Jackie Baillie, the Helensburgh Hitwoman, takes out her targets cleanly. Dumbarton’s answer to Liam Neeson, she has a very particular set of skills and occasionally uses them on someone other than the Labour Left.
Yesterday, it was Nicola Sturgeon and whether she contravened ministerial rules, a matter under consideration by Irish QC James Hamilton.
‘If the First Minister is found to have breached the ministerial code, will she resign?’ enquired Baillie, who is a member of the separate Holyrood inquiry.
‘That is the Jackie Baillie who is not prejudging the outcome of the process,’ Sturgeon sulked. When Hamilton reports, she said, ’people can ask me that question and I will set out what I intend to do’.
Prosecutor Baillie warned the accused that she ‘cannot simply ignore the ministerial code’ and reminded her that though she ‘claimed to have forgotten’ about a ‘fleeting’ chat with a former Salmond aide, ‘the meeting was pre-arranged for the specific purpose of discussing the complaints that were made against Alex Salmond’.
The Labour MSP quoted Paragraph 1.3(c) of the code with the theatrics of a canny QC closing in on a dubious witness. Rumpole of the Baillie repeated her interrogative: ‘I ask again: if the First Minister is found to have breached the ministerial code, will she resign?’
‘I do not believe that I did breach the ministerial code,’ Sturgeon protested, ‘so I will not engage with that hypothetical question.’ She affected an air of cool assurance but it was evident she was not enjoying this.
Baillie suggested She Who Must Not Be Questioned ought to be under the microscope for more than the narrow terms of the Hamilton inquiry, underscoring the rule that ministers must pay heed to legal advice.
Once more unto the breach: ’I ask again: if the First Minister is found to have breached the ministerial code, will she resign?’
‘I think that Jackie Baillie should decide whether she is really open-minded, objective and impartial on the matter or whether she has prejudged the issue,’ Sturgeon smeared, adding in self-pity: ‘I am entitled to due process and I do not need lectures on democracy from Jackie Baillie.’
Baillie resumed her seat having recorded the strongest Labour performance at FMQs in some time. Since 2017 to be exact.
Now, a cynic would say this is all academic, because the Hamilton inquiry is not going to find against Sturgeon. No politician volunteers for a probe likely to conclude that they’re a rotter. Even so, her integrity is under scrutiny like never before.
Keith Brown, who became SNP deputy leader three years ago and hasn’t been heard from since, popped up with a dig at the UK Government’s Union Unit posing as a question.
This had not a jot to do with the responsibilities of the Scottish Government but it was nodded through by Presiding Officer Ken Macintosh, who seems to think Ultra Vires is an Eighties synth-pop band fronted by Midge Ure.
‘If the Scottish Government had an independence unit in such a way, there would be howls of protest from the Conservatives,’ Sturgeon harrumphed.
If the Scottish Government did anything other than agitate for independence, most Conservatives would need their jaws mechanically hoisted from the floor.
Maureen Watt haltingly read a question on dualling the A9 clearly written down for her, even referring to the First Minister by the shorthand ‘FM’. A consistently hopeless minister, Watt has settled in well to her backbench role as I Can’t Believe It’s Not James Dornan. If you replaced her with a low-maintenance houseplant, the quality of debate would actually go up.
None of the inquiries is likely to topple Sturgeon, something for which we should be grateful. For all her faults, it could be so much worse. Just look behind her.
Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Letters: scotletters [insert @ symbol] dailymail.co.uk.
Can I ask, Mr Murrell: is there anybody in the room with you?’
For a moment, I thought I had tuned into an impromptu Holyrood seance instead of the harassment committee. Jackie Baillie was giving SNP high heid yin Peter Murrell a forensic once-over via Zoom when she abruptly objected: ‘You keep looking off to the left.’
Once a Blairite, always a Blairite.
Murrell typically has the look of a bank manager searching for a pen but his face was now contorted in confusion. He maintained there was no one there and even offered to turn the camera around to prove it, telling Baillie it was ‘quite a conspiracy you’re suggesting’.
I’d like to think there was a shadow-cloaked Nicola Sturgeon in the corner making her way through a 20-pack of Marlboro Lights like the Cigarette-Smoking Man in the X-Files. If any government could cover up the existence of little green men, it’s this lot.
‘There’s a magpie outside, but apart from that— in fact, there’s two now,’ Murrell updated the committee, like a particularly shifty David Attenborough.
One for sorrow, two for joy… The nursery rhyme doesn’t specify how many portend the coming of a straight answer, but it’s safe to say Mr Murrell did not have a quorum with him.
‘Well, I’m glad there’s two because it’s unlucky if there’s only one,’ chirped convener Linda Fabiani, as though this wasn’t the most bizarre committee session in the history of devolution.
My granny, God rest her, used to greet the solitary creatures with a salutation of: ‘Hello, Mr Magpie, how’s your wife and weans?’ in hopes of warding off misfortune, and it’s a source of pride to learn that she therefore possessed all the necessary qualifications to sit on a Holyrood committee.
The rest of Baillie’s questioning was less esoteric, though the same didn’t go for Murrell’s answers. She pressed him on previous assurances that there were no other text messages relating to Alex Salmond.
‘You asked whether there was any relevant information and there wasn’t — and there still isn’t,’ he replied, with an emphasis on ‘relevant’ that you could have weighed in kilograms.
‘No, I didn’t ask about other relevant information. I asked if there were other text messages that related to the allegations made about Alex Salmond.’
‘Column 24 of my oral evidence, from yourself: “No other relevant information was found. Can you repeat that under oath?” and I said that was my evidence.’
He knew the column number. A very well-prepared witness.
