New SNP perfume: Eau de Cover-Up

QUIZ: Ruth Davidson put the First Minister on the spot.

Nicola Sturgeon faced opposition leaders at First Minister’s Questions on March 11, 2021This is the text of my Scottish Daily Mail sketch of proceedings. 

*****

Something majestic happens whenever the Scottish Government releases more of its Alex Salmond legal advice. Not the SNP being mildly accountable to parliament, though that’s always a Kodak moment. No, it’s the fact Ruth Davidson gets to describe the bundle of papers as a ‘tranche’.  

She has a thing for that word. On Wednesday, she described ‘tranches of documents having been dragged from John Swinney’ and yesterday she spoke of the Deputy First Minister forking over ‘another tranche of legal advice’. The Tory leader pronounces it ’trohnsh’, as though it were a new scent from Paris. Tranche: Eau de Cover-up. 

The fragrance hanging over the SNP government is of a whiffier nature. It positively pongs of dodgy. Davidson twice tried to pry out of Sturgeon how much taxpayers’ money was sploshed on the Salmond legal case after the government’s QC had declared the game a bogey. The best she got was: ‘I can look into whether we can provide that.’ 

‘The point I think Ruth Davidson is making for me is that she is quoting from the legal advice that has been published,’ Sturgeon ventured. This had been done ‘in an unprecedented fashion’. That’s one way of putting it.

Of course, this was the legal advice her government had partly held back, meaning she couldn’t be questioned about it under oath. She was like an arsonist berating the firefighters for getting everything soaked when there wasn’t even a fire anymore. 

‘I asked the First Minister a very specific question,’ Davidson snorted. ‘Whatever that was, it was not an answer.’ 

Sturgeon urged the opposition to stop ‘chasing phantoms’.

If SNP scandals were mere spectres, Ghostbusters would have a Scottish franchise by now. Though it’s probably best not to take on a government whose answer to the question ‘Who you gonna call?’ is ‘the Crown Office’. 

For those who keep note of such things, we are now in the ‘learning lessons’ stage of the Salmond scandal. 

‘I take very seriously the obligation on me and my government to learn lessons,’ Sturgeon assured Davidson. And: ‘I want to learn lessons.’ 

This ought to raise eyebrows. Governments only talk like this once they know they’re in the clear. For some reason, Sturgeon’s regime seems to think it’s home and dry, with just a spot of paperwork remaining in the form of various inquiry reports. 

If you’re an opposition leader, there are a small number of paths to victory at FMQs. You can pounce with a fact or figure or personal story not yet on the news agenda and guarantee yourself coverage in every paper the next morning. Iain Gray was adept at this back in the day. He was on a hiding to nothing as Labour leader but he got more page leads than Woodward and Bernstein. 

Alternatively, you can be funny. Willie Rennie has first dibs on this route, though Davidson occasionally sprints through it firing snark-grenades in all directions. 

Anas Sarwar took the road least travelled: digging up an old statistic that, although everyone already knows it, becomes newly impactful in the current context. 

The Labour leader questioned the First Minister on reports 7,000 Scots are living with undiagnosed cancer during the pandemic. Sturgeon accepted that ‘many people have suffered and even died because of the impact and consequences of what we have had to do to deal with Covid’.

Here came the drop.

‘Covid did not create this problem,’ Sarwar reminded her, ‘it has made a bad situation worse. This government has not met the 62-day cancer waiting time target since 2012 — nine years. Nicola Sturgeon has failed to meet that target for the entire time that she has been First Minister.’

Everyone knew it, but the stat still landed abruptly. 

He pressed her to focus on the NHS — rather than ‘what divides us’ — ‘so we never again have to choose between treating a virus and treating cancer’. 

The Labour faces behind him said it all: this was the leader they’d been looking for.

*****

Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Letters: scotletters [insert @ symbol] dailymail.co.uk.

We need a shot in the arm… and not just the Covid jab

VACCINE: AstraZeneca rollout continues across the UK.

Yaaaiow! The smiling nurse plunged the hypodermic into my deltoid as though hooking my arm with a spear gun. One minute she was sweetly assuring me I’d only feel a ‘wee sharp scratch’, the next she was firing in like a trigger-happy whaler with a harpooning quota to meet. The shark in Jaws got off lighter. 

My first dose of the AstraZeneca vaccine, which I received on Friday, was not entirely painless but it was well worth it. Granted, I spent the next 48 hours feeling like I’d volunteered my head as Tyson Fury’s punching bag but, at time of writing, the side effects are wearing off. 

A headache and fatigue seem a minor trade off to get protection from a deadly virus and I encourage everyone to get the jab when their letter comes in. The only way out of this pandemic is together.

While nursing my assaulted limb, my thoughts turned to the other shots in the arm the country needs to get back to normal. The biggest one by far is economic and Rishi Sunak’s Budget kept the fiscal antibodies pumping through the economy’s veins.

The Chancellor extended the furlough scheme and help for the self-employed while balancing a 6 per cent increase in corporation tax over two years against tax relief for business investment, ‘restart’ grants and extra cash for taking on apprentices.

Sunak handed the Scottish Government an extra £1.2billion, prompting SNP Finance Secretary Kate Forbes to reply that she had already spent it in her own January budget.

She has also decided not to match Sunak’s extension of stamp duty relief and now Scottish homebuyers will be forced to pay the full rate of Land and Buildings Transaction Tax. Homes for Scotland, the leading industry association, called her decision ‘hugely disappointing’ and said it ‘sends the wrong message to the home buying public’.

Forbes is maintaining 100 per cent rates relief for business and underwriting a council tax freeze, though that may in time have knock-on effects for local services.

She could be Nicola Sturgeon’s secret weapon for getting Scotland back to growth but she will have to be prepared to take bold decisions and even make herself unpopular along the way. Forbes can expect to be severely tested in the coming parliament.

The next booster we need is to education. While it has been necessary to keep pupils away from school to deny the virus another vector, it has nonetheless cost children precious learning time. With schools beginning to return, it is imperative that Scottish education shakes off its stultifying conservatism and considers innovative ways to get pupils caught up.

UK Education Secretary Gavin Williamson has hinted that Whitehall is considering extending the school day and shortening holiday time. Any attempt to do this here would prompt howls of indignation but the least ministers and teaching unions can do is consider the evidence.

