The high stakes of Salmond vs. Sturgeon

Alex Salmond’s seven-year reign as first minister of Scotland was a regal affair. Chauffeur-driven cars ferried him to and from his preferred restaurants. Wine and champagne flowed during interviews and social meetings with journalists. Then, one morning in November 2014, it all vanished and power passed abruptly to his heir, Nicola Sturgeon.

Uneasy lies the head that no longer wears a crown and, in time, the old ruler reportedly came to resent what he saw as his exile from the court he built from scratch. Like an earlier Scottish monarch, Salmond became a king across the water, claiming the clandestine loyalty of those cold to the new regime and convinced it bore devious designs towards the former ruler.

The schism between the SNP’s first and second first ministers is a story of power, loyalty and revenge familiar to Scottish history. The present telling is nonetheless extraordinary for it involves a pair of potentates once thought inseparable and from a party famed for its unity. This is the split that never could happen.

Yet, years after their estrangement became public knowledge, Alex Salmond’s submission to the Hamilton inquiry on the ministerial code is still breathtaking in the severity of the charges it lays against Nicola Sturgeon.

James Hamilton, Ireland’s former director of public prosecutions, is investigating whether the first minister broke the rules when she met Salmond during the Scottish government’s probe into sexual harassment allegations against him.

The written statement Salmond has supplied not only asserts that his successor contravened the ministerial code and misled parliament, but questions her integrity with a vehemence few opposition politicians have ever managed.

Salmond’s declaration, which has also been lodged with the separate Holyrood inquiry into the Scottish government’s handling of harassment complaints against him, describes a crucial statement given by Sturgeon to that inquiry as ‘simply untrue’.

The document challenges Sturgeon’s assertion the now famous April 2 meeting at her private home was party business rather than a government matter.

Salmond says a March 29 rendezvous between his former chief of staff and Sturgeon ‘was “forgotten” about because acknowledging it would have rendered ridiculous the claim made by the first minister in parliament that it had been believed that the meeting on April 2 was on SNP party business’. He additionally alleges that Sturgeon broke the ministerial code by failing to inform civil servants immediately about these meetings. Sturgeon ‘entirely rejects’ Salmond’s version of events, her spokesman says.

Until now, the Holyrood and Hamilton inquiries have not intruded much on the public consciousness, in part because the row is so complex.

Salmond’s Hamilton submission, and his and Sturgeon’s forthcoming appearances before the Holyrood committee, could change all that. The first minister faces the most serious accusations yet levelled against that office. If they can be supported, the consequences for Sturgeon could be drastic, though Salmond’s assault on the current leadership might do more damage than any of the inquiries themselves.

One potential outcome is that either or both of the inquiries clears sturgeon and her government, in which case she would find it much easier to fend off her predecessor’s broadsides.

If the opposite outcome transpires, and either Linda Fabiani’s or James Hamilton’s review finds fault with the Scottish government, Salmond’s hand would be infinitely strengthened and Sturgeon’s position rendered precarious.

Even if any errors on Sturgeon’s part or procedural missteps on her government’s were determined to be inadvertent, some of Salmond’s enthusiasts would feel vindicated in their belief that he was the victim of a conspiracy.

Since inquiries like these sometimes fail to reach definitive conclusions, we should not rule out the possibility that either the Fabiani or Hamilton report turns out to be a fudge. The absence of a clear victim and villain may be the worst eventuality of all for the first minister, as it would allow her to continue in post but with enough of a stench in the air to keep her opponents’ noses twitching.

She would cling on, but sufficient doubt would have been created to permit opponents within and without her party to chip away at her reputation as a leader and as someone above the skulduggery of politics.

Another possibility is that perception rather than process is what could do for the first minister.

The break is regarded as a rift of personalities but there is something more fundamental about their divergence. Sturgeon has taken support for the SNP and independence to levels unimaginable years ago. Yet, she has brought Scotland’s exit from the UK not a single inch forward.

If anything, Brexit and the Internal Market Bill have actually set it back. Salmondites are convinced the independence movement would be in a very different position under his leadership. Sturgeonistas might protest that she cannot do much against a government with an 80-seat majority, but that majority is only a year old. For 30 months, between the 2017 and 2019 elections, the UK endured its gravest period of political instability in modern peacetime.

It was far more perilous than Suez, Profumo or the abdication, scandals of foreign policy, ministerial judgment and constitutional fortitude, because it implicated all three of these themes while rendering Parliament too dysfunctional to address any of them.