‘That’s not the only place, with respect Mr Murrell, that I asked you that,’ she demurred with a smile that would freeze the Sahara.
Proceedings had kicked off with deputy convener Margaret Mitchell struggling to read her question. Considering she appeared to have it written down, it was not the most auspicious start.
Alex Cole-Hamilton, turned out in an open-neck shirt and snazzy blazer, looking for all the world like a mid-ranking finalist in a sparsely attended George Clooney lookalike contest, smouldered in frustration throughout his questions.
When Murdo Fraser got his chance, all pretence of bonhomie was gone. The Tory has a dark past — he is a former solicitor — and he put his training to good use, reminding Murrell that he had previously told the committee both that he was not home during his wife’s meetings with Alex Salmond and that, on one occasion, he ‘arrived home not long before the meeting ended’.
‘You have given this committee, under oath, two different accounts of the meeting of April 2… Which of these accounts is true and which is false?’
‘When you’re giving evidence and you’re being questioned in this fashion, it is difficult to go back to the point of what you knew when and take it back what I know now as opposed to what I knew back then,’ Murrell explained. Perhaps the magpies could translate.
Chunks of the session were lost to a whirring garble as Murrell and Fraser attempted to talk over each other. These sections of Murrell’s testimony really stood out from the rest. They were unintelligible by accident.
Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Letters: scotletters [insert @ symbol] dailymail.co.uk.
Everyone agrees: no one understands. At least that is the consensus on the Alex Salmond affair within the political and media bubble. The general public, so the thinking runs, finds the whole saga so bafflingly labyrinthine that they zone out when the story pops up in the newspaper.
There is, MSPs and journalists lament, no snappy, one-sentence summation that everyone can understand.
Here is that sentence: Nicola Sturgeon’s government unlawfully investigated Alex Salmond for sexual harassment and his supporters believe this was part of a plot to wreck his reputation and any hope of a return to frontline politics. I make no comment on the plausibility of the latter contention but that is the simplest precis possible of a complex drama.
Even without talk of a conspiracy, the charges against the Scottish Government are serious. Ministers admit they botched a probe into the accusations. The Court of Session ruled that it was ‘procedurally unfair’ on the grounds that the investigating officer had ‘prior involvement’. More than £500,000 in taxpayers’ money has been shelled out to meet Salmond’s legal bills. The Holyrood inquiry is meant to get to the bottom of all this.
The committee’s biggest test so far comes tomorrow, when Salmond is due to give evidence in person. His appearance is reportedly in peril after the inquiry’s refusal to publish a written submission in which he accused Nicola Sturgeon of misleading parliament.
The document, originally prepared for the separate review by James Hamilton, QC, into whether Sturgeon broke the ministerial code, claims the First Minister was aware a meeting with Salmond at her home on April 2, 2018 had been arranged to discuss complaints against him. This appears to contradict Sturgeon’s version of events and raises questions about her failure to disclose details of the meeting to civil servants until two months later.
If Salmond does not appear tomorrow, such doubts as might remain will vanish. The inquiry will not warrant public confidence in its eventual conclusions. I believe we have already reached that point, which is why I have called for a judge-led public inquiry to ascertain the facts about the allegations, the Scottish Government’s investigation, and the obstruction of the Holyrood committee.
Should the committee forgo Salmond’s in-person evidence rather than place his written submission in the public domain, the only course of action for committee members who object is to resign in protest. They have done their best but even their best was never going to surmount the structural flaws of an inquiry too toothless to make ministers fear its bark, let alone its bite.
I objected to the terms of the inquiry from the outset and nothing since has changed my mind. An investigation into the SNP, set up by the SNP and chaired by the SNP was never going to cut muster with anyone except the SNP.
If the inquiry does not hear from Salmond, it does not deserve to be heard itself. Its findings will amount to little more than a stern ticking-off for the Scottish Government and a hollow promise in return that ‘lessons will be learned’.
Indeed they will be. Ministers will learn the lesson that the Scottish Parliament is a paper tiger, unable or unwilling to hold the executive to account. They will learn that they may act unlawfully and incur costly legal fees for the taxpayer without censure. They will learn that they are above the parliament and the law.
The Hamilton inquiry has yet to report but if it proves as robust as its Holyrood analogue, ministers might also learn that they are above the ministerial code.
There is something very dangerous bubbling up. We are governed by people who see their power as untrammelled and their duty to the office as marginal. They are the SNP, not the Scottish Government. No less troubling is the fatalism this has inspired in the other parties, who look at Sturgeon’s poll ratings and throw their hands up in despair. We’ve had more than enough of Eeyore opposition. We need to see some energy, ideas and, frankly, guts from those tasked with bringing ministers to book.
Some nationalists who feel uneasy about how the Sturgeon government has conducted itself still suspect ill-motive on the part of the opposition. Opportunism is a constant in politics but the stakes are much higher than that. This is about the integrity of government in Scotland, something that should compel nationalists at least as much as unionists.
Whatever your view on the constitutional question, were Scotland to become an independent country we should all want it to be a gold-standard nation for process, accountability and the rule of law. We should not slide in between Saudi Arabia and Senegal at the UN General Assembly under a cloud of uncertainty about what kind of country we are.
This is why supporters of independence should resist the urge to suppress their misgivings. A government that can behave like this within the constraints of the United Kingdom will not volunteer to improve its conduct after those constraints are removed. If you allow people who consider themselves above the law to set up a new state, don’t expect that state to put much stock in the rule of law.
These days, I am less worried about Scotland becoming a separate state than I am about it becoming a failed state. A country in which the government can investigate itself, in which the Crown Office refuses to hand over documents to Holyrood until forced to, and in which parliament cannot keep the executive in check is a country with deeper problems than vaccine distribution. It is a country that is democratically dysfunctional.
