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]

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]

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]

‘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]

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]

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]

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]

Sturgeon reacts to scrutiny like Dracula to garlic bread

PROTEST: Nicola Sturgeon rejects claims the Scottish Government didn’t prepare for a possible pandemic.

Nicola Sturgeon faced opposition leaders at First Minister’s Questions on February 17, 2021This is the text of my Scottish Daily Mail sketch of proceedings. 

Achilles had his heel, Superman his Kryptonite and Nicola Sturgeon the merest chance of accountability. Scrutiny is the First Minister’s greatest weakness. She reacts to it like Count Dracula to garlic bread.

Ruth Davidson served up an extra large slice of interrogation at FMQs, majoring on an Audit Scotland report critical of the Scottish Government’s lack of pandemic preparation.

The Tory leader cited planning exercises beginning in 2015 that resulted in 52 recommendations. ‘How many of those recommendations had been implemented by the Scottish Government by March 2020?’ she enquired.

Sturgeon shot back that the training exercises were for a ‘flu pandemic’ rather than a SARs pandemic. If they’d just called it an ‘indyref2 pandemic’ they might have caught her attention.

Davidson focused in on the failure to keep medics stocked up on PPE, adding: ‘We simply should not have had National Health Service staff being forced to work without adequate protection, reusing masks and having to beg for donations because PPE was not in place.’

There was a sliver of contempt in her voice.

‘I do not accept Ruth Davidson’s characterisation and I do not believe that it bears scrutiny,’ Sturgeon riposted. ‘Scotland has never, not once, throughout the entire pandemic run out of PPE.’

That’s true, provided you count out-of-date PPE. A mouldy loaf is still technically a loaf.

Davidson had her woman but there was no zip of excitement, none of the punchy energy that used to mark her sparring sessions with the First Minister. It’s obvious she has already moved on in her heart and is now just going through the motions.

’The First Minister stands there telling us that there was no issue with PPE last year,’ the Edinburgh Central MSP glowered. ‘Perhaps she wants to tell that to Scotland’s nurses, half of whom told the Royal College of Nursing that they had been forced to reuse single-use protection.’

Here, she twisted the shiv:

‘The Scottish Government is now reviewing the guidance, but it is far too late for too many grieving families. Is it not just a fact that had the First Minister and her government acted sooner… some lives in those care homes could have been saved?’

Oooft, as the kids say.

Sturgeon’s accounting for herself was robotic. ‘Again, I say no — I do not accept that,’ she responded, as if Davidson had just accused her of tanning the Holyrood biscuit tin rather than sending grannies to an early grave. The fight has not left Sturgeon but she could not summon it for this joust. Perhaps her instincts have been blunted by a lack of challenging voices in her vicinity.

Surrounded all day by taxpayer-funded special advisors whose primary job is positive re-enforcement, Sturgeon has no one to act as a thoughtful critic. Peter Murrell could do it, I suppose, but everyone knows the head of the SNP and the head of the Scottish Government never discuss the SNP or the Scottish Government.

Labour’s interim leader Jackie Baillie was even less delicate: ‘The First Minister had warning after warning after warning, so was her failure to act negligence or incompetence?’

Indignation gripped the corners of Sturgeon’s mouth: ‘I am not even going to respond to that, because it is actually quite demeaning — not to me, but to the people across government and across the country who have worked every single day to try to deal with the crisis.’

The First Minister couldn’t get PPE to nurses but she’s always got a human shield on hand when she needs one.

Baillie dismissed Sturgeon’s demagoguery and told her to ‘stop hiding behind’ NHS staff, jabbing: ‘Do not just clap for health and social care workers; listen and act when they ask for enhanced PPE.’

Sturgeon clambered for the moral high ground, preaching in vicarly tones to ‘engage properly on such matters, rather than just chuck soundbites across a parliamentary chamber’. This from someone who chucked enough soundbites in opposition to qualify for the Olympic javelin finals.

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

Nicola’s miracle of the open and closed churches

DOUBT: Labour’s Elaine Smith casts a sceptical glance at the First Minister’s claim that churches are not closed.

Nicola Sturgeon gave a Covid-19 update to the Scottish Parliament on February 16, 2021This is the text of my Scottish Daily Mail sketch of proceedings. 

If you are a parent whose children will soon be going back to primary school, I can only imagine what a relief that will be,’ Nicola Sturgeon remarked yesterday, announcing a ‘phased reopening’ of classrooms from Monday.

I doubt many parents took a moment to be relieved and instead were furiously Googling to see whether street parties are permitted under lockdown rules.

Ministers would have to monitor what impact, if any, the return to the chalkface had on the spread of Covid but, Sturgeon added, ‘I hope that in two weeks’ time, we will be able to set out the second phase of school reopening’. 

