get the jab without some hassle or snafu. 

One elderly relative turned up at their appointed time only to find themselves with a long wait in a queue of strangers whose Covid status they couldn’t know. Another was sent back home unvaccinated because of a recently prescribed medication and told to return a week later. Since doing so, she has received two letters from a health board convinced she has not received the jab — the same health board that gave her it weeks ago. Minor inconveniences, perhaps, but hints at the strains even this routine system is under. 

A Covid vaccination programme will throw up its own hurdles. The Pfizer drug, for instance, needs to be stored at negative 70 degrees Celsius, plus or minus ten degrees. The Scottish Government has purchased 20 special refrigeration units to house the medicine but once it is removed from the recommended storage climate, it can only be kept at normal refrigeration levels (between two and eight degrees) for five days. That makes transportation a logistical headache. 

Ministers believe the answer is central administration of the drug. Yet this poses a quandary for covering rural Scotland. Do you try to provide the vaccine to as many people as possible in the Highlands and Islands while accepting that a certain quantity could be spoiled in the process? Or do you use BNT162b2 in towns and cities and the preventative AZD7442 in more rural parts of the country until another, less temperature-dependent option (such as AstraZeneca’s other trial drug, the ‘Oxford vaccine’) becomes available? 

If you’re anything like me, you’ll be having a hard time keeping track of all these strange alphanumerical pile-ups — BNT162b2, AZD7442 — which sound like newly-discovered galaxies on Star Trek. This is another consideration that ministers and health boards will have to bear in mind: securing public buy-in to a vaccine means talking about it in terms the public understands. Last May I wrote about the threat of the ‘anti-vaxxer’ movement, a conspiracy theory typically spread through social media that falsely claims safe and approved vaccines are injurious to health. At the time, NHS England was raising the alarm about the threat these paranoid fantasies posed to public health and I argued that we should be taking the matter just as seriously in Scotland, though I never imagined we would be tested so soon and in such a fashion. 

There is an important ethical debate about whether vaccines should be compulsory in certain circumstances but our immediate focus must be on giving the public as much confidence as possible to drive down the number of potential refusers. Politicians and clinicians will have to speak honestly, clearly and simply to allay legitimate fears and ensure they are not preyed upon by internet cranks. 

Understanding ordinary people’s concerns doesn’t extend only to the safety of new vaccines. It is also about appreciating all the little potholes of life which can suddenly trip up even the most thoroughly planned vaccination programme. Travelling to a central location at a given time is much easier if you live in a city, own a car and have support structures in place to help you out. 

How many MSPs, ministers and civil servants live in remote communities? How many do not own a car and must rely on buses? How many have no access to childcare if they had to take an elderly relative for vaccination? How many work rigid shifts for exacting bosses and would worry about blotting their copybook by asking for an afternoon off to go get a jab? Most politicians and bureaucrats are fortunate enough never to have to worry about transport, babysitter money or unreasonable employers, but they should stop to factor in these realities in their planning. 

Remember all that sunny talk about smartphones and how they were vital tools in a modern pandemic? Not only did they give easy access to the Test and Protect app, they allowed us to summon a digital GP appointment with the poke of a button and order a socially distanced food shop with a simple swipe. All useful functions for the 95 per cent of 16-to-24-year-olds who own a smartphone, but what of the 49 per cent of over-55s who do not, or the more than one-third of those on the lowest income levels who are without these gadgets? 

We talk about a digital divide in this country but the real divide is often between the decision-makers, drawn from a narrow pool of life experience, and those governed by their decisions, whose live varied lives the complexities of which the decision-makers are unaware. A Covid-19 vaccine programme is too important to be hindered by insular bubble-think. 

The First Minister is said to have had a good pandemic, but vaccinating more than four million Scottish adults will be the first real test of her government’s management of coronavirus. She is wholly in charge of what happens next and cannot blame big bad Westminster if she falters, though she will doubtless still try. Nicola Sturgeon talks a good input game. Now she has to deliver results. 

*****

Like Mehran Karimi Nasseri, the Iranian exile who lived in Charles de Gaulle Airport for 18 years after no other country would grant him entry, Jeremy Corbyn finds himself politically homeless. His suspension lifted, he is once again a Labour member, but not a Labour MP, because Sir Keir Starmer refuses to reinstate the whip. As such, the lefty loser is both in and out of Labour at the same time — Schrödinger’s prat. 

This has dragged on long enough. Corbyn was the worst leader in Labour’s history, led it to its lowest ebb since 1935 and oversaw a shameful breakdown in relations with Britain’s Jewish community. Every day he remains even half-in Labour is another day of weakness and cowardice on Sir Keir’s part. If he wants to be Prime Minister, he is going to have to get much more ruthless. Kick Corbyn out — fully and for good — and start to rebuild the trust with the country that his predecessor frittered away.