If Linda Fabiani’s inquiry cannot do its job, then a judge must take over, but that cannot be the end of the matter. We must face up to the flaws in the devolution settlement that allowed this charade and take remedial action to prevent it happening again. Scotland must be able to hold its head up high in the world.
‘Do as I say, not as I do’ is the first and oldest principle in politics. The Scottish Tories are lashing Labour leadership hopeful Anas Sarwar for refusing to back an ‘anti-SNP coalition’, claiming he ‘would rather work with the SNP than work with unionist parties’.
Imagine. What kind of Unionist would do that? Well, um, the Scottish Tories. In 2007 the SNP won one seat more than Labour at the Holyrood elections but the parties of unity handily outnumbered the separatists.
So what did the Tories do? They propped up Alex Salmond’s minority government, voting for his budgets in exchange for concessions on drug rehabilitation and regeneration funding. According to analysis by the Guardian, they helped the SNP defeat Labour 377 times.
To my mind, this was constructive opposition that secured cash for good causes, but it also kept the SNP in power and no doubt contributed to its 2011 majority.
It seems the Tories are only for anti-SNP coalitions when it suits them.
Given the other parties’ inability to hold her to account, Scotland needs an opposition leader capable of standing up to Nicola Sturgeon. Someone who has not only read the standing orders but fully understands them. Once she’s done knocking Handforth Parish Council into shape, let’s headhunt Jackie Weaver. She would have the authority to keep the SNP in check.
Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Letters: scotletters [insert @ symbol] dailymail.co.uk.
It’s not often Nicola Sturgeon makes you proud to be British but when the leader of the SNP stands up and declares the British Army to be ‘our Armed Forces’, you do think about getting out the Union Jack bunting.
The First Minister was being pressed by Ruth Davidson on the sluggish pace of the vaccine rollout in Scotland.
‘Any help that the Armed Forces give to Scotland… it’s not a favour from the Secretary of State for Scotland,’ she told the Tory leader, before blurting out: ‘It’s our Armed Forces!’ That might not go down well in her ranks, where some still refer to the Union Flag as the Butcher’s Apron and sing about British soldiers going on home rather than coming on in.
Still, if Nicola Sturgeon is going to hymn the efforts of squaddies helping her government get caught up with vaccinations, it would be churlish not to join in…
Some talk of Devi Sridhar
And some of Jason Leitch
Of Gregor Smith and Freeman
But the jabs are out of reach.
Of all of Sturgeon’s heroes
There’s none that can compare,
With a tow row row and a vaccine now,
From the British Grenadiers.
Meanwhile, Jackie Baillie took up the cause of vulnerable pensioners left in the dark about their Covid jab, including ‘Kate’ from Fife and ‘Margaret and Bill’, also from the Kingdom. Putting names to the Scottish Government’s failings was clever, and evidently irked Sturgeon, who rejoindered: ‘Perhaps Jackie Baillie wants to turn her mobile phone off as well while I answer her question.’
Baillie is a tough cookie and attacks are soon brushed off – and returned twofold.
In that oh-so-reasonable tone she adopts while getting stuck in about her opponents, she contended: ‘It is becoming harder to work out how the Scottish Government measures success in the vaccine programme. Our vaccine rollout is much slower than England, Wales and Northern Ireland.
‘The First Minister quite rightly says it’s not a competition between nations but I have to say to her: it is a race against the virus and we are not going fast enough.’
The interim Labour leader reminded Sturgeon of Calamity Jeane’s pledge to vaccinate one million Scots before the end of January. This was, apparently, most unsporting of her.
Sturgeon objected: ‘Jackie Baillie talks about things the Health Secretary said in November. In November, we didn’t even have an authorised vaccine for use, so we were estimating on what we thought.’
Or, to translate from the Sturgeon: ‘We didn’t have a vaccine but spun a big number anyway because I wanted some nice headlines.’
Tory MSP Liam Kerr raised the blight of shop closures in Aberdeen city centre and queried how the First Minister was going to encourage new retailers to open.
‘I’m going to resist the temptation to assume responsibility for filling individual shop units in every town and city. It is an important question and I don’t mean to minimise it,’ she said, minimising it.
As she spoke, the benches to her right rumbled in dispute.
‘Presiding Officer, I’m struggling to hear with all the chatting that’s going on,’ she protested.
‘Yes, but the trouble is, First Minister, the trouble was caused by the Deputy First Minister heckling the Labour benches, so I would encourage all members to behave themselves in this situation,’ he shot back.
Blimey. Someone had put a few quid in Ken Macintosh’s meter.
Sturgeon glanced at Swinney and broke into a giggle. ‘I will speak to him later, Presiding Officer,’ she chuckled, then admitted: ‘I have completely lost my train of thought, which probably means I should sit down.’
Macintosh called time, prompting Baillie to bound up with a dig gussied up as a point of order: ‘The First Minister said earlier that people can contact the helpline if they have questions about their vaccinations.
‘People are emailing me right now to say they’re trying and they’re not getting answers about appointments. Margaret, from Fife, who I referenced earlier, has just phoned the helpline to be told a letter will be sent soon but nobody knows when.’
No wonder Sturgeon didn’t want her looking at her phone.
Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Letters: scotletters [insert @ symbol] dailymail.co.uk.
Sometimes there are breaking points that can’t be ignored. The inquiry into the Scottish Government’s handling of sexual harassment allegations against Alex Salmond has just suffered another low, dispiriting week.
