How the SNP’s avoidance of scrutiny is damaging Scottish democracy

In the absence of a strong opposition, there are precious few means of holding Nicola Sturgeon’s government to account.

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The healthiest democracies should be their own harshest critics. Intellectual and cultural self-confidence comes with a willingness to have your flaws and mistakes picked over, in public, in order to understand what went wrong and how to do better next time. 

Britain’s ferociously antagonistic politics often casts more heat than light on complex and controversial situations. The attempt by Boris Johnson’s leadership clique to nobble and control every institution going, from the cabinet to select committees to the replacement body for Public Health England, only adds to the sense that the Brits like to do their business in dark corners and by sleight of hand.

Holyrood was supposed to be different. It was created almost as a rebuke to the Westminster way of doing things: a chummy, horseshoe-shaped debating chamber; a voting system that would encourage coalition governments; the absence of a media lobby system. It would be more transparent and more collaborative, bringing a continental accent to its doings.

For the parliament’s first few terms, lip service was paid to this ideal. Labour and the Liberal Democrats governed together relatively harmoniously. When the SNP took over in 2007, an uncharacteristically humble Alex Salmond promised that his minority government would work with others to deliver its legislation – in fact, the SNP frequently relied on the Tories to pass laws.

But the weaknesses in this precarious democratic balance were always evident. Scotland is a small nation and the same faces continually pop up. Over decades of municipal control, Labour had packed Scotland’s institutions with sympathetic leaders. Over 13 years in government, the SNP has simply replaced them with allies of its own.

See also: Stephen Bush on why the Scottish government went wrong on exam results

Holyrood, lacking a second chamber, relies on a committee system that has repeatedly proved toothless and parti pris when it comes to scrutiny. The Scottish government, meanwhile, has shown a huge appetite for centralising power. In 2014, Cosla, the national association for Scotland's councils, stated: “Scotland is one of the most centralised countries in Europe.” Devolution has stopped in Edinburgh.

With the nationalists still so far ahead in the pollsa recent Panelbase survey found that support for independence is now 55 per cent compared to 45 per cent for the Union, neatly reversing the result of the 2014 referendum – the opposition parties lack the numbers, the profile and, frankly, the quality to properly hold the administration to account. With independence looming closer, there are precious few SNP backbenchers or committee chairs who are willing to defy the party line and display intellectual independence.

An example came this week as the inquiry into the Alex Salmond affair began at the Scottish parliament. Murdo Fraser, a Conservative MSP, asked witness Leslie Evans, Scotland’s chief civil servant, whether her female colleagues had been advised not to be alone in the company of Salmond. When Evans refused to comment, the committee convenor, the SNP MSP Linda Fabiani, ruled the matter out of bounds. When challenged by the Liberal Democrat Alex Cole-Hamilton, Fabiani insisted: “I have made my decision.”

The Scottish government has also faced criticism over its handling of the school exam results fiasco. John Swinney, the under-fire Education Secretary, has appointed the Stirling University professor Mark Priestley to conduct an investigation. Priestley had previously expressed support for the SNP and has been sympathetic to the government’s contentious education reforms.

Scotland is now in effect a one-party state and there seems little the SNP’s opponents can do to loosen its grip on the machinery of government. Nicola Sturgeon has proven herself an open and accountable leader in some areas – such as the daily press conferences throughout the Covid crisis – but in others has used her authority to avoid scrutiny. At the start of the health crisis, the Scottish parliament passed legislation that sharply extended the deadline for public bodies to respond to Freedom of Information requests. It all speaks to a disappointing philosophy of “transparency, but only on our terms”.

It is not good enough for a nation to rely on the goodwill and decency of its leaders for a guarantee of accountability. Scottish politics is under-interrogated and too easily manipulated to suit the ends of the powerful. With independence now the majority option among the electorate, this culture bodes ill for the creation of a healthy new democratic state.

See also: Chris Deerin on why Nicola Sturgeon's apology over the results fiasco isn't enough

Chris Deerin is the New Statesman's contributing editor (Scotland). 

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