This is the opportunity Sturgeon missed: A minority Tory government, with a dwindling MP tally, divided by its attempts to leave the UK, paralysed by its failure to do so, at odds with Scotland’s 62 per cent Remain vote, and up against a Labour leader routinely making sympathetic noises about independence. No SNP leader has ever been handed such a favourable alignment of the stars.

Salmond may not be as smooth and shiny but he is cannier than Sturgeon, and made of sterner stuff. She irritates Downing Street; he scared them. She wants to be the Jacinda Ardern of Scotland; he wanted to be the first minister of an independent Scotland. She blew it; he wouldn’t have.

At least, that is the frame Salmondites want to impose on Sturgeon’s tenure. In some ways, that frame is a greater threat to the first minister than any inquiry. An adverse finding from the committee or from James Hamilton could be toughed out if Sturgeon convinced the Cabinet that her resignation would split the party and forfeit the dream of independence.

The perception that the dream has already slipped their grasp, and Sturgeon let it go, would not be so easily shaken off. The incentive to rally round her would be gone. Tribal loyalty no longer owed to a leader who betrayed the tribe. Pretenders to the throne would circle.

It is too early to say with certainty what lies ahead for the first minister. She has wriggled her way out of trouble in the past and she retains the confidence of a stout majority of voters. The public sees someone it trusts.

Alex Salmond is unlikely to change the public’s view of the woman he made first minister, but he may have the power to taint her standing inside a party that would be in the wilderness without him.

Salmond made the SNP and now he is tugging on fraying ties of devotion to ask a party that loves him and follows Sturgeon to believe him and disbelieve her. The decision they make may have far more bearing on Nicola Sturgeon’s future than the deliberations of those tasked with examining her conduct.

On the face of it, SNP members are being asked to take sides between an old wearer of the crown and a new one. In truth, they are being asked to decide the fate of the crown itself – its integrity, its endurance and its ultimate purpose. On the hinge of their decision, the future of government in Scotland hangs.

Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Letters:

Jogging towards a jab

MSPs were back from recess yesterday, albeit temporarily, to hear a statement from Nicola Sturgeon. As was evident from the glum countenances that hung like strung-up haddocks across Holyrood’s benches, this was not going to be good news.

Covid-19 was out of control again. The virus was not only running wild, it had gone professional. That was the best way to think about our situation, the First Minister said: like a race. ‘In one lane we have vaccines,’ she explained, ‘and our job is to ensure that they run as fast as possible… In the other lane is the virus, which – as a result of this new variant – has just learned to run much faster and has most definitely picked up pace in the past couple of weeks.’

So that the vaccine can win the race, Sturgeon continued, ‘we must also slow the virus down’. I fear the First Minister has misunderstood the rules of competitive sprinting. You can’t win a race by hobbling your opponent. In fact, I gather they somewhat frown upon it. She’s lucky the International Olympic Committee doesn’t regulate sporting metaphors.

The upshot was that Scotland was going into an even more stringent lockdown. We were told to stay home, got caught shimmying down the drainpipe and now we’re in for a month and no Xbox. Sturgeon characterised this as ‘an enhancement to level four’, which made it sound like a loft conversion, but this would be something even more unpleasant than home renovations.

It was, in effect, a shutdown. It was not safe to leave our homes and we would have to work from them where possible. We were instructed to stay indoors except for socially distanced exercise, healthcare and stocking up on essential supplies. Anyone breaking the rules would have to answer to the law. It sounds bleak, but throw in John Wayne, some cattle rustlers and a bar fight and you’ve got yourself a Western.

Schools were to remain closed through to February, a blow for teaching unions who will now have to come up with some other basic remit of the job that it is an outrage to expect their members to do. Sturgeon got something wrong in announcing this, when she said that ‘the last places that we ever want to close are schools and nurseries’.

Although keeping children away from classrooms is grievous, the last places government should want to close are places of worship, which Sturgeon also enjoined to bolt their doors yesterday.

We have become inured to the broad and sweeping powers ministers have taken for themselves during the pandemic but, regardless of our personal views on matters spiritual, we should be most anxious about the authority to shut down churches and other sacred places.

Still, it’s reassuring to know that, even in these most trying of times, Holyrood’s traditions endure and what nobler tradition than that of shameless toadying?

Clare Adamson appeared via video to declare: ‘The First Minister explained in her statement that schools are not closing but are moving to a different way of working.’