That does not distinguish the past seven days from any others since the committee began its work but the accumulation of indignities and inadequacies has become too great to bear.
This parliamentary investigation has revealed only how weak and ill-equipped is the parliament leading it. Somehow the Scottish parliament has managed to cast more doubt on its own fitness than that of the government it is tasked with reviewing.
After months of pleading from inquiry convener Linda Fabiani, the Crown Office finally agreed to share further materials with her committee, and only after Holyrood was forced to take the unprecedented step of invoking its powers under the Scotland Act to demand sight of the documents.
The materials it sought were not minor in their nature. They included any digital communications between the chief operating officer of the SNP and the Scottish Government, and any documents germane to the 2018 disclosure to a newspaper of harassment complaints against Salmond.
Only now, in the dying days of this probe, have the MSPs nominally running it been given access to these productions.
There are conscientious MSPs on the inquiry and they have done much and very creditable work to get to the truth. But their efforts have been hindered by the nature of the committee itself.
Of the nine current members, seven have no legal education or training, including the convener. They ask questions that parliamentarians would ask, some of which are incisive but most of which lack the necessary forensic depth and interrogative nous.
Lawyers can be a nuisance but they are a valuable nuisance. They know what questions to ask, of whom, in what order, and how to elicit answers – or damn the witness who fails to provide them. They do not greet forgetfulness or inconsistent evidence with arched eyebrows and exasperated sighs.
They are adversarial because, in their profession, what is at stake is typically a person’s liberty or reputation or the doing of justice itself. Law is not a process that can end in wrung hands and focus-grouped apologies.
The respected legal academic Alistair Bonnington notes a ‘strong suspicion that this committee was given the job precisely because it would have insufficient expertise or powers to investigate adequately’.
Professor Bonnington is not alone in this view among legal experts. The committee appears not only to be fatally flawed but flawed in such a way as to raise questions about the motive behind establishing a parliamentary probe rather than a more robust inquiry.
Whatever the diligence of its members, this inquiry is not robust. It has previously had to suspend its activities because of what it termed ‘obstruction’.
The First Minister who promised to ‘fully co-operate with the committee and its inquiry’ has instead tendered evidence arising from a ‘forgotten’ meeting and at odds with the evidence of SNP chief executive (and her husband) Peter Murrell.
Her government has refused to hand over its legal advice and to let witnesses appear. Where it has come before the panel, it has repeatedly had to revise its evidence despite having spent £55,000 ‘preparing’ civil servants to appear.
The Holyrood inquiry has already failed before it has concluded. In truth, it had failed even before it began. Every day — or, more specifically, every Tuesday — that MSPs continue to participate in these empty theatrics is another day in which we get further from, not closer to, the truth of what happened.
A faulty process does more than fail to reach a just outcome; it makes it more difficult for a thorough process, at some point down the line, to do so either. Poisoned roots can only ever produce poisonous fruits.
The only way forward is for the Holyrood inquiry to be dissolved and for parliament to pass legislation requiring ministers to establish a judge-led public inquiry into this entire saga.
This is not about party politics or the constitution. It is no longer simply about Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon. It is about public confidence in the integrity of government in Scotland.
The nature of what is being alleged — or at least heavily implied — is impossible to overstate. In his most recent submission, Salmond claims to have a witness who was told by a special adviser in 2018 ‘the government knew they would lose the judicial review but that they would “get him” [i.e. Salmond] in the criminal case’.
Salmond loyalist and East Lothian MP Kenny MacAskill asserts the existence of a secret WhatsApp group — nicknamed ‘Vietnam’ — in which senior SNP figures allegedly discussed ‘putting pressure’ on one complainer to give evidence against the former party leader at his criminal trial, at which he was cleared of all charges. MacAskill claims the group chat discussed how to get the complainer ‘back in the game’.
In its simplest and most emphatic terms, the proposition here is that the Scottish Government conspired politically against the former First Minister and employed the apparatus of the state to carry out its plot.
The mere insinuation, regardless of its veracity or otherwise, is incendiary. The implications were such a narrative to be confirmed, or given the impression of confirmation, would be to make Watergate look like a two-bit hotel burglary by comparison.
The Scottish parliament is not capable of reaching the truth in this matter. Information central to the events under investigation, information without which it is impossible to fully understand what is alleged to have happened, cannot be divulged to the general public.
Much of the evidence heard would be better assessed by those learned in the law. A public inquiry could be given an expanded remit beyond the narrow terms set for the Holyrood committee. It could interrogate all sides and all evidence with the rigour that has been lacking so far. It could give the public confidence with a process that is robust, disinterested and unbound by parliamentary timetables or political considerations.
Fabiani’s committee has reached a breaking point and so has the indulgence the rest of parliament can continue to grant it. An inquiry designed as an exercise in damage limitation cannot and will not get to the bottom of the events in question. Not because the committee members do not want to but because the scope of the process is too restrictive.
Much about this inquiry seems recondite to the public and far removed from their everyday concerns, especially in the middle of a pandemic. But neither public apathy nor legal complexity should stand in the way of answering this most vital of questions: are public officials in Scotland above accountability and even the law itself?
The answer must be ‘No’ but the only forum in which it can be ensured is a public inquiry.
Hollywood had Fred and Ginger; Holyrood, Kate and Murdo. Politically, they are polar opposites but when the Finance Secretary and the Tory finance spokesman meet on the debating chamber floor, they waltz off with the whole show.
Once Forbes had outlined her budget proposals, Fraser began his reply on a non-political note: ‘Can I take the opportunity, on behalf of these benches, to congratulate her on the recent happy news of her engagement.’