If there is any chance having children in the classroom longer than usual could make up for lost time, their educational interests are what should come first. Of course, it will all come down to whether education secretary John Swinney is brave enough to get on the wrong side of the EIS weeks before an election.

Another ailing policy brief in want of strong medicine is health. Even before Covid-19 hit, it was clear ‘Calamity Jeane’ Freeman had failed in her role as NHS troubleshooter. Indeed, the pandemic has shown how, after more than a decade of the SNP in power, Scotland’s health service was dangerously unprepared for what was to come.

As a result of prioritising the virus, key services have fallen by the wayside, including urgent referrals and vital diagnostics. When the pandemic is over, underlying conditions such as diabetes, obesity and cardiovascular conditions will need renewed efforts to reduce their instance. An all-out war on mental illness, including that caused or worsened by lockdown, will be essential.

Before we can do any of this, however, we need a massive injection of political will. For Scotland to recover from Covid, the government must make the recovery its prime objective.

This current administration is listless, lurching from one bout of bad legislating to another, from stalled attempts to enact fringe gender theory into law to an authoritarian justice secretary itching to imprison people for expressing views he considers ‘hateful’.

The Sturgeon government is the subject of multiple investigations into the Alex Salmond affair. The SNP more broadly is riven by factional divisions far removed from the day-to-day concerns of ordinary Scots.

This is sheer decadence, the self-indulgent vanity-policymaking of a remote, untouchable elite. The government has powers coming out of every pore but on the rare occasions it can be convinced to use them, it is never to make Scotland smarter, healthier or wealthier.

Their obsessive need to divide naturally extends to constitutional matters. Of course the SNP is always going to support independence but to continue talking up another referendum in the middle of a pandemic is utterly irresponsible.

If the First Minister wants to lead a Covid recovery, she should put the economy, health and education before yet another attempt to tear the country apart. She will also need a refreshed frontbench team.

Whenever her failings are pointed out, the First Minister likes to gloat about the coming election, which polling forecasts she will win handily, as though democracy was just about etchings on a ballot every five years.

With victory on polling day comes an immense responsibility every day thereafter — to serve the people so that, in another five years, they will go to vote in a country that is a measurably better place to live, work and raise a family.

Not for the first time, the First Minister has to get her priorities in order.

*****

Anas Sarwar’s first week as Scottish Labour leader took place in the shadow of the Salmond-Sturgeon psychodrama, yet the Glasgow MSP gave a good accounting of himself. 

Particularly impactful was his debut turn at FMQs, where he followed a lacerating exchange between Nicola Sturgeon and Ruth Davidson with the reflection: ‘The exchanges that we have just heard represent the worst of our politics.’ 

He went on to remind the First Minister of the words inscribed on the Holyrood mace: ‘Wisdom, compassion, justice and integrity’.

Those values have certainly been absent for some time and Sarwar’s measured tone and positive demeanour were a reminder of an earlier, more worthy approach to politics.

That said, there is a fine line between wise moderation and airy introspection. Labour leaders were put on this Earth to fight for things.

Sarwar still has to show what he’s made of but the past seven days represent a solid start.

*****

Lucky voters in Glasgow Kelvin will have three Nationalist candidates to choose from on May 6. 

Alongside the SNP and Greens is Labour’s Hollie Cameron. She says Indyref 2 is ‘just a matter of whether you think we should have that in the next parliamentary term or not. I say why not?’

I say, why are you in the Labour Party?

*****

Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Letters: scotletters [insert @ symbol] dailymail.co.uk. Feature image: VGC-Group from Pixabay, cropped.

Sarwar gets the band back together

FIRST OUTING: Anas Sarwar makes his FMQs debut.

Nicola Sturgeon faced opposition leaders at First Minister’s Questions on Thursday, March 4, 2021This is the text of my Scottish Daily Mail sketch of proceedings. 

Yehhhp! Yehhhp!’ These guttural squawks are familiar to regular observers of First Minister’s Questions as John Swinney’s way of endorsing his boss’s every point. To the outsider, it may sound like a West Highland terrier has taken up a career in politics, though few canines echo their master’s voice with quite such howling obsequiousness.

Nicola Sturgeon needed all the help she could get. Ruth Davidson cornered her on the government’s failure to heed legal advice that the Alex Salmond case would likely be lost in the Court of Session.

‘Will she tell us why the government tried for so long to defend what her own legal counsel called “the indefensible”,’ Davidson needled.

Sturgeon maintained that, until very late on, the advice had been more equivocal on the prospects for victory. Besides, she had given her evidence to the committee and would now focus on Covid-19.

‘I will leave Ruth Davidson and the Conservatives to play the political games that they seem to prioritise over everything else,’ she lashed out.

‘I have never forgotten the women at the heart of the inquiry, who were failed,’ Davidson came back.

‘I do not think that Ruth Davidson ever remembered the women at the heart of this,’ Sturgeon spat.

Then, a new voice chimed in: ‘The exchanges that we have just heard represent the worst of our politics.’

Anas Sarwar, recently installed Scottish Labour leader, told the First Minister: ‘Each day, every one of us comes into the chamber and sits in front of that mace, which is inscribed with the ideals of the parliament: wisdom, compassion, justice and integrity.’

These principles, he charged, had been ‘undermined when the government failed the women… undermined by the government’s refusal to hand over all documentation to the committee… and undermined by the government ignoring two votes by this parliament calling for all the legal advice to be published.’

Sturgeon’s eyes made their standard trip ceilingwards, but Sarwar was undeterred.

‘The government keeps telling us that it has nothing to hide but when the parliament twice demanded that the legal advice be published, it refused. When the advice was finally released, it was partial and came just hours before the First Minister’s committee appearance.

‘Wisdom, compassion, justice and integrity. First Minister, why did it take the threat of a no-confidence vote in the Deputy First Minister for your government to act?’

Watching a Scottish Labour leader talk like this — with passion, pluck and principle — was like going to a reunion gig for a band that had once smashed out hit after hit before losing its way and splitting up with enough acrimony to fill an entire issue of the NME.

You had told yourself not to get your hopes up, that they could never recapture the glory days, then, two songs in, found your head bobbing and your foot tapping as though nothing had changed.