Mrs Thatcher should have tried that one on the miners. ‘The pits aren’t closing; they’re just relocating to the local DHSS office.’

Holyrood is seldom recalled from recess and yesterday marked only the fifth time it had happened. There is a superstition that summoning parliament back from its holidays in a time of national emergency makes things better, as though the rest of the year hadn’t thoroughly debunked that theory.

Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Letters:

Bumps ahead on Sturgeon’s road to victory

This is a grand time of year for traditions. The cards, carols and bauble-festooned trees of Christmas. The New Year triptych of over-indulgence, regret and resolutions. In the world of Scottish politics, there is a more recent tradition but one with every chance for a long life. Each year around this time, half in hope and half in despair, Unionists ask: Is this the year the SNP will finally come a cropper? Each year, the answer is the same, as predictable as Christmas night heartburn and stubborn as a Ne’er Day hangover. 

Scots go to the ballot box again in May and a thwocking great victory is on the cards for the SNP. In the final opinion poll of 2020, Nicola Sturgeon’s party recorded a 35-point lead over the Scottish Conservatives. The last time an incumbent UK government enjoyed a poll lead like that was New Labour in 1997 — one month after Tony Blair became Prime Minister. 

The extraordinary and enduring popularity of the SNP makes electoral triumph all but guaranteed. However, it does not translate readily into political or policy triumph. In fact, 2021 has the potential to be the SNP’s most difficult year since it came to government. 

The primary challenge will be managing the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. Despite a mediocre record, the First Minister has spun herself a reputation for competency and effectiveness wholly unsupported by the facts. What comes next will require tangible leadership, the kind that cannot be confected down a TV camera. Sturgeon’s government will be responsible for rolling out the Pfizer-BioNTech and Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccines and clearing all the inevitable logistical hurdles. 

Once the vaccine has been administered, it will be for Sturgeon to begin the transition out of lockdown. There will be big questions and big calls. When will the Scottish government surrender its pandemic powers, and will it try to cling on to some of them? When will a public inquiry be held and will there be a separate review into what happened in care homes? What legal liability might ministers face if their decision-making is found wanting?

These matters alone would be enough to dominate an entire parliamentary term; however, they will vie for attention with the Alex Salmond inquiry. It is clear from the evidence heard so far that inconsistencies exist between the version of events presented by Sturgeon and that told to the committee by her husband and SNP chief executive Peter Murrell.

Given Salmond’s evident sense of injustice, and determination to shine a spotlight on those he blames, it is likely that matters will only get more personal and, for Sturgeon, more politically perilous.

There is no good outcome to the inquiry for her. If it concludes in her government’s favour, it will be branded a whitewash. If it is found that St Andrew’s house acted improperly, Salmond would appear vindicated. A reckoning would be unavoidable and it could even cost Sturgeon her job.

Perhaps the worst outcome for her is the likeliest: a muddled conclusion with some blame assigned here and some exoneration delivered there. Even if it was the truth, such a mixed appraisal would leave no one satisfied, wounding Sturgeon but leaving her in situ, convincing Nationalist critics that she still has a case to answer and embittering her allies further towards the other wing of the party.

Whatever decision the inquiry reaches, 2021 is likely to see yet more deteriorations in party discipline. The more intra-party rivalries spill into the open, the more others are encouraged to remonstrate with factional opposites.

At the centre of much of this disquiet, consciously or otherwise, is the I-word. Independence is the only reason the SNP exists and yet, despite being in control of one of the most powerful sub-national governments anywhere in the world, uncatchable in the opinion polls, and with a majority of Scots now in favour of a breakaway, it is acutely frustrating for true-believers that their dream seems no closer than it was during the 2014 referendum. 

Ever since losing that vote, Sturgeon has held her troops in line by promising next year in Jerusalem. The party had to keep its head down in 2015 for the general election, in 2016 for the Holyrood and EU votes, and in 2017 for another general election. In 2018 and 2019, the apparent disintegration of the UK political system convinced the rank and file that independence was within reach.

The past year has been harder for them, with a Tory majority, a hard Brexit and a pandemic reducing opportunities for pro-separation marches and meet-ups. They were denied the ability to organise at the very point when it could have done the most good. Mass rallies on the streets of Glasgow and Edinburgh might have spooked Westminster but, as the party of government in Scotland, the SNP could not be seen to endorse such gatherings. 