Awww. A little round of applause rung out, before an insouciant Fraser added: ‘It’s good, Presiding Officer, to see her recognising the benefits of being in a union.’ Forbes chuckled and rolled her eyes.
Her statement was the putting of an elegant face on an inelegant situation: the economy is in the toilet and one more flush away from the septic tank.
So she tacked Left with more spending on health and education and a lowering of the threshold for land and buildings transaction tax back down to its pre-pandemic level. Then she nudged Right by leaving income tax rates untouched and raising the threshold for most taxpayers — alongside a £268 million cut to social housing.
One of the keys to the SNP’s electoral success is that they don’t believe in anything and can pose as Bevanites one day and Thatcherites the other. It must be difficult trying to remember which day is Tax Cuts for Independence and which is Nationalisation for the Nation.
Actually, that is the one thing they believe in, independence, and the kitty for Government Business and Constitutional Relations Policy — the Separatism Squad — got chucked an additional £4 million, taking its annual pot to just under £15 million. Forbes was practically baiting Fraser at this point.
The Tory volunteered himself for the hook with glee: ‘We need a budget that focuses 100 per cent on managing the pandemic and our economic recovery thereafter… We will reject any plans to waste precious resources — money or time — on campaigning for another divisive independence referendum. We need a budget that is about building up, not breaking up.’
Forbes gave as good as she got: ‘Talking about wasting time, I’m standing here delivering a budget investing £1.1 billion in skills, £6 billion in capital infrastructure and £3.5 billion for social security and welfare payments. Meanwhile, of course, his leader is breaking the spirit of the rules on essential travel — to do what? Make the case apparently for the Union, because he’s running scared after poll after poll shows support for independence.’
It’s a delight to watch the two of them tango.
But when the music stops, the tricky questions about Forbes’ spending priorities will come. My eye was rather drawn to the bumped-up budget for the grandly titled External Affairs department. This coming year, the Scottish government will be spending £26.5 million on ‘International and European Relations’, which is jolly generous of them considering international and European relations are reserved to Westminster.
Not invited to the ball, like a carbon-neutral Cinderella, was Patrick Harvie, who vented his frustrations over Forbes’ insufficient alertness to the climate crisis.
He harrumphed: ‘Once again, we’re hearing commitments on a green agenda while the motorways and trunk roads budget goes up, as it has relentlessly. There’s no sign of the promised increase in the energy efficiency budget and the main new measure on public transport is the one the Greens secured a year ago and which the Scottish government hasn’t implemented yet.’
If only there was a way for Harvie to express his disapproval of Scottish government budgets. Perhaps through a vote of some kind. At least the SNP gets power in exchange for its protean principles. The Greens just get the occasional pat on the head.
When it comes down to it, they’ll do what is expected of them because the only sustainability their leader is interested in is sustaining the SNP in government. Under Harvie, the Greens’ sole function is to say whatever the SNP just said in a more middle-class accent.
Students who chain themselves to trees and sabotage Japanese whalers are eco-warriors. This lot are echo-warriors.
Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Letters: scotletters [insert @ symbol] dailymail.co.uk.
The SNP says it has a ‘roadmap to a referendum’. Over the weekend, constitution secretary Mike Russell published an 11-point plan for a plebiscite on independence ‘that is beyond legal challenge’ and would be held after May’s Holyrood election.
The wheeze is that, unless the UK Government accedes, the SNP-controlled Edinburgh parliament would simply pass a Bill to hold one and, in effect, dare Westminster to try and stop them. The details can be ironed out, Russell allows, but ‘what is absolutely not for discussion is the fact that if Scotland votes for a legal referendum on 6 May this year, that is what it will get’.
I’m sure his roadmap is very bright and shiny but Russell might want to stick a postcode into his GPS: SW1A 0AA. That’s the Palace of Westminster, where the decision about any future referendum will be taken.
The roadmap itself should be recognised as a pre-election stunt to drive up the SNP vote. If Nicola Sturgeon was serious about this gambit, she wouldn’t leave it in the hands of a minister just weeks away from retirement. She would also be providing us with legal opinions confirming not only that such an approach would be lawful but that police and returning officers could participate in any referendum so held without opening themselves to prosecution.
The First Minister is many things, but daft isn’t one of them. She saw what happened when the Catalan secessionists tried to hold a wildcat vote in 2017. She saw, too, how slow the European Commission was to voice the mildest concern even as Madrid’s Guardia Civil knocked lumps out of Catalans outside polling stations live on CNN.
Westminster’s methods would be much daintier and ministers could ride out whatever international rebuke might come, knowing that Madrid won by standing firm and that, after the grim scenes on Capitol Hill, world leaders are newly nervous about nationalist insurrection on their own streets.
The Court of Session is hearing a case brought by an independence supporter that the Scottish parliament already has the power to hold a referendum. Litigating your way to sovereignty is certainly novel and it is possible that the question ends up before the Supreme Court. It is even possible that the justices of Middlesex Guildhall take it upon themselves to grant Holyrood power over the UK constitution.
Possible, but not likely. For one, an Act of Parliament could swiftly re-establish parliamentary sovereignty in the wake of such a decision. For another, it would be the last case the Supreme Court ever heard.
At the nucleus of the SNP’s efforts to circumvent the devolution settlement is an abuse of the concept of democracy. Not only full-fat nationalists but those whose idea of devolution is diet nationalism contend that it would be ‘undemocratic’ for the UK Parliament to refuse a Section 30 order for another referendum if the SNP wins in May. Although it chimes with an unfortunate trend towards referendums in recent decades, this direct democracy is at odds with our system of parliamentary government.
The proposition that the popular will can assert itself over a reserved matter during a devolved election is populism of the kind its proponents denounce everywhere else in the world. Nor can they pick and choose which constitutional matters can be shoehorned into Holyrood politics.
