SNP's attitude to the Alex Salmond and care home inquiries is reminiscent of Margaret Thatcher's behaviour – Richard Leonard

Imagine the sound and fury if a Westminster committee inquiry into controversy linked to a past Tory or Labour Prime Minister were to have its work brought to a sudden halt due to willful UK Government obstruction.

Monday, 5th October 2020, 4:45 pm
A committee of MSPs is attempting to look into the Scottish Government's handling of complaints made against Alex Salmond  (Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)
A committee of MSPs is attempting to look into the Scottish Government's handling of complaints made against Alex Salmond (Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

The SNP, as the third-largest party in the Commons, would rightly bring the house down over inappropriate interference in the constitutionally established scrutiny role of the committee system.

Motions of censure of any ministers, officials and party apparatchiks implicated would be swift and it's likely the Commons speaker would deliver a critical ruling about the frustration of proper due processes.

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Ministerial resignations or sackings could follow. Remember Amber Rudd’s forced departure as Home Secretary in 2018, after she admitted to “inadvertently misleading” Westminster’s Home Affairs Select Committee over immigration targets, against the backdrop at the Windrush scandal? So seriously is the work of Westminster’s select committee process taken that obstructing it from discharging its official function is taboo.

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Boris Johnson and his consiglieri Dominic Cummings have shamefully ripped up the rulebook on conduct in public office for the worse, with the latter being kept in place at the Tory leader’s behest after being caught red-handed flouting Covid lockdown rules. But woe betide any attempt by ministers who halt the work of a Select Committee by nobbling backbench MPs or seeking to stonewall inquiry evidence-gathering.

Next Sunday marks the 20th anniversary of the death of Donald Dewar whose greatest legacy is the Scottish Parliament. On the day the Scottish Parliament first met in 1999, he proclaimed: “This is about more than our politics and our laws. This is about who we are, how we carry ourselves.”

Yet, two decades on from what was universally accepted across the chamber as a founding principle of Scottish devolution, SNP ministers are now behaving in a way that is bringing it into disrepute.

The Scottish Government’s supremely arrogant conduct has precipitated a constitutional crisis in the making, by preventing a Holyrood committee from carrying out its most basic parliamentary duty of scrutinising the Executive.

For a parliamentary committee that was set up to look into the Scottish Government’s cack-handed investigation of complaints against Alex Salmond to be unable to proceed with its inquiry because of “obstruction” is a low point in devolution.

The depth of this crisis is striking given the government itself has admitted that the handling of complaints against the former First Minister was unlawful.

For the committee still to be made to wait for evidence from the government, Salmond and SNP chief executive Peter Murrell is breathtaking.

Small wonder then that committee convener Linda Fabiani, a senior SNP parliamentarian and a former minister, is moved to say that the work of MSPs has been "completely frustrated" by the lack of evidence handed over.

The consequence of the committee being unable to hold further evidence sessions, with Ms Fabiani saying the inquiry "simply cannot proceed at this stage" has meant part of Scotland’s parliamentary system is unable to function.

It amounts to a crisis for democracy and the parliament’s operation.

For an overweening Executive to be able to halt a parliamentary inquiry linked to the longest-serving First Minister is tantamount to a constitutional crisis.

Coming at the same time as the stalling of an inquiry into the transfer of Covid-infected patients into care homes, it clearly represents a culture of ministerial arrogance that has come to characterise a decade-plus of SNP rule.

To hold up the report for a month at a time, when the families of those who tragically died are desperate for answers, is another new low point.

There is a contempt for transparency, that SNP ministers have displayed time and time again during their 13 years in office.

From the word go, in 2007, Alex Salmond was never a fan of the Freedom of Information Act, with reasonable requests from journalists, opponents and campaigners routinely delayed and blocked.

Ministers were more than willing to go to court to frustrate the public’s right to know, with the attempt by ministers to hide the costings of the SNP’s shelved local income tax, a case in point in 2011.

Just over three years ago, senior journalists in Scotland were even moved to publicly rebuke the Scottish Government over its treatment of freedom of information requests.

In an open letter, they accused the government of failing to keep records of information that should be available.

Then in August last year, the Justice Secretary Humza Yousaf took the extraordinary step of going to court late at night in an attempt to thwart the publication of images by the Sunday Mail in the tragic case of Allan Marshall – who died after being held at Saughton prison and whose death was described “entirely preventable” by a Fatal Accident Inquiry. So here we had the Scottish Government seeking to block the publication of Scotland’s biggest selling Sunday newspaper in the dead of night.

The Scottish people voted overwhelmingly for devolution. After 18 years of a Tory Government that ran Scotland’s education, health, local government and much more, without a direct mandate, the people knew it was time for a real democratic advance.

The Thatcher and Major governments in the 1980s and early to mid-1990s routinely rode roughshod over the public’s right to know and swept scandals and abuses under the carpet.

The Scottish Goverment’s conduct over the Salmond and care homes inquiries shows no shame and is all-too reminiscent of the behaviour displayed by the Tory governments of the Thatcher and Major era.

An out-of-touch party in power for so long that it sees unchecked power as a divine right and is prepared to dismantle the cherished, devolution-era gain of transparency that we fought so hard to establish over 20 years ago. In the memory of Donald Dewar and in the name of the people, we will win that battle all over again.

Richard Leonard is Scottish Labour leader

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