A growing stench from the Salmond inquiry and the abuse of power by the secretive SNP
BACK in 2014, Nicola Sturgeon pledged her Government would be ‘open, listening, accessible and decentralising’.
Now her deputy John Swinney faces a no confidence vote for refusing to hand over key legal documentation to a Holyrood committee.
Lord Advocate James Wolffe is in a similar position: he’s head of the Crown Office, which hasn’t parted with material MSPs also want to see.
So, those two facts alone give you a good idea about the progress of that long-ago promise to run a more ‘open’ government .
It hasn’t happened, and the Sturgeon regime is in fact increasingly paranoid and secretive, as the farce over the Salmond inquiry shows.
This isn’t any ordinary committee: it’s looking at the government’s botched handling of harassment complaints against Alex Salmond, which became the subject of a judicial review.
The taxpayer was saddled with a bill of more than £500,000 when the government admitted the probe had been ‘unfair’, and Mr Salmond was cleared in a subsequent criminal trial of a series of charges including attempted rape.
Unpicking the paper trail that led to this car crash hasn’t been easy, with all parties involved citing legal obstacles for failing to give MSPs the documents they’re lobbying for.
The overall impression is one of evasion, obfuscation, prevarication, and brazen contempt not only for parliament but also for the electorate, who might have expected more from Miss Sturgeon’s. ‘open’ government.
Mr Wolffe is due to appear before MSPs today, when he’ll come under pressure to part with paperwork currently safely tucked away in a Crown Office filing cabinet.
It is a legal mess: Mr Wolffe has a Cabinet seat, but also leads an independent prosecution service, so he has to negotiate something of a constitutional minefield.
He gave the prosecution of Mr Salmond a wide berth, so we’re told, and doesn’t make decisions about releasing files relating to the trial, which would normally be shared only with the defendant and their legal team.
On civil matters, Mr Wolffe wears a different hat, as chief legal adviser to government, but his position until now is that he can’t say whether he did provide any guidance to ministers on the Salmond judicial review.
But it’s likely that today MSPs will press the point and renew demands for the information they seek.
The risk is that if he complies with one parliamentary committee, playing fast and loose with the rules and regulations, frankly any other pesky committee in future will cite it as precedent.
The nightmare scenario, it seems, is that habitually secretive organisations that sometimes appear completely unaccountable might actually have to tell us what they’re up to.
Mind you, the Crown doesn’t always play by the rulebook – it’s just admitted ‘malicious prosecution’ in the Rangers fraud probe, which could cost the taxpayer tens of millions of pounds in damages.
That controversy, which Miss Sturgeon has said will result in yet another inquiry, is likely to go on for many months, but it’s understood that Crown officials want to ensure that even if it is settled out of court, the public get to find out what on earth happened.
You might think that if that’s the case for Rangers, then why not for the Salmond inquiry?
For his part, Mr Salmond has said his own hands are tied by these legal dilemmas, to the extent that he might well face prosecution himself if he gives the committee what it wants.
As for government, it’s worth bearing in mind one of its very first reactions to the pandemic was a bid to water down freedom of information (FOI) laws.
Yesterday Health Secretary Jeane Freeman responded to reports that she had wanted to suspend FOI legislation by saying that it takes a ‘degree of people’s time’ to process FOI requests.
Transparency is conditional, then: but public bodies are adept at trying to get out of answering FOI queries on the grounds that it would take too much time, and would therefore cost too much – and that was pre-Covid.
Meanwhile, ministers have launched legal action to stop the disclosure of a single paragraph Miss Sturgeon wrote about Mr Salmond.
In a letter to Scotland’s top civil servant Leslie Evans in June 2018, the First Minister revealed she knew of the internal harassment probe then under way into her former mentor’s conduct.
The Scottish Government released nearly all of the June 6 letter after an FOI request – but redacted one paragraph of it.
The Information Commissioner is demanding the document be released in full, but the government is spending more taxpayers’ cash in court in a bid to keep that part of the letter secret.
The truth may be in short supply, but it seems public funds are inexhaustible when it comes to keeping us all in the dark.
Lib Dem MSP Alex Cole-Hamilton, a member of the Salmond committee, said: ‘This is starting to feel like the mother of all cover ups.’ And he has a point.
This is no ordinary inquiry, because it goes to the heart of how government operates.
Mr Salmond believes he was the target of a vendetta that saw people close to the First Minister cook up a plot which later led to a criminal trial, something Miss Sturgeon strongly denies.
There are claims that Miss Sturgeon misled parliament over when she knew about the Salmond allegations, which are subject to a separate inquiry.
And there are unresolved questions about Mr Salmond’s own conduct while he was in Bute House.
While not criminal, he conceded some of his activities were ill-advised, and the committee has tried to substantiate claims led in evidence at trial that female civil servants were told not to work alone with him in the evenings.
It’s true that MSPs have faced blind alleys and resistance at every turn, but the evidence they have unearthed so far is troubling.
Miss Sturgeon’s husband Peter Murrell, the SNP’s chief executive, sent two text messages – one appearing to suggest his support for pressurising the police following formal charges being brought against Mr Salmond.
In a statement to the inquiry, Mr Murrell said he had merely advised people to direct questions or concerns to officers.
Nothing to see here, then, move on… and yet the stench surrounding this unedifying affair is unbearable, and growing by the day.
The reason is clear: let’s face it, not everyone involved is taking the inquiry as seriously as they should be, because the stakes are so high.
A lot of political capital is being burned through in an effort to protect Miss Sturgeon, whose credibility and indeed career are on the line.
We’ve never needed a leader we can trust more badly than we do now, with a long winter of coronavirus restrictions ahead.
Instead we’re being forced to witness a monstrous abuse of power by a government that has nothing but contempt for democracy.
*This column appeared in the Scottish Daily Mail on November 17, 2020.