Imagine a scenario in which the SNP took a very different stance on criminal justice than it does today. Nicola Sturgeon declares that murderers should pay the ultimate price for their crimes and so Scotland should restore capital punishment. Scotland cannot do so at present because the UK is a signatory to the European Convention on Human Rights, which says: ‘No one shall be condemned to such penalty or executed’.
As such, Sturgeon announces, the SNP will commit in its manifesto to a referendum asking if Scotland should derogate from the ECHR in order to reintroduce the death penalty. If the Nationalists then win a majority of seats at Holyrood, and perhaps a series of polls show strong support for capital punishment, on what basis would the UK Parliament refuse a Section 30 order? That treaty obligations are a reserved matter? So is the constitution. That Scottish derogation would mean UK derogation and expulsion from the Council of Europe? Independence would mean the dismantling of the UK itself.
The assertion that a mandate for a reserved matter can be acquired in a devolved election masquerades as a democratic principle when it is the exact opposite. The devolution settlement Scotland voted for, and which has been expanded by the UK Parliament, is based on a division of powers between Westminster and Holyrood and legal mechanisms for transferring competencies as deemed necessary.
If devolved elections grant mandates over reserved matters, there are no reserved matters — only matters that have yet to be devolved. In embracing this logic, the devo ultras give the game away and vindicate Tam Dalyell’s prophesy that ‘we are on a motorway without exit to an independent state’.
Even now, it is possible to apply the brakes. Downing Street should not be spooked by Nicola Sturgeon’s latest exercise in pandering to her increasingly impatient followers. Absent an ill-advised spot of judicial activism, the constitution is reserved to Westminster. The Prime Minister can continue to say No. He could say it Scots if it helps: the game’s a bogey.
However, just because ‘No’ is sufficient, it should not be the extent of the Prime Minister’s response. For almost a decade, the threat of Scottish independence has been looming over the UK and it has largely been viewed as a political problem. Now that we have left the EU and are forging new trading relationships, separatism risks becoming a threat to the UK’s bottom line.
The more the Nationalists clamour for a referendum, and especially if their grousing is accompanied by some grassroots-pleasing choreography, the greater the chance that the UK comes to be seen as a risky place to do business. Who wants to sign a trade deal with a country that could soon lose almost one-in-ten of its population? Who wants to invest in Scotland for access to the UK market, only for that access to disappear within a few years?
Since 1999, Conservative and Labour governments have dripped with indifference and indecision on the constitution; only the otherwise wobbly Theresa May stood firm. Predictably, Westminster’s weakness has emboldened the separatists and ensured that, more than six years on from winning a referendum on independence, ministers are still dogged by the prospect of the UK disintegrating on their watch.
They could continue their timorous approach, or they could man up and put an end to all this uncertainty. To do so, though, would require a good deal more steel and self-confidence than has been in evidence at Westminster for some time.
The UK Government has to stop seeing independence as a Scottish breakaway and recognise that it would be the break-up of Britain. Polling published yesterday showed that not only do half of Scots want another referendum in the next five years, 51 per cent of Northern Ireland wants a vote on leaving the UK and becoming part of the Irish republic. Even in Wales, where separatist sentiment is at its lowest, opposition to a referendum commands only a plurality, not a majority. Scottish independence would be the falling of the first domino.
The Lenin question, then: What is to be done? Some advocate a Canada-style Clarity Act outlining the terms under which a constituent country of the UK would be allowed to secede. While this would remove much of the current uncertainty, it begins from a flawed premise: that independence is inevitable but it must be carried out in a proper fashion.
I have previously argued for a new Act of Union, which would not only be more comprehensive than a Clarity Act, but would begin from the principle that the United Kingdom should continue to exist. Independence would not be rendered impossible but the strengthening of the Union would be at the heart of the legislation. That means more than erecting legal hurdles; it means fashioning a new British culture, identity and values that can unite all parts of a modern nation.
Downing Street should not be tempted to follow the SNP down its dead-end roadmap. The Prime Minister should say it firmly and early on: there will be no independence referendum in the next term of the Scottish Parliament. Then his government should let the Scottish Tories fight the May election on devolved issues. While they do, Whitehall should begin in earnest drawing up a plan for a reformed devolution settlement that respects the results of past referendums while securing the long-term future of the UK.
Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Letters: scotletters [insert @ symbol] dailymail.co.uk.
Watching Holyrood these days requires Olympian stamina and a boundless supply of optimism. The longer the First Minister’s statements get, the more depressing they become. Nicola Sturgeon’s message to MSPs yesterday can be summed up in four words: Nothing’s changed. Any questions?
Actually, that’s not quite true. The reopening of schools and nurseries is changing — it’s being pushed back to mid-February. The Scottish government had hoped to get children back in classrooms at the start of next month but, Sturgeon explained, ‘community transmission of the virus is too high — and is likely to remain so for the next period — to allow a safe return to school on February 1’.
Schools won’t necessarily be going back in the middle of February. Sturgeon would (‘if it is at all possible’) begin ‘a phased return to in-school learning’ by then, but she gave no guarantees. ‘I also have to be straight with families and say that it is simply too early to be sure whether and to what extent that will be possible,’ she added.
The bad news just kept coming, like one of those nightly bulletins that you switch off halfway through because all the stories are too grim.
We had best get used to staring at the same four walls for the foreseeable. Sturgeon told Holyrood she was keeping the mainland in lockdown and placing Barra and Vatersay in level four. Not content with keeping Scotland indoors, now she was quarantining parts of Middle Earth.
