A probing question: what WILL be swept under the carpet?
By Graham Grant
IN the final series of the BBC’s political satire The Thick Of It, the Goolding Inquiry is launched after a row over leaked medical records.
The government, the opposition and the civil service are all dragged before a judge-led panel to answer some deeply uncomfortable questions.
With the blackest of humour, the show exposes the underhand tactics of spin-doctors including Peter Capaldi’s brutal special adviser, Malcolm Tucker – a Machiavellian monster.
Under the forensic scrutiny of Lord Goolding, the witnesses squirm and use carefully phrased, legalistic language to try and wriggle off the hook, knowing that they face perjury charges if they’re caught lying.
Aside from the beautifully observed human drama, it’s classic television because it expertly profiles, and parodies, a ubiquitous modern phenomenon that has become a deeply entrenched part of modern political culture.
We are living in the age of the inquiry – the default get-out for any government under pressure, because as soon as one is announced, it puts any contentious issue in the deep freeze for months.
Of course, when the actual inquiry comes round, it’s a different story, and might well reveal some unwelcome truths – but by then the relevant officials have been earmarked for scapegoating, and the heat will have died down.
Yet, despite all the inquiring, sometimes it seems we know less and less about the failings of officialdom, as a result of the secrecy culture endemic throughout the public sector.
In Scotland, inquiries are a recurring feature of political life, so that at any given point one is either going on, or is being demanded, urged, threatened, or occasionally refused (if a call for a probe is rejected, there must be something really bad lurking in the closet).
Some are entirely legitimate, and indeed necessary, however unpalatable their findings may be for those in power: the Scottish Child Abuse Inquiry has uncovered scandal after scandal, after putting the activities of religious orders and charities under the microscope.
True, it took many years for survivors to win their fight for the statutory probe, but it has triggered multiple police investigations, and created an invaluable record of decades of abuse and neglect, helping current and future generations to protect children in care.
The inquiry before Lord Hardie into the disastrous £1billion Edinburgh trams project likewise uncovered evidence of myriad failings and ineptitude, laying bare a catalogue of delays and organisational chaos that formed a damning indictment of local government incompetence.
But the inquiry which set the tone for the ongoing obsession with official probes was the one that examined the fiasco surrounding the building of the Scottish parliament, which cost more than £400million (the original price-tag was around £10million).
The late Lord Fraser, who chaired the inquiry – reporting back just three weeks before the building opened in 2004 – memorably concluded that ‘the ancient walls of the Canongate have echoed only to the cry of “it wisnae me”’- a little like the fictional Goolding Inquiry…
The public are complicit, to some extent, in the growth of this inquest culture: it is, after all, satisfying to see our law-makers, and other public servants, subjected to rigorous questioning, of a kind that is so often sorely lacking in our anaemic parliamentary committees.
Holyrood committees are adept at launching their own inquiries, and the government hands them plenty of ammunition: recently, the education committee vowed to look into the dramatic narrowing of subject choice in secondary school, a by-product of the Curriculum for Excellence.
It has taken a long time for MSPs to probe this issue – teachers and pupils have been complaining about it for several years.
But this is the sort of inquiry that might well prove damaging for Education Secretary John Swinney, who seems locked in a constant state of denial about the hash his government has made of schools reforms.
Holyrood’s health committee is to investigate ‘the scale of any health problems acquired from the healthcare environment in Scotland’, after the deaths of two patients, including a child, at the flagship Queen Elizabeth University Hospital in Glasgow. Both had contracted an infection linked to pigeon droppings.
An inquiry into the many blunders of the single police force (and the politicians responsible for its creation) would take too long, but ministers have so far resisted calls for an official look at undercover policing in Scotland.
Those are certain to grow after allegations that undercover officers at the now-defunct Scottish Crime and Drug Enforcement Agency burned bags of documents in 2011, to cover up the mismanagement of a covert unit.
They are said to have used a garden incinerator in scenes compared by some officers at the time to the BBC drama Life on Mars, about tough 1970s policing.
The current Chief Constable was reportedly ‘shocked’ at the claims, which pre-date the creation of his force in 2013, and Justice Secretary Humza Yousaf insists that ‘all the options for further scrutiny… should be on the table’. Well, better on the table than swept under the carpet…
And yet how much confidence can we have in any such exercise after the fallout from an inquiry by Durham Constabulary, which found Scottish officers had launched an illegal spying operation, targeting journalists’ sources?
This followed leaks about the police investigation of the murder of Glasgow prostitute Emma Caldwell.
Those behind the snooping were found to have acted ‘dishonestly’ by ‘wilfully and deliberately manipulating intelligence’.
The findings could hardly have been more damning, but an investigation into allegations of misconduct against the Police Scotland officers involved, this time carried out by the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI), cleared all of them.
Perhaps there ought to be an inquiry into all of those police inquiries, which would be exhausting – but then maybe that’s the whole point of a good, old-fashioned inquiry.
A lengthy wait for an unsatisfactory outcome may well have the effect of killing off any further public desire to get to the bottom of what has happened, because people get bored by the process.
The most politically explosive inquiry since the Holyrood building probe will eventually get under way at the Scottish parliament.
MSPs will look at a Scottish Government investigation into complaints about Mr Salmond, and how Nicola Sturgeon and her special advisers acted.
But there are already questions over its credibility after it emerged the parliamentary committee would be convened by a Nationalist MSP, Linda Fabiani, prompting fears over its impartiality.
For many, this will be a key moment in Holyrood’s history: can MSPs rise above party tribalism to hold the machinery of government, at the highest levels, to account?
Or can we expect yet another whitewash?
*This column appeared in the Scottish Daily Mail on February 12, 2019.