I have some reservations about the new material. Stick your head too far above the fray and you risk looking aloof to it all. Even so, Sarwar’s set was music to the ears after three years of silence.

Sarwar, having taken the high road, made it difficult for the First Minister to respond from her permanent redoubt on the low road.

‘I answered questions that were put to me and put the case of the government,’ Sturgeon essayed, weakly.

Bob Doris, one of the most active MSPs, seldom appears in the Holyrood Sketch. His contributions are typically about folk handed the short straw in life, plights more damnable than sketchable.

The SNP MSP makes it today on account of his son. Speaking from home via video, Doris asked the First Minister about ‘vaccine hesitancy’ among some ethnic minorities.

Midway through a sober response, she emitted a sudden titter and did a double-take at the screen above the Presiding Officer. What we in the cheap seats online were not privy to, but was beamed into the chamber, was Doris’s lad ‘Zoombombing’ his father.

‘Before I finish,’ Sturgeon added, ‘let me say hello to Cameron, who appeared briefly on the screen behind Bob Doris.’

*****

Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Letters: scotletters [insert @ symbol] dailymail.co.uk.

Sturgeon speaks

SWORN IN: Nicola Sturgeon takes the oath.

Like one of those self-indulgent Netflix series that hangs around one season too many, Nicola Sturgeon’s starring role has been wearing thin for some time.

The First Minister’s season finale came in eight hours of deflection and obfuscation yesterday before the Holyrood committee, the inquiry into how an entire government came down with amnesia about very specific legal points and no one had to resign. To think they called the storylines on Lost implausible.

Sturgeon’s style was different to Alex Salmond’s in a number of ways. It was less grand and more lawyerly, less bombastic and more reflective. It was, nonetheless, a slick turn from a leading lady who had been learning her lines for almost two years. No wonder she was falling over herself to get in front of the cameras. This was to be one of her last triumphant appearances before the election.

For the most part, Sturgeon was dry, technical, qualifying every other word. This was Sturgeon the Glasgow solicitor. At other points, however, she deployed humour — sometimes viciously so — to cast doubt on Salmond, his conduct and his testimony. This was Sturgeon the savvy show-woman.

Her testimony was dotted throughout with all the familiar Sturgeonisms: the practised titters (themselves an inheritance from Salmond); the spectacles gymnastics (glasses on and off for perusing documents and for effect); the hyperactive hypotheticals (every difficulty parried with a counterfactual that, wouldn’t you know, exculpated Sturgeon).

Salmond spoke about her with cold detachment, while her voice mellowed and cracked when it brought forth his name. He evidently feels nothing for her, but she seems to struggle with the vanishing of a close friend and champion. He talked about her as though she was dead to him. She talked about him as though his loss still grieved her.

As is often the case with long grief, there was tremendous anger there: ‘Alec spoke on Friday about what a nightmare the last couple of years have been for him and I don’t doubt that. I have thought often about the impact on him. He was someone I cared about for a long time. Maybe that’s why, on Friday, I found myself searching for any sign that he recognised how difficult this has been for others too.’

She had in mind not only his accusers but ‘those of us who have campaigned with him, worked with him, cared for him and considered him a friend — and who now stand accused of plotting against him’.

There was no doubt, she recognised, that he had been acquitted in court but ‘his behaviour was not always appropriate’.

‘And yet,’ she lamented, ‘across six hours of testimony, there was not a single word of regret, reflection or even simple acknowledgment of that.’

She conceded that ‘a very serious mistake’ was made in handling complaints against Salmond and that this meant ‘two women were failed and taxpayers’ money was lost’.

While maintaining she was unaware this was happening, she said: ‘I am the head of the Scottish Government and so I want to take the opportunity to say sorry to the two women involved and to the wider public.’

From there, Sturgeon took us straight into the grit of the matter. She recounted the pivotal April 2018 meeting at her Glasgow home. Salmond, she relayed, had handed her a letter from the Scottish Government permanent secretary outlining the complaints against him.

‘Reading this letter is a moment in my life I will never forget,’ she confided. ’Although he denied the allegations, he gave me his account of one of the incidents complained of, which he said he had apologised for at the time. What he described constituted, in my view, deeply inappropriate behaviour on his part – another reason why that moment is embedded so strongly in my mind.’

Slipped in were behind-the-scenes tidbits about her history with Salmond. ‘He was a tough guy to work for,’ she told them. ‘He could be very challenging to work for.’ Sturgeon herself had intervened at times when she felt he was ‘crossing the line’.

His ego came up again in one of her most mordant observations.

‘Even in the days when we were besties, Alex Salmond has a tendency to see things as about him. I hope he takes that in the way it is intended.’ This was followed by a devastating eye roll that should be regulated under the Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty.

The mood dropped to sub-zero when Jackie Baillie pulled her up on her government’s tardiness in providing documents.

‘I don’t think I’ve ever felt so frustrated in my 22 years of being on parliamentary committees as with this one,’ Baillie said. ‘We’ve waited for information from the Scottish Government. The stuff we’ve received has been partial. It’s been late. The complaints-handling phase was due in August, we received it in December. The legal advice has take two votes in parliament and a motion of no confidence in John Swinney before we saw it last night at six o’clock. Last night at six o’clock.’

Worse, Baillie continued, key information was ‘missing’ from the documents that were provided.

Emails relating to the legal advice made reference to meetings and consultations with external counsel for which no notes were handed over. What was she planning to do to fix this?

Sturgeon paused for a few seconds, her jaw locked. She is not used to being spoken to like this.

‘I’m not sure what you want me to do,’ she protested.

‘Give it to us,’ Baillie interjected.

Sturgeon fell back on the legal limits imposed by the Crown Office, but said she would ‘reflect seriously’ on Baillie’s frustrations.

‘The time for reflection has actually passed,’ the MSP rebuked her. ‘We’ve been asking for this information for months.’

Frustrations only grew when deputy convenor Margaret Mitchell got her turn. At the outset, Mitchell slipped up and referred to Salmond as ‘the First Minister’. There blew back an Arctic correction: ‘I am the First Minister’.

Mitchell circled a question about the timeline of the new complaints procedure four or five times but never quite managed to land it. The deputy convenor of the committee has been flying on fumes for some time now.

Eventually, she diverted elsewhere, remarking: ‘I’m not sure I’m going to get much further with this.’