As if this wasn’t glum enough, she brought up a potential shortcoming of the vaccine. Namely that ‘experts cannot yet tell us whether, or to what extent, the vaccines stop transmission of the virus’. The jabs may ‘alleviate the burden of serious illness’, she went on, ‘but we do not yet know whether they stop us getting and passing on the virus’.
And finally, all this uncertainty meant ‘physical distancing, hygiene measures, face coverings and possibly travel limitations are likely to be necessary for some time yet’.
Even News at Ten knows to end on a positive note. Wasn’t there a heartwarming story about a bichon frise in a face mask trying to volunteer as a vaccinator?
Proceedings were dark but respectable enough until Ruth Davidson asked some fairly mild questions about the Scottish government’s lacklustre vaccine rollout. Her enquiries evidently struck a nerve because Sturgeon’s tone turned abrasive. She tried to feign good-natured incredulity but her words came out in venomous gobs.
The Nationalist leader griped about a vaccine supply estimate her government had put online then had to take back down. ‘I hope I’m not about to use unparliamentary language, Presiding Officer, but the UK Government had something of what I can only describe as a hissy fit about us doing that.’
This boo-boo, in which the Scottish government inadvertently published sensitive information, got a smattering of headlines last week but had been fixed and, it seemed, all parties had moved on. Clearly not.
‘We agreed in consultation with them to take away the publication of those supply figures,’ Sturgeon forged ahead on her bizarre tangent. ‘They don’t want us to be open about supply for reasons of commercial confidentiality and while I don’t necessarily entirely agree with the reasoning behind that, we have agreed with their request.’
Murmurings bubbled up from the Tory benches. Was she really trying to settle scores in the middle of a Covid statement?
She was. ‘What we have is the UK Government briefing and spinning misleading figures on supply,’ the First Minister snipped, ‘so they have to be clear about which approach they want us to take.’
If Sturgeon passed on vaccine doses as quickly as she passes on the buck, we’d hit herd immunity by Friday.
It was a telling outburst. Maybe it’s the logistics of the vaccine programme. Maybe it’s other difficulties facing her government. But it’s rare to see her lose her composure like that. Something — or someone — is getting to the First Minister.
If you want to understand why Richard Leonard had to resign as Scottish Labour leader, there’s a recent poll that will assist you. ComRes interrogated voters earlier this month on their opinion of the Central Scotland MSP. They found 31 per cent neither favourable nor unfavourable and a further 28 per cent not sure enough to answer.
In all, six in ten Scots, presented with the name of the man at the helm of Scottish Labour for three years, either shrugged or took on a blank expression. There are witness protection programmes that don’t offer that level of anonymity.
Just 11 per cent were keen on the Left-wing ex-union organiser. A 2020 YouGov survey revealed that 15 per cent of Scotland thinks it likely ‘there are aliens living on earth’. More Scots believe in extra-terrestrial life on this planet than believe in Richard Leonard.
I was often critical of him but there’s little sport to be had in kicking the man any further. He has done the right thing in standing down to make way for fresh blood and Scottish Labour could certainly do with a transfusion.
The party that once dominated Scottish politics without challenge is a pitiful creature to behold these days. In third place at Holyrood, with just one MP at Westminster, haemorrhaging what voters remain, and utterly at a loss for how to turn things around.
It’s not as though there isn’t material to work with. There is an SNP government gaffe-happy in its handling of Covid-19 and a Health Secretary with one foot out the door in the middle of a pandemic. Even before the virus hit, cancer and mental health patients were habitually not treated within the Nationalists’ own waiting time standards.
There is the grindingly slow progress on closing the attainment gap and the fact that what narrowing there has been is the result of better off pupils doing worse rather than worse-off pupils doing better. Education Secretary John Swinney ought to be on the edge of his seat every day for fear that his latest pitfall — on exams, ‘blended learning’, lack of support for pupils and teachers — costs him his job.
The SNP’s record on poverty and inequality is far from illustrious and their standard excuse (‘it’s all Westminster’s fault’) a shoddy piece of dishonesty. The UK Government has made mistakes and for that it should be criticised but since this is public policy and not a playground punch-up something more substantive than ‘they started it’ is called for.
Businesses are at breaking point because of lockdown and only a fraction of the cash promised by Finance Secretary Kate Forbes has made its way into bank accounts. Small business owners have given their all, investing in additional distancing and hygiene measures to keep employees and clients safe, only to be let down by government. If they could pay their bills in Nicola Sturgeon TV appearances, they’d be able to retire by now.
There is a need for a party that makes the SNP confront its failings and attaches a political price to them. It’s a long time since Scottish Labour aspired to be such a party. Under the reign of the self-indulgent ideologues, Labour has preferred to talk (or shout) to itself, as though Keir Hardie had set up a debate club that somehow got out of hand and starting standing for Parliament.
The Labour Party does not exist for the soothing of its members’ egos or the strange excitements of factional war games. It exists to make life better for ordinary people by creating a fairer society and an economy with opportunity for everyone. It’s a bold new idea called ‘social democracy’ and will be all the rage soon enough.
For Scottish Labour to get back into the business of practical politics it needs a sense of purpose, confidence in its principles, an appetite to fight and a strategy for shunting the constitutional question off the agenda. Before it can do any of that, it needs a new leader.
So far, two MSPs have put their heads above the parapet: Anas Sarwar and Monica Lennon. Lennon is a highly effective health spokesperson and a hard worker, but her colleague is better placed for the task in hand.