For mums and dads abruptly deputised as advanced maths teachers for the past year, soon their afternoons will be free of any arithmetic more demanding than the Countdown numbers round.

Still, the First Minister cautioned parents not to use this as an excuse to mingle at the school gates. ‘If the return to school leads to more contacts between adults over the next few weeks, transmission of the virus will quickly rise again,’ she instructed.

Thank goodness we’re not planning any events soon that involve the entire adult population leaving home to stand in long queues, be handed a slip of paper by a stranger then cram themselves into tiny booths. Lord knows what that would do to infection rates.

Maurice Corry speaks with the booming register of the retired Army major that he is. It’s sometimes hard to tell whether the Tory MSP is asking a question or ordering an incursion into the Lib Dem benches.

He sought assurances that the Scottish Government would stick to current quarantine arrangements for Merchant Navy crew coming and going from Scotland, noting they were ‘often’ returning ‘from extended tours of duty’.

He pronounced ‘often’ with three Rs, as though greeting a visiting general who had dropped in unexpectedly on the officers’ mess. Sturgeon could see no reason why the status quo would change, given the crews were considered essential workers, but stressed the importance of mass compliance to reduce the need for exemptions.

Labour’s Elaine Smith asked about the possibility of reopening churches in time for Easter. She had written to the First Minister ‘at the start of the year’ about the value of communal worship but had ‘received no response as yet’.

Sturgeon protested that ‘places of worship are not closed but, of course, the ability to worship normally is restricted’, plus some wordy mush about how much the whole business pained her.

When the Presiding Officer blew the final whistle, Smith raised a point of order, arguing that telling the public that churches were not closed risked sending mixed messages.

Noting that it wasn’t technically a point of order, Ken Macintosh ventured that it was nonetheless ‘a helpful point of correction that the First Minister will–’

Up came a nasal heckling from the Nationalist frontbench. Watching Holyrood via video link sometimes makes it difficult to identify the source of sedentary chuntering, but I have my suspicions. The name begins with ‘Swin’, ends in ‘ney’ and has a massive attainment gap in the middle.

Macintosh became flustered then allowed Sturgeon the last word, because if there’s anyone we don’t hear enough from these days, it’s Nicola Sturgeon. She insisted there was no inconsistency in what she had said: ‘Places of worship are not closed but they are only able to be open for very limited purposes.’

I’m not sure how she thinks places of worship operate. We don’t get ratted on the communion wine and conga round the altar. Even before the pandemic many churches opened only for services, baptisms and funerals and, in a reflection of the times, seldom bustled with congregants.

Yet somehow Nicola Sturgeon has rendered them both open and closed at the same time. It’s not quite up there with the loaves and fishes but it’s got to count as some kind of miracle. 


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

UK has a right to protect itself from separatism

In political combat, treat even your opponents’ empty threats as real. Unionists should bear this principle in mind when approaching the SNP’s sabre-rattling about securing a second independence referendum in the event of a Nationalist majority after May’s Holyrood election. 

I remain of the view that Nicola Sturgeon is bluffing to pander to her diehards, but cynicism is no excuse for complacency. Unionists haven’t the foggiest how to counter Sturgeon’s strategy. 

Labour and the Liberal Democrats are making like ostriches and suddenly finding something very interesting in the ground that requires immediate attention. From Whitehall there is a deadly broth of ignorance, indifference, avoidance and fear.

Scottish Tory leader Douglas Ross rails against an ‘illegal referendum’ and, asked by Andrew Neil last week whether SNP ministers should face criminal charges if they proceed with such, ominously replied: ‘They have to be answerable for their actions.’

This matter could do with a little more light and a lot less heat. Ross seems to consider the SNP’s plan as analogous to the unlawful referendum held in Catalonia in 2017 and he is not alone. The Nationalists meant for this to be the conclusion drawn by friend and foe alike. 

The intended audience for their proposal is their grassroots, who have grown impatient with Sturgeon’s failure to produce another vote despite much rhetoric. The hope among SNP strategists is that, by implying a Catalan-style wildcat plebiscite lies on the other side of May’s election, disgruntled supporters will turn out once more and heed the hoary plea for ‘both votes SNP’. 

In fact, all the Nationalists are committing to is seeking a Section 30 order (a constitutional thumbs up from Westminster) if Holyrood returns a pro-secession majority. If not, they claim, they will press ahead with a referendum Bill and dare the UK Government to try to stop them in court. There is no provision in the road map for holding a referendum if the courts side with Westminster. 

This dunts us along the path this controversy is inevitably heading. The Catalan referendum was not unlawful because the central government said so, but because the Spanish Constitutional Court did. Carles Puigdemont’s administration pressed ahead regardless and the world was treated to ugly scenes as Madrid sent in the police to frustrate the vote. 