‘I’m not sure I’m going to get much further with it, that’s for sure,’ Sturgeon snapped back.

Mitchell is a lawyer by training but her legal analysis is hindered by a linguistic barrier: she speaks complete sentences as a second language.

She attempted to interrogate an obviously baffled Sturgeon on the competence of the Scottish Government to investigate the complaints, then strayed into the question of complainants’ decision to take their complaints forward, then back again.

Inquiry convenor Linda Fabiani intervened and tried to split up the queries into separate — and coherent —  points.

‘You’re just wrong,’ Mitchell dismissed her.

Fabiani tried again to move her on.

‘This is a crucially important point and you’re shutting it down,’ her deputy objected.

‘I’m not shutting it down.’ Fabiani’s voice tightened.

‘I appreciate you’re trying to be helpful but it’s confusing the issue,’ Mitchell shushed her.

It is hard to imagine this committee reaching a unanimous conclusion on where to order lunch from, let alone the questions in hand.

Nicola Sturgeon is pure political steel. Every artillery ricochets off her, every opponent must find a way around her. She makes the moves, she is never moved. Yesterday the tensile strength was undiluted.

She succeeded in casting doubt on parts of Salmond’s narrative. She did not succeed in removing the many doubts that linger about her own.

*****

Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Letters: scotletters [insert @ symbol] dailymail.co.uk.

Will Sturgeon survive Salmond’s nuclear strike?

OLD FRIENDS: Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon were once steadfast allies.

This is the text of my Scottish Daily Mail column for Monday, March 1, 2021.

*****

It is not often the Budget is the second item on the news agenda. Yet on Wednesday, when Chancellor Rishi Sunak rises at the despatch box to unveil his spending plans, all eyes will be on parliamentary drama 400 miles to the north.

Nicola Sturgeon will, at last, take her seat before the inquiry into her government’s handling of sexual harassment allegations against Alex Salmond.

In ordinary circumstances, this would be a perilous moment for a first minister. The Scottish Government’s investigation into Salmond has already been ruled unlawful by the Court of Session.

The investigating officer had had prior contact with the complainers, which Lord Pentland deemed ‘procedurally unfair’ and ‘tainted by apparent bias’. The government — i.e. the taxpayer — was ordered to cover Salmond’s legal costs, which ran in excess of £500,000.

Once upon a time, Sturgeon would have called for the first minister of the day to fall on their sword over such a humiliating, costly and self-inflicted legal defeat. It’s a short walk from the opposition to the government benches but those who make it somehow find time to acquire a new worldview along the way.

The questions Sturgeon will face on Wednesday are much bigger than this; thanks, in part, to her own shifting version(s) of events and, in part, to her predecessor’s appearance on Friday.

Salmond sat before a Scottish parliament committee and over the course of six hours calmly and meticulously outlined a ‘malicious plan’ by people close to Sturgeon to have him imprisoned. There was evidence for this plot, he claimed, but it was being suppressed by the Crown Office, an institution headed up by a member of Sturgeon’s Cabinet.

Further documents, he alleged, could demonstrate there had been ‘pressurising witnesses and collusion with witnesses’ and ‘the construction of evidence’, but these too he was forbidden to share on pain of contempt of court charges.

He also suggested that a ‘criminal’ leak about the harassment investigation against him came from within the Scottish Government. Calling into question Sturgeon’s prior statements about a secret meeting between the two, he pronounced: ‘I have no doubt that Nicola has broken the ministerial code.’ This was a nuclear strike at the heart of the very government Salmond used to head.

Sturgeon rejects all this. She has accused her one-time mentor of peddling ‘dangerous conspiracy theories’.

The plot Salmond has alleged sounds like the script of a political thriller BBC Scotland might broadcast (in one of the few hours of airtime not already assigned to the First Minister). A Very Scottish Coup, we might call it.

Yet, however lurid Salmond’s claims, the committee needs to be able to test them against evidence, something which the Crown Office will not allow it to do.

This does nothing to safeguard the integrity of justice in Scotland. Whatever principle the Crown seeks to uphold, by behaving as it has it plays into the narrative of dark forces and sinister machinations that Salmond is fashioning.

On Wednesday, Sturgeon will have her turn before the inquiry and she is expected to be the last witness heard before the committee retires to reach its conclusions. It will fall to committee members to challenge the First Minister on her statements, those of her predecessor and the factual record (or such of that record as the inquiry is allowed to see).

Sturgeon originally said she learned of allegations against Salmond at a summit on April 2, 2018, then remembered an earlier meeting with his former chief of staff, Geoff Aberdein, at which there was ‘the suggestion that the matter might relate to allegations of a sexual nature’. Sturgeon claims the April 2 get-together was a party matter, not government business, which is why she took two months to tell civil servants about it.

Her husband and SNP chief executive Peter Murrell maintains it was government business, not a party matter, and that is why he was (mostly) not present.

Salmond claims the identity of one of the complainers was vouchsafed to Aberdein. When this was put to her at First Minister’s Questions, Sturgeon replied: ‘To the very best of my knowledge, I do not think that that happened.’

It is imperative for good governance, public confidence and natural justice the committee gets to the bottom of this.

However, the Sturgeon camp has sought to portray those trying to do so as mouthpieces for Salmond. Under pressure from Labour’s Jackie Baillie last week, Sturgeon retorted: ‘I am not sure when she became the chief spokesperson for Alex Salmond’. The implication was clear: anyone attempting to establish the truth about what happened, rather than accept the First Minister’s statements as gospel, is biased, compromised and partisan.

The reason there is a parliamentary inquiry, deliberately weak and narrow though it is, is because there are questions that require answers. How is the committee to fulfil its task, and how is the public to have confidence in its eventual findings, when the First Minister whose government is under investigation openly smears a committee member as a shill for an interested party?

There has been a lot of talk in recent days — much of it self-serving cant — about the undermining of Scottish institutions by the opposition but, tellingly, much less mithering about the contemptuous way in which the First Minister and others have treated the Holyrood inquiry.

Salmond is not a sympathetic figure but that should have no bearing on the question of whether Sturgeon and her government acted improperly. These are the gravest matters that have come before the Scottish parliament in two decades of devolution and the consequences must be equally grave.