Sarwar is young, ruthless, media-savvy and brimming with ideas. He shows a lively commitment to public service and brings experience from both Holyrood and Westminster, as well as a three-year stint as deputy to Johann Lamont. He can work the debating chamber and especially First Minister’s Questions like few others. He knows what gets headlines, what tugs heart-strings, what makes Sturgeon squirm. He’s against a second independence referendum and wants to move beyond arid constitutionalism.
Just as important as any of that is the question of values. Values are everything in Labour politics, as we saw in the past five years when the worst sort of values took hold of the party and corrupted it into something extreme and intolerant and prejudiced. Sarwar’s values are those of the Labour mainstream, where Labour is at its most vital and from where it wins. He believes in common endeavour and the common weal. He represents not just an opportunity for Labour to get back in the game but a reminder of why they play.
Tories tempted to revel in their opponents’ misfortunes should pause, at least if they believe in the Union. The Conservatives alone cannot present the alternative to nationalism; there has to be a party that speaks to traditional Labour voters and those not inclined towards Toryism. Whatever your ideological leanings, it is to the benefit of the Union that there be a strong, vibrant Labour Party to help take on the SNP.
Sarwar as leader could do more than that. While he is not going to reverse more than a decade of decline overnight, he would begin Labour’s long march back to relevance. If he is clever, he will avoid the constitutional trap by rejecting indyref2 firmly and early, then moving on to the issues that matter to the lives of ordinary Scots. The SNP has been allowed to set the agenda for long enough. It’s time to talk about what they don’t want to talk about: their record.
Even then, simply disparaging the Nationalists’ performance in government is not enough. Sarwar would have to set out what Scottish Labour was for, how it would do it, and what Scotland would gain from giving the party another chance.
A drover’s dog knows Scottish Labour isn’t going to win the May elections, but the party membership faces a choice: terminal decline or a fightback. It’s in Scotland’s interests, not just Labour’s, that they make the right choice.
Calamity Jeane strikes again. First the Health Secretary was forced to apologise for disclosing the location of a secret vaccine storage facility in England. Then her vaccination strategy had to be yanked down from the Scottish government website after Downing Street pointed out that it contained sensitive information. Despite all the consultancy hours she used to clock up, it’s safe to say none were for MI5.
Even before the pandemic hit, Jeane Freeman was struggling to meet waiting times standards and deliver promised infrastructure. Now we learn that the opening of Edinburgh’s Royal Hospital for Sick Children, a facility supposed to be up and running by winter 2012, has been delayed yet again.
Freeman has had a dire pandemic, with medics handed out-of-date PPE, details of an Edinburgh outbreak withheld from the public, elderly patients transferred to care homes before testing, and misleading figures made public.
Freeman was brought in as a trouble-shooter but the only targets she’s been able to hit are her own feet.
This column has been arguing for some time that the UK Government should bypass the carnival of grievance at Holyrood and start spending directly in Scotland. So it’s welcome news that Whitehall will do just that via the Shared Prosperity Fund, with the first tranche bringing £100 million to Scotland. See? Told you we were better together.
We should consider doing away with podiums. Every time Nicola Sturgeon gets behind one, we lose another freedom. The First Minister pounced from her Holyrood perch again yesterday, gobbling up what remains of our liberties like Hungry Hungry Hippos with statutory powers.
Before First Minister’s Questions kicked off, she previewed a ‘further tightening of the lockdown restrictions’.
What’s the damage? Well, now we can only use ‘click and collect’ supermarket services for ‘essential’ items. (Any of you who have been getting your jet skis and Marc Jacobs slingbacks delivered to Asda should feel thoroughly ashamed.) We can no longer go inside takeaways to collect food or drinks, but restaurants can use a hatch if they have one. Either that, or leave the front door open and lob customers their rogan joshes and count it as your daily exercise.
Worst of all, drinking alcohol in public has been banned, which we in Lanarkshire can only interpret as a direct attack on our culture. Mind you, anyone who can down a can of McEwan’s Export without taking their mask off deserves some kind of award.
In a development to file under ‘makes you proud to be British’, the First Minister announced a redrafting of the Covid legislation because some ingenious Scots had discovered a loophole.
She explained: ‘Right now, the law states that people can leave home only for an essential purpose. However, having left home for an essential purpose, someone could then stay out of their home to do something that is not essential without breaching the law as it stands.’
Heroes walk among us and we don’t even know it.
Like someone who has read the Book of Job back to front, the First Minister taketh away but never cometh round to giving. The opposition leaders lined up to berate her for the sluggish pace at which money promised to businesses and others was making its way out of the Scottish government’s coffers.
Ruth Davidson recounted: ‘The new funding that was announced this week is welcome. New funding was also welcome way back on December 9, when the government announced an extra £185 million in support for business and £55 million for sports clubs.
‘It was welcome in November, when the government announced the strategic framework business fund. It was welcome in late October, when the government announced a £30 million discretionary fund. Of all those funds, we have seen evidence of only £6 million reaching businesses.’
‘We will publish figures as the information comes through,’ Sturgeon replied. Or as Father Ted put it more imaginatively: ‘That money was just resting in my account.’
Davidson griped that ‘only seven of 30 business funds have launched’, but ministers are just really serious about social distancing. They’re keeping cash more than two metres away from anyone who needs it.
Richard Leonard took his turn to have a go, noting that ‘fewer than a third’ of applicants for the self-isolation support grant had been awarded the £500 payment. The First Minister’s response was one of those blandishments that sails over your head at first then causes a neck fracture when your head jerks back round to check if you heard her right.
‘Spending on the support grant is approaching the levels that we predicted,’ she assured Leonard, ‘which suggests that it is reaching the numbers of people that we thought it would.’
That’s not just marking your own sums. That’s writing 2 + 2 = £500 and giving yourself a gold star.