The coming year will see these frustrations vented. The stressor will be the devolved election. Assuming the SNP wins an outright majority at Holyrood, Sturgeon will be under pressure to demand another referendum. If the Prime Minister refuses, it will represent breaking point for some, a blunt moment of realisation that the Sturgeon approach has reached its end point and a fresh, more assertive campaign is required. 

There is a growing clamour for a judicial route to a second referendum or for a consultative vote to assert moral authority over the UK Government. Others still are tempted by a wildcat plebiscite or even a Rhodesian-style unilateral declaration of independence. With every passing day, change becomes all the more unavoidable: either Sturgeon leads her troops into the battle they long for or her troops find themselves another general. 

Then there is the small matter of the governance of Scotland, a process devolution was supposed to improve but which it has largely sidelined in favour of arid constitutionalism and grand strategy. Devolved portfolios such as education and health and partly devolved issues like drug rehabilitation had already suffered for being insufficiently sexy compared to independence, but nine months of a pandemic has driven them even further down the agenda, with grievous results. 

The next 12 months will test Nicola Sturgeon and her government but they will also run the rule over the opposition. Given the SNP’s lacklustre record across 14 years, how can the party be 35 points ahead in the polls? 

Yes, Scotland is a dominant party system and tends to go through long bouts of single-party hegemony. Yes, there is a pro-independence vote that is, for now, locked in for the SNP. But these factors alone do not account for the opposition’s inability to land a glove on a dull and leaden administration. 

Unionists are seldom happier than when decrying the hated Nationalists and their many outrages. Introspection is a less pleasing task and so it is largely avoided these days among opponents of independence. They would rather pretend the polls showing Scotland is a pro-independence country are biased or rigged or tell themselves that their countrymen and women are simple or brainwashed. How uncannily like the impervious Nationalists of 2014 the impervious Unionists of 2021 sound. 

Challenges lie ahead for the SNP but the biggest challenge of all for its opponents will be facing up to reality. Scotland looks at a failing and unambitious government, on the one hand, and Douglas Ross, Richard Leonard and Willie Rennie, on the other, and scarcely hesitates before choosing the former. The damage nationalism has done to Scotland is the fault of nationalists. The failure to stop them is the fault of Unionists. 

The SNP will get another five years and it will govern in much the same way as the last 14. Headlines first, results to be announced. Prosperity talked up, businesses held back. Bold on trivial identity politics and culture wars, timid on anything truly transformative. A government that always grabs the Saltire but never the thistle.  

Governments this bad never do it alone. They are aided by the quiet collusion of lazy, weak, uninspiring opposition. The SNP has let Scotland down, but they are not the only ones. 

Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Letters:

Rhetoric: Nigel Farage, Volume: Foghorn Leghorn

The antidote to support for independence is five minutes spent watching the proceedings of the Scottish parliament. Holyrood was summoned back from its holidays yesterday so the First Minister could harrumph about the Brexit deal.

Most folk would prefer to be in their jammies nursing half-empty tins of Quality Street while flicking through 300 channels and finding Home Alone on each one.

But our MSPs had gone without their soapbox for a week and were glad of the excuse to climb back on it. Some even seemed eager, like greenybopper Ross Greer, although he was Zoomed in from his room, either because of travel restrictions or because he’s been grounded.

The proceedings were pure theatre, since the Prime Minister had the votes at Westminster to approve the deal. Indeed, MPs gave it the green light before MSPs had even finished debating it. It’s a sad business when a glorified talking shop can’t even get the talking part right.

That wasn’t a problem for Nicola Sturgeon, who combined the rhetoric of Nigel Farage with the tonal pitch of Foghorn Leghorn. You know when the First Minister’s anger is confected because she confuses volume with sincerity. She accused the Tories of ‘desperate, diversionary nonsense’ and inveighed against ‘the UK Government’s utter contempt for Scotland and her people’.

Nicola Farage declared that the deal would pass no matter what ‘because that is what the Westminster establishment has decided’, before turning on Jackson Carlaw – who had uttered not a word – and spitting: ‘I can only assume that his ermine cloak is in the post.’

As if Jackson Carlaw has ever worn anything that came out of a Royal Mail parcel. When his elevation comes, he’ll expect Jermyn Street to be air-lifted to the grounds of Whitecraigs Golf Club.

Besides, while I’m all for peerage-bashing, the woman who inherited the SNP crown from her predecessor without a single vote being cast by party members might not be the best person to deliver lectures on patronage and unearned privilege.