Spain’s constitution is ‘based on the indissoluble unity of the Spanish nation, the common and indivisible homeland of all Spaniards’. The UK has no such provision, so while the dominant theory of devolution is that the constitution and referendums that implicate it are reserved to Westminster, the question has never been tested in court.

Downing Street has some experience of humiliating reversals at the Supreme Court but it seems perilously unperturbed by the possibility of another. It proposes, simply, to just say No.

There is much prating from Nationalists that denying a referendum would be ‘undemocratic’. Popular sovereignty is a perfectly respectable theory of democracy but one at odds with the Westminster model in which sovereignty resides with the Crown-in-Parliament under God.

That might sound stuffy to modern ears but it is the basis on which Parliament proceeds when it legislates. Far from being undemocratic, Westminster would be upholding the devolution settlement Scotland voted for, a settlement that distinguished reserved from devolved issues and vested the former in the UK Parliament.

There is already a democratic means for bringing about another independence referendum: the SNP needs to convince MPs to vote for one, something it could try to do in exchange for supply and confidence in a hung Parliament, which was the outcome of two of the last four general elections.

Instead, it wishes to hijack the parliament created by the 1997 referendum to pursue the dismantling of devolution and its replacement with a separate state.

It is a subversion not only of the purpose of devolution but of the concept of electoral mandates. The Nationalists are saying, in effect, that a mandate can be achieved in an election to one parliament for the exercise of powers that reside with another parliament. That, as long as enough people want something, constitutional process does not matter.

This populist spin on parliamentary democracy has implications even when a given Parliament’s legislative competence is not in doubt.

Those elsewhere in the UK, particularly London liberals, who would feel uneasy if Westminster denied a majority-SNP parliament another plebiscite, should think on the precedent they would be encouraging. If Scotland can get a referendum on leaving the UK, why can’t England get one on withdrawing from the European Convention on Human Rights? Why should popular sentiment force the Government’s hand in one part of the country but not another?

Some Unionists propose all these issues be dealt with via a Clarity Act, named after legislation passed in Canada following the Quebec separatists’ hair-splittingly narrow defeat in 1995. The Act sets out a rough framework of criteria for Ottawa entering negotiations with any province seeking independence.

Its House of Commons gets to decide whether a referendum question is ‘clear’, whether it improperly asks about matters other than secession and whether the result represents ‘a clear expression of a will by a clear majority of the population’, though it does not establish what ‘clear expression’ or ‘clear majority’ mean.

There are advantages to such a legislative instrument. By being specific and vague in just the right measure, the Act gives the Commons an effective veto on any attempt to split from Canada. The Parti Québécois, which a quarter-century ago almost split Canada, now languishes as the smallest party in the Quebec National Assembly.

By putting beyond all doubt that only Westminster can grant lawful referendums on independence, a UK Clarity Act could deliver a fatal blow to the SNP.

Sturgeon could no longer keep her political coalition together by promising another referendum, and divisions between those committed to finding a legal route and those demanding a unilateral declaration of independence could severely damage the SNP.

However, there is a danger that a Clarity Act would be seen as anti-nationalist rather than pro-unionist, focused on hindering secession rather than strengthening the Union. A law that says ‘you can’t do that’ instead of ‘here is what we can do if we stick together’ might stir up as much nationalist sentiment as it dispels.

That is why I favour a more ambitious, 21st-century Act of Union that reforms devolution while respecting local decision-making and addressing the flaws in the Union that have seen it weakened so grievously. A new Act of Union could keep the UK together while recognising the legitimate (and even Union-enhancing) clamour for a less centralised state.

There is a risk, too, that a Clarity Act inadvertently becomes a blueprint for independence, by prescribing a series of tests which a devolved government must meet in order to achieve a breakaway.

The current constitutional hodge-podge leaves open the possibility of a nasty judicial shock if the matter went to court, but the ambiguity it creates can be useful. If the SNP knows what it must do to get independence, it becomes easier to get.

There is another, unpleasant consideration. Specifying in law that an unsanctioned referendum is unlawful — or even criminal — places an onus on Westminster to enforce the law if a future SNP First Minister decided to call it anyway. (I say a future First Minister because I cannot see Nicola Sturgeon taking such a radical path).

While the law might have been on Madrid’s side in 2017, its handling of the crisis is something no one should want to see repeated here. Police Scotland, in particular, would be placed in an invidious position, as would local authorities.

No state is obliged to conspire in its own dissolution and the UK is entitled to erect every lawful barrier to that eventuality. The question is how to go about it. 

A Clarity Act is not the clean fix its advocates believe but, in the absence of any appetite for more fundamental constitutional reform, some Unionists may decide it is the only way forward.


Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Letters: scotletters [insert @ symbol] Feature images © UK Government by Creative Commons 2.0, flipped horizontally, and © Scottish Government by Creative Commons 2.0, flipped horizontally; collaged.