If the First Minister misled parliament, she ought to resign. If she broke the ministerial code, she ought to resign. Caesar and her husband run the country and both must be above suspicion.


Why Tories should back Baillie

Jackie Baillie’s confident performance as interim Scottish Labour leader and her unflinching efforts on the Salmond inquiry have been a reminder of what an asset she is to Holyrood. 

She faces a battle to get re-elected on May 6 and the all-important number is 109. That’s her majority over the SNP in Dumbarton.

Baillie is a mainstream social democrat with a record of fighting for ordinary people, taking on the SNP and standing up for the Union. The Tories are too far behind to win this seat but the almost 5,000 votes they managed last time will be crucial.

If enough switch to Baillie, Dumbarton will keep a hard-working MSP whose priorities are Covid, health, schools and jobs. If not, Nicola Sturgeon’s candidate will capture the seat and help drag us into another divisive referendum. That’s the last thing anyone needs.

Tactical voting can be risky, but not in Dumbarton. It’s a choice between Jackie Baillie and Nicola Sturgeon.


Swinney faces numbers test

Deputy First Minister John Swinney faces a vote of no confidence at Holyrood after twice refusing to hand over taxpayer-funded legal advice on the Alex Salmond affair. Given his track record as Education Secretary, he has nothing to worry about. Even if the motion gets a majority, he can mark it down based on past performance.


Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Letters: scotletters [insert @ symbol] dailymail.co.uk.

The Ghost of Holyrood Past returns to haunt Sturgeon

UNDER OATH: Alex Salmond is sworn in by the convenor.

Alex Salmond appeared before the Holyrood inquiry on February 26, 2021This is the text of my Scottish Daily Mail sketch of proceedings. 

*****

It has been more than six years since Alex Salmond was First Minister but he continues to haunt Scottish politics. The Ghost of Holyrood Past took physical form in Committee Room No 1, the Robert Burns Room, where what has come to be known as the Salmond Inquiry was picking over the best-laid schemes o’ mice, men and First Ministers.

His hair was thinning and silvering, his jowls noticeably less jowly, but it was still Salmond. The affected chuckle broke forth now and again. The Saltire pin loomed over his heart. His ineffable ability to sound self-effacing while self-serving was still there. 

‘This inquiry is not about me,’ he began. ‘I’ve already established the illegality of the actions of the Scottish Government in the Court of Session and I’ve been acquitted of all criminal charges by a jury in the highest court in the land. 

‘These are both the highest courts in the land, the highest civil court and the highest criminal court.’

The rhetoric was classic Salmond, sketching himself as plucky underdog and shading the grandeur of his victory over the odds. 

‘The First Minister asserts that I have to prove a case. I don’t. That has already been done. There have been two court cases, two judges, one jury. In this inquiry it is the Scottish Government, a government which has already admitted to behaving unlawfully, who are under examination.’

His intonation was stately and his articulation steady. ‘For two years and six months, this has been a nightmare,’ he told them, and yet there was no pang of woundedness in his voice. This was the tone of a man whose heart has hardened against the people he believes wronged him.

‘The failures of leadership are many and obvious and yet not a single person has taken responsibility,’ he reminded them. ‘Not a single resignation, not a single sacking, not even an admission.’

In two sentences, Salmond landed a more savage blow on Nicola Sturgeon’s government than the opposition has managed in six years.

The ageing matinee idol may not be the leading man these days but you can still perceive the qualities that made him a star. His bombastic delivery is often remarked upon, but the real magic is in his eyes.

They dance with a devious lightning, drawing the observer into his present mischief. Before the committee, they bored into hostile questioners, lured in the more disinterested, and sunk and rose here and there for theatrical effect.

Salmond defended the harassment policy in place on his watch and challenged the retrospective nature of its successor, which he characterised as ‘spatchcock’ and an ‘abject, total, complete disaster’.

‘The policy wasn’t botched,’ he argued. ‘The policy was unlawful, unfair and tainted by apparent bias. Botched doesn’t cover it.’

When matters turned to the infamous meeting at Sturgeon’s home, he contradicted the notion, advanced by Peter Murrell, that he was prone to ‘pop in’ to their residence.

He said he had never threatened to resign from the SNP and Sturgeon had never discussed concerns about sexual harassment with him.

It was when Jackie Baillie got the microphone that the session became more uncomfortable for the Scottish Government. She queried whether the name of one of the complainers had been shared in a meeting attended by Salmond’s representative.

‘Yes,’ he replied, adding that three other people ‘know that to be true’.

Baillie raised the leaking of the original investigation to the Daily Record. Salmond called it ‘politically inspired’ and confirmed he had a culprit in mind, but said it warranted ‘further police investigation’. When she got the floor again later, Baillie pressed him on whether the Scottish Government continuing to defend its investigation in court against legal advice was a breach of the ministerial code.

A hammy dramatic pause. ‘Yes.’

He considered it necessary for the committee to see the legal advice. ‘This parliament has asked to see it twice,’ Baillie remarked, ‘so good luck with that one.’

From time to time, Salmond’s familiar hand gestures came out of retirement and his animated paws swept his points home. Some points needed no assistance, including his allegation that there had been ‘a sequence of deliberate suppression of information’.

This was, you had to keep reminding yourself, his own former government he was talking about. Murdo Fraser, the Perthshire Petrocelli, focused on the antics of the Crown Office and got Salmond to agree that the intervention to censor his evidence would never have happened at Westminster.

He had even received a letter, he told Fraser, reminding him what evidence he was forbidden to raise before the committee. This was ‘an extraordinary position’ and ‘clearly something is wrong’.

Canvassed elsewhere on Murrell’s text messages on ‘pressuring’ the police, Salmond quipped: ‘They don’t need assistance from Inspector Murrell’.

He told the committee that other messages, from whom he did not specify, would show evidence of ‘pressurising witnesses, colluding with witnesses and the construction of evidence’. The Crown Office, however, prevented him from disclosing them.

More than once he was asked whether Sturgeon had violated the rules. ‘I have no doubt that Nicola has broken the ministerial code’, he responded, but said it wasn’t for him to say whether she should resign.

Many tuning in for the first time will have been treated to the uneven quality of the committee. Deputy convener Margaret Mitchell started by telling Salmond he had become First Minister in 2008, complained the committee had faced ‘obscufation’ and said Deputy First Minister John Swinney had ‘affused’ to give the committee information it requested.