Ruth Davidson, whose heart isn’t in anything to do with Brexit, nonetheless managed a spirited counter-offensive. She began by declaring that the vote was ‘not about EU membership’ since the UK had ‘already left and there’s no going back’. The ‘only options on the table’ were deal or no deal, and ‘if you vote against the first one, you’re inescapably voting for the second one’.

‘All but the very dimmest, blindest SNP loyalists can see that,’ Davidson said.

Except, she didn’t say it. She was relaying the remarks of nationalist blogger Wings over Scotland. ‘I am not sure which of us will be more surprised,’ she quipped. It was just as jarring to watch, even for the season of peace and good will. Every time Ruth quotes Wings, an angel pours himself a stiff drink.

Davidson then ran through a highlights reel of Sturgeon’s flip-flops on no-deal Brexit. When the First Minister tried to intervene, the Tory brusquely waved her away. ‘I will wait until I have finished reading out quotations from this Nicola Sturgeon before I hear from that Nicola Sturgeon.’

She was having a rare old time, even pausing out of the blue to lay into Scottish Labour (a ‘feckless and useless SNP tribute act’). Defending the Brexit deal’s impact on fisheries, she demanded of Sturgeon: ‘Why do you hate Arbroath smokies?’

£414 million it cost to build this place. Speaking of which, the voting system was hit by boo-boos again, failing to register the votes of Fiona Hyslop, Aileen Campbell and Jenny Marra.

That was followed by another Covid-19 statement, with the First Minister threatening ‘even tighter’ restrictions. Any tighter and they’ll be locking us in the lobby press with a bottle of Dettol. Sturgeon added: ‘We must mark this New Year responsibly and in line with the restrictions in place.’

That’s definitely how a normal person talks about cancelling Hogmanay. Nothing weirdly robotic and unfeeling about it whatsoever.

The First Minister drove home the message, warning us: ‘No gatherings, no parties, no first footing.’ I doubt she was in danger of being invited to many in the first place.

Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Letters:

Clinging on to hope in a Covid Christmas

Just when it seemed 2020 had done its worst, our annus miserabilis delivers one more wretched surprise. Christmas is cancelled. Nicola Sturgeon has cut our five-day festive grace period down to one and barely will we have our sprouts digested than all of mainland Scotland will be placed on level-four lockdown.

No indoor gatherings, pubs and restaurants closed, shops restricted to essential goods, church services and weddings limited to 20 people. These measures will remain in place for three weeks, or so we are told. 

Meanwhile, Boris Johnson has put London and south-east England on the toughest measures yet and limited any relaxation to December 25. It’s beginning to look absolutely nothing like Christmas. 

Sturgeon also got her border closure in the form of a travel ban between Scotland and the rest of the UK. Whatever the merits of this measure in the fight against coronavirus, it will come back to haunt the UK Government in a future debate on independence. When Whitehall ministers ask if the Scottish Government is capable of running a border and regulating the flow of travellers across it, it will be able to point to this as on-the-job experience. 

That is not to say the restrictions, punishing though they are, are without justification. The First Minister and Prime Minister cite as their rationale the new variant of Sars-CoV-2, a strain first detected in September and believed to be up to 70 per cent more transmittable.

Experts are hopeful that this mutation won’t prove resistant to the vaccines already green-lit but we can’t be certain yet. We can imagine, too, the kind of scenarios that will have been put in front of political leaders to model the potential spike in case numbers and deaths if they failed to act. 

Had we access to the same information, even those of us bitterly disappointed at having Christmas snatched away may have come to the same conclusion: better safe than sorry. If you compiled a list of Nicola Sturgeon’s most dogged critics, I imagine I would be on it, but I wouldn’t want her job right now and am not without admiration for her ability to weather its strains.  

Even so, I could do without her interior monologues. When she introduced the latest restrictions with the words, ‘Standing here saying this actually makes me want to cry’, it didn’t make my heart bleed, it made my eyes roll. She’s the First Minister addressing the country in the middle of a pandemic. This is not the time to be testing lines her advisers think will play well with the electorate come next May. Boris Johnson is sometimes criticised for being aloof but a stiff upper lip would recommend itself to everyone required to address the public in these times. 

People are scared and frustrated; they have lost loved ones, jobs and businesses. They need to hear that things are going to get better soon. With a vaccine in our possession, ready to be rolled out across the country, the worst message to send is one of despair. There will be more than enough of that to come once we have the pandemic under control.