*****

Gillian Anderson is magisterial as Margaret Thatcher in Netflix’s The Crown. Critics are hailing her replication of the Iron Lady’s voice, style and mannerisms but I was impressed by the uncanny shuffling gait as she burrowed past generals and palace equerries to give Cabinet ministers and even the Queen a handbagging. There is no alternative: Anderson must win the BAFTA. 

Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Letters: scotletters@dailymail.co.uk.

Staying home for Christmas

Spend long enough flicking through the TV this time of year and you’ll stumble upon entire channels airing nothing but made-for-television movies about saving Christmas.

These feel-good flicks are invariably set in small-town America and involve the local factory/diner/church being on the brink of closure on Christmas Eve thanks to a heartless boss/corporation/bank manager until a suspect outsider/misunderstood local/loveable pet convinces the town to band together and rekindle the festive spirit. Actual titles include: The Man Who Saved Christmas, The Boy Who Saved Christmas, The Dog Who Saved Christmas, and — I kid you not — The Tree That Saved Christmas.

At First Minister’s Questions, we got an even unlikelier tale: The Socialist Who Saved Christmas. Or at least tried to. Plucky picket-line frequenter Richard Leonard was back at the barricades, this time to protest against the transport ban that comes into force on Friday evening. The law will make it a criminal offence to travel between different tiers and motorists caught doing so will face a fine. Leonard objected that this was too harsh on Scots who are doing their best. Of course, the real victim is Chris Rea. He has to write a new verse for ‘Driving Home for Christmas’ and find something that rhymes with ‘Glasgow Sheriff Court’.

The Labour leader called the ban a ‘red herring’, telling Nicola Sturgeon: ‘The overwhelming majority of people are just trying to keep up with the regulations in order to follow them. However, as things stand, the best case scenario is that the travel ban will confuse them; the worst-case scenario is that it will criminalise them.’

The First Minister pointed out that similar travel limits were already in place in Wales, and who among us isn’t well-versed on Welsh motoring regulations? With a dramatic flourish, she produced a statement from Mark Drakeford on the wisdom of a travel ban. Sturgeon quotes the Welsh First Minister more often than the Western Mail. Don’t get me wrong, if she wants Scottish policy to be set by a parliament south of the Border, I’m up for it. I’d just go 150 miles east of the Senedd.

The Grinch of the story, though, was not Sturgeon but her backbencher Christine Grahame. ‘Unlike Richard Leonard,’ she snipped, ‘I and most of my constituents welcome making travel restrictions subject to legal enforcement’. The Midlothian South, Tweeddale and Lauderdale MSP fretted that her constituency’s Level 2 status was at peril from incomers from Level 3 Edinburgh. You’ll have had your test, then.

‘In Midlothian, we have major retail outlets such as Dobbies, Ikea, Costco and Straiton retail park,’ she quibbled. ‘How will travel from Edinburgh to such places be monitored? Purchasing a tray of winter pansies or wine glasses and cushions, while completely understandable, can hardly be considered essential.’ Beleaguered husbands have been making this point every Sunday afternoon for years now.

Ruth Davidson returned to her concerns about loneliness during the festive period and the need to balance virus suppression with some tidings of comfort and joy.

‘I want people to have a degree of normality over Christmas,’ Sturgeon generously allowed, ‘but I do not want to have to announce, or the country to have to live with, numbers on more bereaved families and a death toll that could have been avoided.’

Even Scrooge didn’t guilt-trip Bob Cratchit that bad when he asked for Christmas day off. More to the point, what exactly does the First Minister think the average Scottish family does at Christmas? We’re not ’round the doors carolling without a face mask. We’re on the sofa convincing ourselves that a fifth mince pie couldn’t do any harm and debating whether the Queen decorates her own Christmas tree.

Jackson Carlaw, looking all the jollier for his return to the backbenches, pitched in a question nominally about support for small businesses but which contained this curiosity: ‘Second-guessing the difficult decisions that the First Minister must take is a fool’s game, as we have seen.’ Whoever could he have had in mind?

Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Letters: scotletters@dailymail.co.uk.

I get locked down but I go up a tier again

Like a demented episode of The Price is Right, Nicola Sturgeon surveyed her five-tier, four-level lockdown system at Holyrood yesterday, and, despite the audience at home crying ‘ lower! lower!’, she went higher, losing us our pub rights and any chance at the Mini Metro and weekend break in Skegness.

The First Minister used her statement to outline which council areas would remain at Level 1 and which would be placed in full lockdown at Level 4. Glasgow, Renfrewshire and East Renfrewshire, East and West Dunbartonshire, North and South Lanarkshire, East and South Ayrshire, Stirling and West Lothian would all come under the most stringent restrictions.

