A broken political system mired in secrecy and spin

AN old maxim of Italian politics, well-known for its corruption and skulduggery, is that power wears out those who don’t have it.

Governments that have been around for too long might well lose momentum and credibility — but it’s even more enervating for their opponents.

It’s a principle that’s just as applicable here, where the SNP has been in office for nearly 14 years, and anything other than an SNP win in May’s election is almost inconceivable.

After a campaign that’s bound to be one of the nastiest ever, the Nationalists will probably form another government, at least according to the polls.

That means that by the time of the next election, most likely in 2026, the SNP will have been running the country for nearly two decades, more than twice as long as Labour managed.

It’s certainly true that the opposition is worn out, and in general disarray, with a large turnover of unimpressive leaders — but there are signs the tide is starting to turn.

Party loyalists in the media commentariat who have been unfailing cheerleaders of the Sturgeon regime are changing their tune: one erstwhile sympathiser suggested at the weekend that, like a dead fish, the SNP is rotting from the head down.

And there are reports of SNP members quitting in significant numbers in the midst of internal feuds and disagreements over tactics on how to achieve independence.

Tectonic plates are beginning to shift as a once formidable party apparatus with near-Stalinist discipline descends into vicious tribalism.

There are any number of reasons for these splits, from squabbling over transgender issues to a general sense that the First Minister hasn’t moved quickly enough to forge ahead with separatist cause.

But the central row is the monumental rift between Nicola Sturgeon and her sometime mentor Alex Salmond, who’s on a revenge mission to bring her down.

The backdrop to this titanic battle, worthy of comparison to Blair and Brown but much less civilised, is a broken political system mired in secrecy, spin and the absence of meaningful accountability.

And that toxic culture is now reaching beyond the realm of pure politics into wider public life.

Consider the farce of the parliamentary inquiry set up to examine the costly shambles of the government’s sexual harassment probe focusing on Mr Salmond, which he says was a plot cooked up by Miss Sturgeon’s inner circle.

The Holyrood committee has been at loggerheads with government and prosecutors over access to the material it needs to investigate what went wrong in a controversy that left taxpayers with a bill of more than £500,000.

A parallel standards inquiry is looking at whether Miss Sturgeon misled MSPs over her knowledge of the claims against her predecessor — it’s expected to report back before the May election, and its outcome could force the First Minister’s resignation.

We shouldn’t let any of this detract from the fact that while Mr Salmond was cleared of criminal wrong-doing in March last year, his trial raised disturbing questions over his behaviour while he was First Minister.

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The extent to which the civil service knew about these concerns at the time and how it responded has been looked at by the Holyrood inquiry — though its remit is targeted more specifically at the ham-fisted in-house investigation of the misconduct claims against Mr Salmond.

Covid and the furore over the way government has treated MSPs trying to get to the bottom of this appalling mess means a Tory call last year for a separate inquiry into the Salmond era, and his conduct while in Bute House, has been overlooked.

That said, there seems to be a new inquiry in Scotland, or a demand for one, roughly every five minutes, with judges being taken from the bench (or recalled from retirement) to oversee grand and expensive inquests into all kinds of gross incompetence, and worse.

Then, speaking of judges, there’s the Rangers affairs, and the Lord Advocate’s backing last week for a probe into the ‘malicious prosecutions’ of key figures in a failed fraud probe.

Two men were subjected to the kind of ordeal Kafka might have dismissed as too far-fetched, and after suing police and the prosecution service they won more than £10million each, plus legal expenses, in an out-of-court settlement.

Assurances that lessons have been learned, by both Police Scotland and the Crown, are easy to come by and hard to believe, without proof being offered.

The man in charge of the Crown when the prosecutions were launched was Frank — now Lord — Mulholland, who these days is a High Court judge.

The present Lord Advocate, James Wolffe QC, has been left carrying the can, though it’s worth noting that he is said to have instigated a review of the Rangers case after taking up his post in 2016, which — it’s claimed by one of the wrongly prosecuted men — found there had been no evidential basis for pursuing it.

A lengthy and unsuccessful fight for Crown immunity from civil litigation ensued, meaning that an early opportunity may have been missed for prosecutors to own up to what had happened.

Mr Wolffe has a seat at the Cabinet table as the government’s legal adviser, though he won’t say whether he advised ministers on contesting Mr Salmond’s judicial review against the terms of the harassment inquiry.

And we’re assured that Mr Wolffe had nothing to do with the criminal case against the former First Minister.

It’s true that — ultimately — Donald Trump polluted the swamp he once vowed to drain in Washington, but in Scotland there’s a desperate need for a similar sanitation exercise, one that becomes stronger by the day.

Miss Sturgeon’s supporters have resorted to asserting that there’s no public clamour for her to step down, and the polls attest to her personal popularity.

But there’s more than a whiff of hubris about a defensive strategy that begins with the assumption that people don’t really care about any of this stuff.

Neither the Holyrood inquiry, as hobbled as it has been from the outset of its important work, or the standards inquiry into Miss Sturgeon, have come to any conclusions, at least not publicly.

The First Minister’s husband, Peter Murrell, is in a much-weakened position as SNP chief executive following claims that he perjured himself while giving evidence to MSPs on the Salmond committee, allegations that are now under consideration by the Crown.

The Sturgeon empire, painstakingly built, has been revealed as a house of cards — and its only hope of survival is that voters simply aren’t looking, or don’t understand.

In reality, a party which dedicated itself to maintaining iron discipline in the ranks is descending into bitter factionalism.

The Augean stable of Scottish politics has been allowed to fester for far too long, and we can’t expect the SNP — responsible for the stench — to clean it out.

It may not be worn out by power, but it has poured poison into public life and the institutions of the state — and in May it must be held to account for its shameful record.

*This column appeared in the Scottish Daily Mail on February 16, 2021.

Home Affairs Editor, columnist, leader writer, Scottish Daily Mail. Twitter: @GrahamGGrant Facebook: @sdmnewspaper