That is when we will have to rebuild a shattered economy, pay the price for the job retention scheme and confront the physical and mental health repercussions of keeping people indoors for months on end. One year of misery cannot pass into another; there has to be joy at finding a vaccine for Covid and hope for a cure to the economic side effects. 

Unfortunately, those side effects will be accentuated by the decision to cancel Christmas and lock down thereafter. For one, it means no Boxing Day trips to the high street and no January sales. This would be difficult for shops at the best of times but after a year of sustained losses, it will be nothing short of devastating. Retailers, like the rest of us, have done their best to follow the rules in the hope their efforts would pay off. Instead, a lot of shutters that will now go down will not come back up again. 

Businesses have been one of the forgotten victims of this pandemic. They are not particularly sympathetic to those who have never run one, but small firms represent decades of hard work and sacrifice and their closure is felt far beyond the owner’s pocket.

The family-owned shop put out of business puts staff out of work, leaves customers with longer treks for their messages, and deprives the local community of one of its pillars. Small business owners are model soldiers in the ‘little platoons’ that Edmund Burke called ‘the first link in the series by which we proceed towards a love to our country and to mankind’. We don’t typically think about them in such romantic terms because in this country we romanticise almost everything except enterprise. 

While ministers may have had little choice but to take the country into the most stringent restrictions, it is another lockdown in which businesses were kept in the dark until the last possible moment. For a restaurant or cafe to learn with one week’s notice that it will be shutting up for at least three weeks is akin to the rest of us being told we are entering level four within the hour.

Produce orders will have to be cancelled, food already in the kitchen will go to waste, and the bad news broken to casual workers hired for Christmas shifts. These people are already up against it. They are not asking for special treatment or to remain open, the risk to public health be damned. They just want clarity so they know where they stand. If ministers have to take us into any further lockdowns, businesses must not be left in the lurch like this again. 

Right now, it is hard to be optimistic about the future. It seems like the only thing worse than this pandemic will be coming out of it. But while difficult days lie ahead, we should not let our hearts be troubled, least of all at this time of year. Whatever you believe or even if you don’t believe, Christmas can be a time of great hope and renewal.

We have already had a miracle in the arrival of a vaccine many said would not come so soon and within a few weeks we will begin to benefit from it. We will be back in control of our lives, all the stronger for what we have gone through, and ready to pull together and get our country back on its feet. 

What comes next will not be easy. It will take time, effort and patience, but there can be no doubt we are equal to the task. If we can survive 2020, we can do anything. 


You don’t have to agree with Andy Wightman’s politics to admire his principles. The Scottish Green MSP quit the party on Friday, citing its ‘intolerance’ towards anyone questioning the impact of trans rights on the rights of women. 

Over the years, the Greens haven’t done much practical for the environment, but they have been a very effective receptacle for the votes of the guilty middle classes, self-loathing and self-righteous in equal measure.

Under Patrick Harvie’s reign, the party has narrowed its focus to the constitution and identity politics, becoming little more than a faction of the SNP and prioritising divisive culture wars over economic and ecological justice. The Scottish Greens are for every ‘ism’ but environmentalism. 

Wherever you stand on the political spectrum, it’s obvious there is a place for a principled party of the Left in Scotland. A party that brings people together to create a fairer and greener country rather than strutting and posing but changing nothing. That party may have just found its leader.


Teaching union NASUWT sensibly urges that pupils be tested for Covid-19 when schools return. Less sensibly, it wants to see that return delayed for staff and pupils in favour of distance learning in certain areas. ‘Teachers call for mass testing in schools,’ ran the BBC headline. I’d settle for mass teaching in schools.

Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Letters:

Scotland’s untouchable ruling class

It was the faintest crease, there and gone again. As SNP chief executive Peter Murrell gave evidence to the Alex Salmond inquiry, a hairline fracture of contempt cleaved across his mouth. Some committee members found his statements inconsistent, others incredible, and they said so, but Murrell was cool, unfazed, in control.

Nicola Sturgeon was just as businesslike two days later at First Minister’s Questions. When Ruth Davidson raised the matter, Sturgeon rejoindered: ‘I do not gossip about those things, even to my husband. I am the First Minister of the country, not the office gossip.’

As though the issues in question were watercooler scuttlebutt or a rumour about the annual Christmas party.