Hairdressers and non-essential shops and restaurants will be closed and guidance against travelling between tiers given the force of law. ‘If we see evidence… that people from Glasgow are going to Inverclyde,’ she warned, ‘we would have no choice but to consider Level 4.’

Pretty harsh. Isn’t being Inverclyde punishment enough?

The talk of ‘evidence’ didn’t mean any was produced, not least the grounds for thinking that this lockdown would succeed where previous ones had failed. The answer seems to be: because science. I’m all for science, though I prefer it to look and sound less like a government-funded horoscope.

‘For all areas in Level 1,’ Sturgeon went on, ‘it will be permissible from Thursday to meet outdoors with up to eight people from a maximum of three households.’ Unless the winter solstice falls on a blood moon, in which case it’s only four people and each has to throw a chicken over their shoulder before entering.

‘I am aware that some people will argue that schools should also be closed at Level 4,’ she continued. No doubt representations have been made by people with painted-on moustaches, cloaked in trench coats and looking suspiciously like one primary seven standing on another’s shoulders.

This was another part of the ‘science’ in need of explanation: why were pubs super-spreaders but not overcrowded classrooms full of coughing teenagers?

Sturgeon was more concerned with sounding upbeat. She said the measures would ‘not be in place for most of the Chanukah period’ and would also ‘create the prospect of seeing some loved ones at Christmas’.

There goes your excuse for dodging the in-laws this year.

Diplomatically, she said we were ‘in the midst of a global pandemic that is nobody’s fault’. I don’t know, I reckon the Chinese Communist Party should be keeping its head down a while longer.

Restrictions, she laboured, were part of a journey in which we ‘steer a path through the next few months towards brighter times’. Does the AA provide metaphor breakdown cover?

Eventually, though, Sturgeon the wound-poker couldn’t help herself. She boasted that ‘prevalence in Scotland’ was ‘ lower than in other UK nations’. That’s why half the population is being placed under house arrest.

My suspicion grows that the First Minister’s speechwriter is a frustrated lyricist yearning to start their own Billy Bragg tribute act. ‘Love and solidarity… will get us through this,’ Sturgeon closed her statement. ‘Soon we will be looking back on it/ not living through it/ so please try to stay strong/ please stick with it and stick together.’

Her most dogged tormentor was not Ruth Davidson but Lib Dem Mike Rumbles. He barracked the First Minister throughout the session until she protested to the Presiding Officer: ‘He is shouting repeatedly at me from a sedentary position.’ Clype.

It takes a lot to get a Lib Dem to raise their voice, though I did once witness a furious discussion of proportional representation in the bar at a party conference.

In these times we need someone to make a full-throated defence of liberty. That right there might be the worst aspect of Sturgeon’s handling of this crisis. She’s made the Liberal Democrats relevant again.

Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Letters: scotletters@dailymail.co.uk.

How to bounce Boris into backing the Union

The challenge this weekend was to find anyone in government or the Tory Party with a good thing to say about Dominic Cummings. A box of Milk Tray to whoever managed, but it wasn’t me. You might expect that his internal opponents would be glad to see the back of him but even Leave-minded insiders I spoke to were relieved. Sad, of course, because they respected his abilities, and worried that this could mean a watering down of Brexit, but frustrated that his talent was not matched by the discipline required by government. 

Boris Johnson may be feeling a mix of emotions. For one, he has followed and practised politics long enough to know that the importance of a single adviser can be greatly inflated. Tony Blair’s premiership outlasted Alastair Campbell’s service by almost four years, including a historic third consecutive election victory. David Cameron similarly managed another four years plus an election win following the departure of Steve Hilton, the green guru who helped him rebrand the Tory Party before decamping to California and a career as a Trump-boosting host on Fox News. 

However, he knows too that Cummings has an uncommon strategic mind that helped guide Vote Leave and the 2019 Conservative election campaign to stunning victories. Tory MPs may not have liked him, but without him there wouldn’t have been as many of them around to disapprove. He certainly rubbed true blue Tories the wrong way but he understood how to talk to non-Tories and convince some of them to vote Tory for the first time. Not only must the Prime Minister face the most capable Labour leader since Tony Blair, now he must do so without his surrogate brain. 