The man who once ran the show afforded quite some tolerance to the repertory company now in charge. Convener Linda Fabiani forgot to suspend the committee. Twice. Mitchell had to have the difference between informal resolution and mediation explained to her. Twice. Fabiani repeatedly reminded Alex Cole-Hamilton that ‘Mr Salmond is not on trial’.

All were veritable Jeremy Paxmans compared to Maureen Watt. The more I watch her contributions, the more I wonder if her middle name is ‘Twenty’. She struggled to string her questions together even though was reading them from a piece of paper. She also joined Mitchell in linguistic innovation, coining the word ‘regreticably’.

Even as he hacked his way through a chest infection, Salmond made it all look effortless.

What he is proposing, that multiple arms of the Scottish state conspired to frame him and chuck him in Barlinnie, sounds like a Russian TV channel conspiracy theory.

However, there was a reasonableness to his demeanour that will have enticed many. Yesterday, he made himself look like a wronged man and a man likely to haunt Holyrood — and his successor — for some time to come.

*****

Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Letters: scotletters [insert @ symbol] dailymail.co.uk.

‘Is saving your skin worth all the damage you’re doing?’

INDEPENDENT: Nicola Sturgeon said prosecutors were autonomous of government.

Nicola Sturgeon faced opposition leaders at First Minister’s Questions on February 25, 2021This is the text of my Scottish Daily Mail sketch of proceedings. 

*****

First Minister’s Questions is an unpredictable affair. Sometimes Ruth Davidson gets the better of Nicola Sturgeon. Sometimes Jackie Baillie does. Sometimes Sturgeon barely has to flick open her briefing folder to brush their attack lines aside.

Yesterday was different. We saw something we might never have seen in her six-and-a-half years in the job: Sturgeon cornered.

She’s been caught out, pulled up and dragged over the coals, but seldom has she appeared so outflanked and so alone. She looked like a woman who had glimpsed behind her and caught sight of how little road was left.

That didn’t mean she buckled. She came out swinging when Ruth Davidson raised the Crown Office’s censoring of Alex Salmond’s Holyrood inquiry evidence.

Davidson read aloud from one of the redacted passages: ‘The First Minister told Parliament … that she first learned of the complaints against me when I visited her home on April 2, 2018. That is untrue and is a breach of the ministerial code.’

The Tory group leader pointed out that these words did not ‘risk identifying complainers’. Then, in that exaggeratedly quiet voice she adopts to sound solemn: ‘What is it about those two sentences of evidence that is so damaging that they should be censored? Is it just that they are damaging to the First Minister?’

‘The fact that Ruth Davidson has stood up and perfectly legitimately recounted that version of events… demonstrates that all Mr Salmond’s allegations and claims about me are in the public domain,’ Sturgeon replied.

She expected to be ‘questioned on every aspect of the matter’ and pledged to ‘answer those questions fully and to the best of my ability’.

Her tone grew graver: ‘Anyone who is suggesting that prosecution decisions… are in any way politically influenced or politically driven is not just wrong and completely lacking a single shred of evidence… they are signing up to a dangerous and quite deluded conspiracy theory.’

Davidson engaged in a sleekit spot of a wordplay by suggesting that — ‘to the public’ — the whole business ‘looks like a cover-up’ because ‘the exact evidence that has been redacted is the most damaging to her personally’. Ascribing that view to the public was intended to keep her hands clean if Sturgeon is vindicated in the end.

The phrase ‘cover-up’ was red-rag territory and Sturgeon charged straight for it. It was ‘important, necessary and entirely legitimate’ to scrutinise her but it was ‘not legitimate… to pursue a conspiracy theory or scorched-earth policy that threatens the reputation and integrity of Scotland’s independent justice institutions just because they happen to dislike the government’.

By this point, it was obvious she wasn’t talking to Davidson, which was confirmed when she suggested public confidence in the system was being ‘sacrificed… on the altar of the ego of one man’.

You had to pinch yourself to remember this was Nicola Sturgeon talking about Alex Salmond. Together, they made the SNP the natural party of government in Scotland. At odds, they seem hellbent on tearing each other down.

The Tory accused Sturgeon of ‘deflection’, adding: ‘There is just one further question that I want to ask. Is the First Minister saving her own skin worth all the damage that she is doing?’

It was a proper air-sucker of a question, though the Covid-imposed reduction in FMQs attendance undercut the impact.

Sturgeon insisted she was only interested in ‘the reputation of our country and the integrity of our institutions’, but added with hot spite: ‘There is a reputation that is perhaps disintegrating before our eyes — and it is not mine.’

Jackie Baillie claimed the name of one of the Salmond complainers was given to the ex-leader’s chief of staff, something she called ‘an extraordinary breach of confidentiality’. Sturgeon shot back that she was ‘accepting at face value Alex Salmond’s account of all this’.

If one thing was clear from this raw, resentment-drenched FMQs, no one will ever accept anything at face value in Scottish politics ever again.

*****

Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Letters: scotletters [insert @ symbol] dailymail.co.uk.

Witness for the prosecutors

QUESTIONS: James Wolffe QC appeared before Holyrood on Wednesday.

The Lord Advocate appeared before the Scottish Parliament on February 24, 2021 to answer questions on the redaction of Alex Salmond’s evidence to the Holyrood inquiryThis is the text of my Scottish Daily Mail sketch of proceedings. 

*****

James Wolffe QC cuts a bashful, owlish figure, more suited to an academic symposium than the Holyrood bear pit. The Lord Advocate had been summoned to answer an urgent question by Jackie Baillie, an increasingly frustrated member of the Salmond inquiry. 

Following Tuesday’s debacle, in which the Scottish Parliament redacted Alex Salmond’s written evidence at the behest of the Crown Office, Baillie wanted to know whether Wolffe had been ‘consulted’ about the action. 

Up came this slight, bespectacled character to reply: ‘No, I was not. The decisions in relation to this matter were made by senior professional prosecutors acting independently, as they always do, and without reference to the law officers.’

He is that peculiarly Scottish brand of posh — Dumfriesshire posh — but spoke in the familiar cadences of establishment Edinburgh. His vowels seemed to rise and thumb their lapels before announcing themselves and his ‘S’s whistled in sibilant defiance of a tongue that regularly darted forth to moisten his lips. 