The SNP leader then insinuated that the Scottish Conservatives’ Holyrood leader was getting personal. ‘I understand why Ruth Davidson wants to drag my husband into these matters but the fact is that he had no role,’ she told MSPs. Suddenly, it was not the couple running the country from their breakfast table at fault, but those suggesting this might not be democratically healthy.

On paper, last week should have been exacting for the Sturgeon-Murrell enterprise. Scotland’s cloistered co-ruler dragged into the light to answer questions and his spouse interrogated on the tenor of his answers. In reality, never were two people more poised or self-assured. When the powerful do not fear mechanisms of accountability, there is either something wrong with the powerful or with the mechanisms.

Sturgeon and Murrell’s rise to power is a story of failed mechanisms and faulty institutions. Scotland goes through long periods as a dominant-party system. As the dominant party tightens its governing monopoly, the less chance there is of it being defeated and the less need for it to listen to opposing views. It grows complacent, arrogant and the democratic muscles atrophy. In the 19th century it was the Liberals; in the 20th century, Scottish Labour; today, it is the SNP.

The difference now is that there is a devolved legislature in Edinburgh. This ought to disrupt single-party dominance thanks to a more proportional voting system and an end to the narrative of Scotland done down by England. Public attention should have shifted from the constitutional question to matters of tax, spending and policy choices. The practice of devolution has been very different from the theory.

Sturgeon wields so much power because the parliament wields so little. It is an anaemic institution, with whips dictating committee convenorships and an inquiry into the Scottish Government brought to a halt whenever it elects not to co-operate. Even with an ill-structured parliament like Holyrood, MSPs should be able to see off attempts at executive overreach, but they rarely do because of a dysfunctional political culture.

Nationalist MSPs do not behave as a parliamentary party but rather a bloc vote directed by the leader’s office. Cross-party co-operation is plentiful on low-level issues but when ministers make up their minds, it is highly unlikely any of their backbenchers will defy them. Whip-breaking is vanishingly uncommon.

The consequences are more than philosophical. The UK Government was paralysed for two years after falling into minority status; the SNP, in the minority since 2016, governs as though it held a majority. Because the executive is strong, committees weak and backbenchers compliant, bad laws stand a greater chance of making it onto the books.

Accountability becomes nigh on impossible in such circumstances. The Salmond hearings show this. An inquiry into how the SNP leader’s government investigated complaints against her predecessor is chaired by an Nationalist MSP and former ministerial colleague of both. Linda Fabiani is a solid deputy presiding officer but hardly known for a lively streak of independence from her own party.

She has spoken out against obstruction of her committee but withholding of documents, ministerial memory lapses and refusals of witness requests are a testament to what the SNP thinks of an inquiry chaired by one of its own.

Other checks and balances that are absent from Scottish politics are a strong opposition, adversarial broadcasters and an independent civil society.

Of the four opposition parties at Holyrood, three are hopelessly divided and a fourth sees its job as propping up the government rather than putting it under pressure. BBC Scotland, which sustained years of malicious allegations from nationalists, does not interrogate the Scottish government with a skerrick of the robust cynicism that its London counterparts do the UK Government. Meanwhile, third-sector bodies have been captured by nationalist ideology.

This is what it looks like when your country is run by untouchables. Untouchables are not always created by shoddy political infrastructure but it always helps their rise to the top.

The reason for checks and balances is to protect democracy from itself. It cannot be enough that a party has a majority; its actions must be regulated to serve a larger idea of democracy. Checks and balances are like police who direct drivers when traffic lights fail. That permanently green light might tell oncoming vehicles they have right-of-way but there has to be a mechanism to stop them abusing their advantage.

Why are Nicola Sturgeon and Peter Murrell so confident? Because this inquiry’s findings may come and go, but they will most likely remain. In a dominant-party system, whoever dominates the party dominates entirely.

Maybe you think, per the Prime Minister, devolution is a ‘disaster’. Perhaps you reckon it is what Scotland needs. You may even believe in independence. No matter where you sit on the political or constitutional spectrum, you have an interest in making the system work better than this. Government by untouchables is what got us where we are today.


Scotland’s chattering classes do so like to chatter and lately they’ve been chattering about little else besides Brexit. It’s going to lead to independence, don’t you know? Nationalists gloat about it. Devolutionists rail against the Tories for not heeding their warnings. Even some Unionists wring their hands and imagine the worst. 

Their analysis may be right. I still think Brexit a terrible idea but democracy a marginally better one. The UK voted to leave and so we have left. 

