The Alex Salmond affair has shown Scotland at its worst

Rather than shedding light on devolution’s darkest chapter, the Holyrood inquiry has done the opposite.

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The Salmond affair has shown Scotland at its worst: a furtive, nervous, ankle-biter of a nation with an over-mighty government and an ineffective legislature, a kailyard of compromised relationships and countless minor corruptions. The episode has exposed a wider network that enables sharp practice, lacks integrity and is howlingly unfit for purpose.

Pity the electorate, not the elected. The voters have been led to believe in their own moral superiority: for years they have been told that their country operates from giddy ethical heights, certainly when compared to the hey-nonny-nonsense and grift that passes for politics to the south. Now the tide has gone out, it appears our own shrivelled rulers have been swimming every bit as naked as the rest.

Even after months of farce, the past few days have been excruciating. Alex Salmond was due to appear on Wednesday (24 February) before MSPs, after the parliamentary authorities, following weeks of wrangling, finally agreed to publish his written evidence. Having released the evidence, Holyrood’s governing Corporate Body then withdrew it under legal advice and republished it later with key passages redacted. Once again, Salmond cancelled his appearance. He may or may not show up on 26 February instead.

[See also: Will Alex Salmond’s rage be the downfall of Nicola Sturgeon?

This is entirely of a piece with a process that has from the beginning been shambolic, cynically proscribed and that would have been dismissed as outlandish had it come from the pen of Antony Jay. A procedure that should have been focused, forensic and proudly and impartially legalistic has instead descended into chaos. The women who made the initial complaints of sexual assault against Salmond charges of which Salmond was cleared in court  have been treated like pawns in an interminable chess match.

It is looking ever less likely that the inquiry into the way Nicola Sturgeon’s government handled those complaints will produce anything worth having. Its task should have been clear, if not simple: to establish what happened and why. Instead the committee members will rant and rage, and in their final report will likely condemn institutional lethargy and obstruction, but ranting and raging will be all they can do. Rather than shedding light on what has undoubtedly been devolution’s darkest chapter and reassuring the electorate that their country values moral rectitude, the inquiry has instead done the opposite. The Salmond scandal will continue to simmer, its participants compromised and voters left with an acrid taste in their mouths.

You don’t have to be a Tory or a Unionist to have some sympathy with Murdo Fraser, a Conservative member of the Holyrood inquiry, who wrote this week that he is “heartily sick of the whole affair”.

“I am sick of the lies, the evasion, the deceit, the obstruction and the obfuscation,” he wrote. “I am sick of senior civil servants, on enormous salaries and gold-plated pensions, unable to give straight answers to questions, and having to write to the committee subsequently to correct evidence given. I am sick of the falsehoods and contradictions we heard from Peter Murrell [the SNP chief executive and Sturgeon’s husband] when he gave evidence three weeks ago.

“I am sick of the way in which the female complainants at the heart of this process have been let down by the Scottish government and its procedures – procedures declared unlawful in a Scottish court. I am sick of the way in which these female complainants have been used as human shields by the First Minister and others within her government, in a manner which is as callously cynical as it is morally repugnant.”

[See also: Nicola Sturgeon: Britain’s most powerful woman​]

Ultimately, Holyrood was set up to fail in this task. As a unicameral parliament, its committee structure was intended to fulfil many of the tasks that would otherwise have been in the hands of a second, revising chamber. As Jackie Baillie, Scottish Labour’s acting leader, has written, “When the constitutional convention discussed the creation of the Scottish Parliament, over twenty years ago, they envisaged that parliamentary committees would be powerhouses, holding the Scottish government and ministers to account in their scrutiny of legislation and policy.” 

This has certainly not been the case. SNP committee members have often sought to protect the administration, putting party before country. The independence of committee convenors is undermined by the fact they are chosen by party whips rather than – as is the case at Westminster – being elected by parliament as a whole. The research and support functions are under-resourced.

The organs of accountability truly matter in a country of Scotland’s size. Power and influence is held by a relatively small number of individuals in politics, media, business, academia and the third sector. The cliché that these people all know each other happens to be true. It is therefore essential that the structures that monitor and enforce probity in such power-relationships are rigorous and unimpeachable. That the Lord Advocate is both the co-head of the prosecution service and the chief legal adviser of the Scottish government seems, in this case, against the spirit that justice should not only be done but be seen to be done.

The business of parliamentary reform is dry, certainly when compared to the thrills of debating independence or the dramas of battling coronavirus. But accountability and transparency are the disinfectant of democracy, and in their absence corruption and secrecy, of greater or lesser import, will flourish. That is what has happened in Scotland. In a small country like ours, there’s good reason the tall poppies often need to be cut down to size.

[See also: Why support for Scottish independence is more fragile than it appears]

Chris Deerin is the New Statesman's Scotland editor.

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