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31 January 2024

We should feel sympathy for Nicola Sturgeon

There is an unpleasant witch-hunt element to the coverage and tone of the Covid Inquiry.

By Chris Deerin

The slickest and most successful politician of her generation met the sharpest blade of Scotland’s legal system today – an immovable object confronted by an unstoppable force. Nicola Sturgeon versus Jamie Dawson KC made for riveting viewing.

The performance of those appearing before the Covid Inquiry has been patchy, to put it charitably. First Minister Humza Yousaf seemed to retain a worryingly loose grip of detail and wilted in Dawson’s python-like grip. More than a few have been publicly embarrassed by the content of their WhatsApp messages.

Sturgeon is made of stronger stuff – of course she is. She stoutly and, it has to be said, often persuasively rebuffed challenges to her performance and that of her government during the pandemic. She robustly rejected the notion that there was anything dodgy about the now notorious deletion of her WhatsApp messages – she was merely following government practice, she insisted. Anyway, anything relevant to the inquiry’s remit would have first been transferred to the official record, and Lady Hallett would also get what she needed from cabinet minutes – there had been more than 100 meetings during the relevant period – and from Sturgeon’s daily public press conferences. So there.

The question of deleted messages has come to dominate the Scottish branch of the inquiry, and I’m not clear that this is an entirely healthy or desirable outcome. There is at least a danger that we are coming to view the politicians who led us through the pandemic as villainous and corrupt. We should resist this instinct. Exchanges that display the black humour among ministers, advisers and civil servants – the same is often found among doctors, police officers, and indeed lawyers and journalists – clearly risk being taken out of context, and sometimes deliberately so. As Sturgeon said, “because the public were going through unimaginable trauma… reading now light-hearted exchanges can be very difficult because it gives an impression that people weren’t taking the situation seriously.” At a time when the environment was “extremely sombre” and sometimes “very, very dark”, those involved used light-hearted exchanges “to try and get themselves through the day.” I find it hard not to sympathise with this.

And again, as Sturgeon pointed out, these were people working intolerable hours under the most intense pressure and at great speed – tackled about a WhatsApp exchange with chief of staff Liz Lloyd, in which the then FM described a decision she was having to take about pub and restaurant opening hours as “random”, she said it had been around 7am and she had hardly had any sleep. “I was in St Andrews House from very early in the morning to very late at night, almost every day for an extended period of time… for a period, seven days a week.” The pressure faced by leaders, the unprecedented nature and challenges of the Covid crisis, the lack of a playbook, is all worth bearing in mind, and demands a degree of perspective from us all.

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Perhaps the most arresting moment of the day came with the reduction of Sturgeon to tears – not an outcome many would have predicted. Dawson asked whether she had viewed Boris Johnson as the wrong PM for a crisis (she had described him in a message to Lloyd as “a fucking clown”). “Yes. I thought Boris Johnson was the wrong person to be prime minister, full stop.”

Then came the question that unzipped her. Had she been the right person to be first minister? A dam broke, and the tears fell. “I was the first minister when the pandemic struck and part of me wishes I hadn’t been,” she confessed. It was a raw human moment that was unworthy of the cynicism that some greeted it with on social media. She had wanted to be the best first minister she could be, she said – “It is for others to judge if I succeeded”.

There is plenty to take issue with about Sturgeon’s time in office. I’ve done so often enough in the New Statesman. That she made mistakes during the Covid crisis is beyond question – she admits as much – but then so did every other leader around the world, some far more egregiously. But there is a witch-hunt element to the coverage and tone of the inquiry which at times leaves me, at least, uncomfortable.

Better to focus on the material, evidenced flaws. That Sturgeon micro-managed throughout the crisis should hardly surprise anyone, given she micro-managed everything in government. It appears the inquiry is determined to prove that she should have shared decision-making more broadly or at least consulted more widely. Not for the first time in recent days, Dawson asked about the cabinet being used as little more than a “decision-ratifying body” for conclusions that had already been reached between Sturgeon and her advisers in private. 

The impression being given, or driven, is that ministers lived in fear of the waspish first ministerial tongue, and of a leader who simply bullied through her set intentions, who was granted too much autonomy, free of accountability or check. “I tried to lead from the front,” Sturgeon conceded. “I tried to shoulder my fair share – sometimes deliberately more than my fair share of the burden of decision making”.

She admitted that the failure to minute the meetings of the small “gold command” group that often met before cabinet was perhaps a mistake, or as she put it, “a learning point”. Her response to a WhatsApp exchange between clinical director Jason Leitch and Yousaf that she really wanted “none of us” involved in decision-making was explained through the point that she had actually wanted only people around the table who had something useful to add, rather than a “cast of thousands” who were only there because “they wanted to be in the room”. Nevertheless, Dawson wondered, “is there a theme developing that the Scottish government does not like light to be shined on discussions ahead of decisions being taken?”

The question of whether the nationalist administration saw Covid as an opportunity to advance the cause of Scottish independence can also be fairly put. It will at least have occurred to some SNP politicians. Again, Sturgeon was having none of it. “I don’t believe that conclusion would fairly be reached,” she said. “We were all trying our best in almost impossible circumstances. I didn’t see an opportunity in Covid. I saw a threat, a risk, a catastrophe. At times I felt overwhelmed by the scale of what we were dealing with. The idea that in those horrendous days and weeks I was thinking of a political opportunity – it wasn’t true.”

Later, emotions rose again, when Sturgeon was asked whether the “story of Covid in Scotland is the story of the hubris of Nicola Sturgeon?” Shakily, tearfully, she responded that she wished with “every fibre of my being that the decisions my government had been able to take could have reduced the number of people in Scotland who did lose someone to Covid. I am deeply sorry to each and every bereaved person and each and every person who suffered.”

Some will have seen in the day’s events an overmighty leader finally being made to answer the hard questions in public. That was certainly in part what occurred, and I’m not arguing that process isn’t vital. Sturgeon has more difficult times ahead, and again, will pay whatever price is due. But, my word, we seem determined to deny our politicians any claim to decency or humanity. I can’t help but struggle with that.

[See also: A Tory reckoning]

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