Boris Johnson’s government has played fast and loose with the Union and deserves all the criticism it gets. But I have three questions for the chatterers:

1) How terrible an idea is independence that its main selling point is not being another terrible idea?

2) How devoid of ideas are devolutionists that they have failed to present an appealing alternative to these two ideas?

3) Do Unionists have a convincing case for the Union, and are they planning to make it any time soon?


A Tory in an industry of luvvies, Barbara Windsor, who died last week, sometimes had to mind her political Ps and Qs. Promoting a play with Vanessa Redgrave in 1972, Windsor admitted: ‘I’ve always voted Conservative… Of course, we all know Vanessa’s a raving socialist, but she’s a lovely girl, so you just don’t mention Edward Heath in her company.’

Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Letters:

‘I am the First Minister, not the office gossip’

The stench grows thicker around the SNP hierarchy. A distinct odour of something-isn’t-right-here. Peter Murrell, party chief executive and spouse of Nicola Sturgeon, appeared before Holyrood’s Alex Salmond inquiry on Tuesday. His evidence had more holes than Turnberry and there are already calls for him to be hauled back.

But when the Scottish Tory leader turned to the matter at First Minister’s Questions, wounded indignation was the tactic of the hour.

‘Ruth Davidson might want to attack my husband and use him as a weapon against me,’ Nicola Sturgeon sniffed.

Davidson had made no mention of Sturgeon’s relationship to Murrell, yet suddenly he was no longer a party official but the First Minister’s beloved and querying his inconsistent statements before a parliamentary inquiry a low-blow swipe at an opponent’s family.

No doubt one of Sturgeon’s clever advisers thought this was a powerful line that would cut through on a human level. Except, normal people don’t deploy their marriage as a tactical deflection against hard questions. For a first minister who already has a weirdness problem, it was a very weird thing to do.

Davidson is made of sterner stuff and didn’t flinch: ‘I am asking about that because a group of women who came forward were utterly let down by the First Minister’s government… If the First Minister does not want to answer for the consequences of her government’s actions, shame on her.’

The last three words stung, as they were meant to. Sturgeon protested: ‘I care about the implications for the women who came forward with complaints and for any women who feel the need to come forward with complaints in the future.’

Davidson got rough. ‘Nicola Sturgeon seems to think that all our heads button up the back,’ she hissed. We were asked to believe, she said, that the SNP’s chief executive ‘popped his head round the door’ to see Salmond, Sturgeon, their chiefs of staff and Salmond’s lawyer ‘all sitting unannounced in his living room’ but had ‘never asked a single question, then or since, about what that was all about’.

It was all true, Sturgeon maintained. ‘I do not gossip about those things, even to my husband,’ she insisted. ‘I am the First Minister of the country, not the office gossip.’ This from the ruthless political operator who revealed details of a phone conversation with Kezia Dugdale during a TV debate. Methinks the lady doth have an absolute brass neck.

Then she returned to her opening salvo. ‘I understand why Ruth Davidson wants to drag my husband into these matters but the fact is that he had no role,’ she whimpered, as though she was the politician of the family and Peter did three days a week in Primark.

Her every effort to mask the bad smell lingering around her government and her party only makes the whiff grow stronger.

Problems abound elsewhere, including at BiFab, which Sturgeon was meant to have saved in 2017, as Willie Rennie reminded her: ‘The First Minister boasted to the workers that she had saved their jobs, but she will not, I suspect, be back to hand out their P45s.’ Rennie presents as a loveable Lib Dem who just wants to give the world a big hug. Sometimes, though, his arms are lined with barbed wire. He pleaded with her not to announce another working group: ‘If the SNP’s working groups created work, we would have full employment by now.’

You’ll never guess who was to blame: ‘There are issues around the renewables supply chain that involve us getting people round the table, not least, with the UK government, which still holds so many of the powers.’

If Sturgeon was a game show host — and the way things are going at BBC Scotland, I wouldn’t rule it out — it’d be called The Blame Game and contestants would have to guess who was at fault for every Scottish Government bungle. There’d be no need for 50:50 and Phone A Friend would just be a direct line to the House of Commons switchboard.

Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Letters:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘I’m in Level 4,’ he riposted.

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

‘If I’m a lucky boy.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘It is in black and white.’

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

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

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

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

From Murrell, only an icy, blank stare.

Power is unaccustomed to hard questions.

Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Letters:

The coming coup against Nicola Sturgeon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Letters:

Queen Nicola

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Letters: