Alex Salmond inquiry: Don't let SNP's tinpot dictators use Covid to obscure this growing scandal – Brian Wilson
Two years is a long time in politics and events leading to Theresa May’s fall may need brushing down in the memory.
With the DUP voting against, she lost a vote on releasing legal advice about her Brexit deal. Two weeks later, MPs voted again – and found her government in contempt of Parliament by not complying with its instruction.
The advice was published the next day. Parliamentary authority had prevailed in a moment of political drama. That’s democracy in a serious Parliament.
There is nothing sacrosanct about legal advice. If ministers choose, they can release it. If Parliament instructs them, “can” is replaced by “must”. Only tinpot dictators would argue otherwise.
‘Tainted by apparent bias’
But, hang on. Who do I behold on the horizon? None other than Honest John Swinney, front man whenever his party needs cover. And Mr Swinney’s current task is to act as, well… that tinpot dictator.
Holyrood is not a place of radicalism or resistance. But, on that rare occasion when it dares decide something inconvenient, Honest John is instructed to decree it will count for nothing.
That says a lot about how Scotland is run and why power should not belong to a movement that claims to embody the nation while treating its Parliament as a servant which should not get above itself.
For all the obfuscation, the issue is straightforward. Ms Sturgeon's government launched an investigation into complaints against her predecessor, entrusting it to a civil servant who had prior contact with complainants.
When that emerged, the Scottish government’s expensive lawyers probably told them they hadn’t a leg to stand on, in the case for Judicial Review raised by Mr Salmond. Month after month, they persisted. Eventually, Lord Pentland inflicted maximum costs and described the Scottish government’s behaviour as “tainted by apparent bias”.
A world leader at secrecy
Holyrood set up a committee to investigate this fiasco and learn lessons. In January 2019, Ms Sturgeon told MSPs: “The inquiries will be able to request whatever material they want, and I undertake today that we will provide whatever material they request." Instead, she has acted as ringmaster in a circus of obstruction.
It is blindingly obvious the legal advice is required. It would eliminate the need for hours of prevarication and (in the case of the Lord Advocate) professional humiliation as he was obliged, in his ministerial role, to become party to concealment.
Thursday’s debate provided quality contributions. Labour’s Jackie Baillie declared: “The Scottish government likes to think of itself as a world leader, and indeed it is: a world leader at dissembling, obstruction and secrecy”.
The Greens’ Andy Wightman concluded: “There is only one party who stands in the way of releasing the legal advice and is defying the will of Parliament and the committee. His name is John Swinney.”
Covid providing cover
Donald Cameron, an advocate and Tory, took MSPs through principles of Scots Law and found: “It is absolutely clear from the ministerial code that the government can release the legal advice.” It takes something special – like natural justice – to inspire such consensus.
Let’s return to the Westminster drama of 2018. It was, of course, treated by broadcasters as a huge story. Endless coverage of the debate. Breathless interviews on St Stephen’s Green. But what do we get in Scotland?
How was the second defeat on an issue of real legal and political significance treated? BBC Scotland’s lead headline on its main bulletin, I kid not, was: “Nicola Sturgeon anguished over Christmas lock-down”. Fourteen minutes in, just before the shaggy dog item, they allowed a 22-second reference to the vote with no coverage of the debate.
This all fits the Sturgeon strategy – play it long, it's not cutting through as long as Covid tops the bill, and it will fade away in the New Year. Alongside that, what does the credibility of Scotland’s Parliament matter?
We now look forward to an appearance by the First Minister's husband, who runs the ruling party and has admitted to inciting others to pressurise the national police force in pursuit of a political objective. I wonder if that counts as a story in today’s Scotland?
A message from the Editor:
Thank you for reading this article. We're more reliant on your support than ever as the shift in consumer habits brought about by coronavirus impacts our advertisers.
If you haven't already, please consider supporting our trusted, fact-checked journalism by taking out a digital subscription.
Want to join the conversation? Please or to comment on this article.