That is not a concern weighing heavy on Scottish Tories, who run the gamut from fair chipper to positively ecstatic over Cummings’ resignation. The impact of his lockdown-breaking journey to Barnard Castle was repeatedly cited to me but so too was the conviction that he was unreliable on the Union. One party insider described the svengali’s removal as ‘a welcome move by the Prime Minister that can only help efforts to stop the SNP’, noting that Cummings’ Durham trip ‘enraged traditional Tory voters and handed the Nats a big stick with nails in it to beat the party and the Union’. An MSP, meanwhile, feared Cummings ‘would have seen independence as the ultimate experiment in disruption’ and ‘had no instinct for the Union and never even seemed to care’. 

However, both these insiders sounded the same note of caution: Cummings’ going would not heal what ails either the Tory Party in Scotland or the United Kingdom itself. The brimming ranks of prime ministerial excuse-makers deem this yet another thing that is not Boris Johnson’s fault. He’s as Unionist as they come, you see, but that crazy Dom cared more about Brexit and maybe even saw the SNP as a useful foil come the next election. It’s a curious line of defence: the Prime Minister has principles but he had to wait for his aide to resign to assert them. We are governed by weak men surrounded by people who will swear blind that weakness is a form of strength. 

We can be weak too, of course — too keen to wish away the challenges of our times. Dominic Cummings did not bring the Union to the brink and his leaving will not pull it back. Unionists need to stop telling themselves that every minor change in the political weather means a fair wind for the Union. It is a passive and pitiful way to go about advancing a cause. If you want the Union to endure, you have to elect leaders who believe in it and for whom it is a basic tenet of their political worldview. Nationalists may be increasingly frustrated with Nicola Sturgeon over the pace of travel towards a second referendum, but they do not doubt that she believes in one and that independence is the central animating principle of her politics. They do not settle for a juddering mass of indecision and cynicism and laziness. 

The Prime Minister needs to show that he cares about the Union and Unionists need to show him the consequences if he doesn’t. The rise of Ukip was a rebuke to the Tories for ignoring core vote concerns like Europe and immigration and eventually the Cameron-era party had to compromise with its own supporters. There are a clutch of no-hoper parties running on an anti-independence ticket in next May’s Holyrood election, but while they are implausible the idea behind them is not. There is a core Unionist vote in Scotland that crosses all other political divides and doesn’t ask for much — just no more referendums, no more powers, no more caving in to the SNP. For now, they mostly vote Tory and some Labour but a few more years, a Nationalist majority at Holyrood and talk of a second referendum at Westminster could provide fertile ground for a single-issue pro-Union party looking to elbow its way in on the Holyrood list. 

The electoral fortunes of the Scottish Conservatives are unlikely to trouble the Prime Minister’s thoughts. The only consequences that will motivate him are those that touch on his personal and political standing. If the Union is lost on his watch, that is what the history books will recount him for. His only other achievement, Brexit, will be cast as historic folly, not the stepping out into the world of a global Britain but a retraction into a Little England with which the Scots (and, perhaps, the Welsh and Northern Irish) wanted nothing to do. He would have broken Britain. 

Johnson does not want to be remembered in the same breath as Eden and Chamberlain, so Unionists would be wise to appeal to the twin impulses that govern so many victims of public schooling: fear and vanity. The Prime Minister fears the Scottish constitutional question clogging up his domestic agenda and puts it off as a child puts off his homework. The task for Unionists is to make clear that the constitutional question is one for the whole UK, not just Scotland, and that avoiding it will only make matters worse. 

Just as the SNP makes its case to the rest of the country through the London media, Scottish Unionists should do the same and communicate a blunt message: independence would mean as much chaos for England as it would for Scotland. The future of the UK’s nuclear deterrent would be in Nicola Sturgeon’s hands. The British position in international trade talks would be severely undermined. The EU would have a new border along the Tweed and the upper hand in fresh border negotiations. Instead of hoping the Prime Minister will eventually swing in behind the Union, force his hand by making independence a headache for him in England as well as Scotland. 

Once his attention has been gained, give him the opportunity to remedy the problem. This will require him to become much more involved in constitutional matters than at present, when a prime minister’s time is already scant and jealously fought over, not least in the middle of a pandemic. He will have to be tough, creative, open-minded but determined. The effort will be exacting, the hours gruelling and the brickbats plenty and fast-flying. The prize, however, is to be known as the saviour of the Union, the leader who saw off the separatist threat and redeemed Brexit along the way. The man who kept the kingdom united. 

The Prime Minister’s diary is bulging and it will not be obvious to him or those around him how to begin. There is someone who has already shown the start of a way forward, someone who, incidentally, warned six months ago that Dominic Cummings had become a liability, and even resigned his own government post to make the point. Since then, Douglas Ross has found himself a new job and is settling into it well. The Scottish Tory leader has so far given two strong speeches about the Union and how to repair it. The Prime Minister should begin by reading them.

Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Letters: scotletters@dailymail.co.uk. Feature image © UK Government by Creative Commons 2.0.