‘Can I take the opportunity to add this: Scotland’s public prosecutors take difficult decisions which some may find unpopular. They take those decisions objectively, professionally and in the public interest, and they act independently of any other person.’

His tone was curling sour, a streak of defensiveness creeping in. 

Of course, defensiveness will do you no good with Jackie Baillie. She could get the Dalai Lama to confess to being Jack the Ripper with three questions and a supplementary.

Baillie accepted that Wolffe had not been consulted but ‘was he aware of what was going on?’ Moreover, ‘did the Crown Office receive any submissions from any third party’ before writing to the parliament? And, she pressed, ‘did this even go across your desk before it had been issued?’

‘I received a copy of the letter for my information after it had been issued,’ he replied crisply, and sat back down.

The terse response didn’t cut muster with Baillie.

‘I note the Lord Advocate didn’t answer any of my previous questions, and I’m sure he might want to take the opportunity in answer to my next question to go back and cover the stuff he didn’t answer before.’

Her voice was cheery, her meaning deadly clear: don’t get lawyerly with me, mate. 

She reminded him that, when the matter was before the High Court, the Crown Office objected to just one paragraph of Salmond’s evidence. What had changed?

‘I’m not going to get into the substance of the issues here, not least because in doing so there would be a risk myself in breaching the court order,’ he told her. Lawyerly it was going to be. 

‘Fundamentally,’ he continued, ‘what’s at issue here is an order by the High Court, handed down to protect the anonymity of complainers. The Crown’s sole interest in this matter is to secure respect for that court order.’

That Baillie was not satisfied with this response was evident from a press release she promptly fired off: ‘It is simply unacceptable that the Lord Advocate refused to answer the questions put to him with any detail.’

Wolffe’s performance was halting and unlikely to have convinced anyone troubled by the Crown Office’s intervention.

Thankfully, though, the SNP’s undeterrable Tom Arthur was on hand. After five years at Holyrood, ministerial office continues to elude him with a consistency that suggests determination. However, he offered himself in the role of amicus advocatus — Lord Advocate hauners.

He lamented ‘misinformation being spread’ about the office, recounted its origins prior to the Union of Crowns, and invited Wolffe to agree that previous Lord Advocates had been members of the Scottish cabinet. 

‘I’m not entirely sure it’s quite following the urgent question today,’ the presiding officer demurred, ‘but I will allow the Lord Advocate to make a brief response to that history lesson from Mr Arthur.’

Ken Macintosh turns savage. Truly, it was an unprecedented day.

*****

Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Letters: scotletters [insert @ symbol] dailymail.co.uk.

No exit

STAGES: Nicola Sturgeon outlined a staggered timetable for leaving lockdown.

Nicola Sturgeon gave a Covid-19 update to the Scottish Parliament on February 23, 2021This is the text of my Scottish Daily Mail sketch of proceedings. 

On hectic days like yesterday, with the Crown Office at loggerheads with Holyrood and the First Minister grilled on a much-trumpeted Covid statement, you appreciate the lilting Hebridean tones of Lewis Macdonald. 

The deputy presiding officer rolls his Rs like Shane Warne rolls a spin bowl; you can’t help but be mesmerised by the range he gets on them. Ruth Davidson became Rrrrrruth while Nationalist backbencher Maureen Watt was summoned as Moe-rrrrreen. Macdonald imparts a zen-like calm to proceedings and may be the reason the usual SNP chuntering was kept to a minimum. 

For her part, Nicola Sturgeon (‘the Fuh-rrrst Minis-tuhrrr’) was muted, her mind no doubt drawn to other matters like a curious tongue to a throbbing tooth. Yet this had been touted as a major lockdown update. 

Not quite. Scotland would be moving into a process of ‘progressive easing’, which sounded like some monetary jiggery-pokery the Bank of England might get up to, but in fact meant that our liberation would be a long, slow process. BBC Scotland had hyped the statement as a ‘roadmap out of lockdown’ but it turned out we were getting the Ordnance Survey in instalments. 

The first stop-off was the return of some children to school this past Monday, followed by liberalisation of the rules on care home visits from early March. The next destination was getting older primary and more secondary school pupils back in the classroom, as well as permitting a maximum of four people from two households to meet outdoors. 

The date given for this was March 15, though only ‘indicatively’ — adj. (late Sturgeonese) of or relating to ministerial promises and their likelihood of subsequent revision.

After that, it was the First Minister’s ‘hope and expectation’ that the stay-at-home order could be lifted from April 5. It is my hope and expectation that my lottery numbers will come up around the same time. 

General lockdown was to pertain until the last week in April (‘if all goes according to plan’), at which point everyone would go into Level Three. If you’ve forgotten what that means — because, at this point, there are Emmerdale storylines more straightforward than Scotland’s Covid rules — it involves such hell-raising shenanigans as meeting your neighbour in their garden. 

If you really want to let your hair down you can travel to the outskirts of your local authority area — but no further. 

From here ‘we would expect to see phased but significant reopening of the economy, including non-essential retail, hospitality and services like gyms and hairdressers’. One bright spot amid the glumness was the government’s willingness to be flexible with the reintroduction of communal worship. Pencilled in for April 5, Sturgeon said it may start ‘a few days earlier’ to ‘take account of the timing of major religious festivals, for example Easter and Passover’. 

Perhaps taking Mosaic inspiration, Ruth Davidson urged the First Minister to let her people go.

‘This is not a route map out of Covid,’ the Scottish Tory leader lamented, ‘it is a holding document for the next eight weeks.’ 

Scots, she averred, would have tuned in ‘expecting the First Minister to give them some kind of hope’. (Anyone expecting that must have been tuning in for the first time.)

Labour’s Jackie Baillie — ordinarily a cheery soul — underlined the gloom. ‘I want to be optimistic and I am equally patient but I would like to ask the First Minister what the ultimate goal is.’ Was it virus suppression or virus elimination?

The goal, Sturgeon replied, was ‘as close to elimination as possible’ but also ‘to get back to normal life’. Those two destinations are miles apart with no roadmap for the rough terrain in between. 

Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Letters: scotletters [insert @ symbol] dailymail.co.uk.

Should Scottish elections go ahead during a pandemic?

DECISION DAY: Scots go to the polls on May 6.

Did you know there’s an election in 73 days’ time? I’ve been struck by how many normal people (which is to say, people who don’t watch BBC Parliament to relax) are unaware that Scotland goes to the polls on May 6. Being kept away from Holyrood by the pandemic brings all sorts of disadvantages for a political journalist, but it does give you an insight into the gulf between the chatter inside the bubble and what the country at large is talking about.

The bubble is near bursting with speculation about the outcome of the Scottish Parliament poll and what it might mean for the possibility of another referendum on independence. The rest of the country is focused on jabs, school reopenings and supermarket delivery slots and for some talk of an election has still not filtered through.

Whenever I’ve had the conversation with non-politicos in recent weeks, those learning for the first time that a vote is on the way have tended to say the same thing: Shouldn’t we get the pandemic out of the way first? It’s a question I now find myself asking because, although in principle I’d rather see democracy defy Covid, I can’t shake my concerns about the safety and logistical implications of going ahead as normal.

These aren’t normal times. People have been forced to stay at home and instructed only to leave the house for essential reasons, yet for one day in May those requirements will cease to exist. For some reason, it will pose no or little risk to have hundreds of thousands — even millions — of people leave their homes, travel to their polling station and queue up to vote in tiny booths. We are told it is unsafe for 51 people, sitting at two metres’ distance, to worship in a church but that it is entirely safe for hundreds to cram into a church hall to cast their ballot.

Now, it could be that general restrictions have been relaxed by then but here ministers risk sending mixed messages. On several occasions in the last 11 months, businesses learned only at the last minute that they would have to close or remain closed, with pubs and the retail trade especially prone to the caprices of St Andrew’s House. Yet the same ministers and officials have been able to say for months that the Holyrood vote was good to go.

Much of the public health rationale for going ahead with the election rests on the use of postal ballots. Maximise voting by post and you minimise the risk of new Covid cases piling up faster than ballot papers. Officials have suggested that two million Scots could have their say by post this year, but to achieve that will require Herculean operations for both registration and counting. In the 2016 election, less than one-fifth of eligible electors applied for a postal vote and almost one-quarter of them were not returned. In all, postal votes accounted for less than one-quarter of ballots cast.

Processing such an expansion in postal vote applications will place a heavy burden on local authority staff, many of whom are working remotely, while counting these ballots in a way that retains the confidence of parties, candidates and the public may prove particularly onerous.

Then there are the practicalities involved in getting two million people to register for a vote by post. The form is online, like most other things these days, but not everyone is as digitally literate as our tech-worshipping culture assumes. Older people, in particular, risk losing their vote. While some cyber-savvy grandmothers could put their gamer grandchildren to shame, some will be without a computer, tablet or smartphone. Others still find navigating the web confusing and intimidating. (I use a clutch of digital devices every day for work, yet when I tried to register for a postal vote yesterday I had to go through three different websites — UK Government, local authority, Electoral Commission — before landing on the correct form.)

In ordinary times, this wouldn’t be a problem; applicants could phone up the council and get a form sent to them. But how many older people will feel comfortable venturing out to find a pillar box, possibly having to take public transport to reach one? The deadline for postal vote applications is April 6. Even those who have received both Covid jabs by that point may be apprehensive, given the uncertainty about the vaccine’s effectiveness against emerging variants of the virus. Children, neighbours or friends could usually help by dropping off forms or giving lifts to the post office but restrictions on mixing make this more difficult or impossible.

There is a very real chance that older people — and other vulnerable groups — could be disenfranchised in this election, and in numbers disproportionate to the rest of the population. That should not be an acceptable outcome for anyone. It’s true that local elections are taking place in England on the same day, but hasn’t the whole thrust of the Scottish Government’s Covid response been to take a more cautious approach than down south?

To put suspicious minds at ease, the case for delaying the election has nothing to do with the SNP being so far ahead in the polls. When the vaccination stage of the pandemic is complete, Chancellor Rishi Sunak will be looking to jump-start economic recovery and we have to expect that this will include a phasing out of the Job Retention Scheme and efficiency savings to bring the national debt back under control. Even if the government manages to avoid Osborne-style austerity, it will still have to take some very unpopular decisions. If the Holyrood poll was postponed for six months or even a year, there is every chance the SNP’s polling lead could be even higher than it is today.

This is not about politics or polling. It is about public safety and the integrity of elections, specifically about ensuring that certain groups aren’t excluded because officials making decisions don’t fully understand their needs. No one’s health should be put in jeopardy when they go to vote but nor should their vote be forfeited because they are not au fait with digital technology.

Scotland does not feel like a country 73 days away from a major election. Perhaps a turbo-charged effort is about to leap forth from the Scottish Government and town halls across the nation but the hurdles it will face are daunting.

It is not too late for ministers and officials to rethink their plans and decide to err on the side of caution. Lives, jobs, relationships and routine healthcare have been put on hold until the pandemic is over. There is no reason the same cannot be done with an election.

*****

Scottish Labour leadership hopeful Anas Sarwar said something last week that stuck with me: ‘Just imagine if we had spent the last four or eight years obsessed with ending poverty like we’ve been obsessed with independence or Brexit.’

There is plenty to obsess over. Even before Covid-19, 23 per cent of Scottish children were living in relative poverty and 20 per cent in absolute poverty. Among the worst-off families with children, 61 per cent cannot afford to set aside £10 a month in savings. Between 2014 and 2019, there was an 80 per cent increase in Scots turning to food banks.

This kind of poverty isn’t just a political failure, it’s a moral failure, especially when we know the poorest children are more likely to struggle in school and suffer ill-health.
Just imagine if Nicola Sturgeon was obsessed with that instead of flags. Just imagine if Scottish Labour had a leader like Anas Sarwar who could offer Scots an alternative to indolent nationalism.

*****

Oliver Lewis has quit the beleaguered Union Unit after just two weeks. His resignation came as Larry the Cat celebrated ten years as Chief Mouser to the Cabinet Office. Larry has seen off two prime ministers, three chancellors and rival moggy Palmerston. If the PM needs someone to take on the SNP, he would be purr-fect for the job.

*****

Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Letters: scotletters [insert @ symbol] dailymail.co.uk.