Secrecy, spin and a probe that may decide Nicola Sturgeon’s fate

FIRST there was a legal showdown where a former First Minister took the government he used to lead to the highest civil court in the land.

Alex Salmond emerged triumphant after judge Lord Pentland found the internal investigation of claims he sexually harassed staff had been unlawful.

Awarded more than £500,000 of taxpayers’ money to cover his lawyers’ fees, Mr Salmond then faced trial for a series of sex charges, including attempted rape.

He was acquitted just as lockdown began, and is now one of the protagonists in a Holyrood inquiry into the government’s handling of complaints against him.

His allies say he’s ‘gunning’ for the first witness when the hearings start today – Scotland’s top civil servant, Permanent Secretary Leslie Evans.

And a BBC documentary last night featured claims of an anti-Salmond conspiracy, from former Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill and ex-SNP deputy leader Jim Sillars.

The dramatis personae of this extraordinary parliamentary probe is impressive: it includes Nicola Sturgeon and her low-profile husband Peter Murrell, who is chief executive of the SNP, and the First Minister’s loyal chief of staff Liz Lloyd.

It’s a psychodrama that will bring into the open the simmering tensions bubbling within an increasingly fractured party: soap-opera aficionados will be hooked.

Yet, as Shakespearean as it all sounds, this is also a pivotal moment in the history of devolved politics: it’s an opportunity for MSPs to stand up to the collective might of a formidable government – and party political – machine.

Holyrood has been widely derided for its anaemic committees – but all the signs are that this one could be different.

There have been rows about official documents that were withheld, or have been provided but in heavily redacted form; while it emerged last year that some emails had been irretrievably deleted.

Convener Linda Fabiani, Holyrood’s deputy presiding officer, who will stand down as an SNP MSP at the next election, has made her icy displeasure clear.

Perhaps sensing there would be safety in numbers, Mrs Evans had wanted to give evidence alongside other civil service colleagues when she appeared – but this request was knocked back.

The inquiry is a corrective to years of political imbalance that saw a coterie at the very top of the party, and government, join together as a powerful clique.

A secrecy culture has sprung up, as evidenced by all the black ink splashed on official documents handed to the committee.

It has even influenced policy-making, with an abject lack of transparency on any number of controversies, from the care homes disaster, or the CalMac ferry row, to the controversy over allegedly contaminated tapwater at a flagship super-hospital.

And it’s encouraged senior members of the SNP Government to believe (rightly, as it turned out, in John Swinney’s case) that they are untouchable, even when their failures are immense, and undeniable.

The upper echelons of the civil service, deeply intertwined with the party’s power-brokers, may seem impregnable, but the committee has the potential to prise apart those connections.

It may well be the forum in which Mr Salmond exacts his long-threatened revenge on those who, he believes, conspired against him.

The repercussions for the First Minister could be far-reaching; already there are questions about when Miss Sturgeon knew of the allegations against her former boss, and whether she misled parliament.

The stakes are high, and an election is looming: Miss Sturgeon’s popularity, and that of her party, are rising, while for now the opposition parties are in a state of relative disarray.

As for whether the work of the Salmond committee could hit the Nationalists’ poll ratings, and even oust Miss Sturgeon, there are simply too many variables at play to make a definitive judgment.

But with the inner workings of her closed-shop leadership style on public display, and some of her most valued lieutenants summoned to give an account of their actions, it’s possible that the vocal Salmond faction within the party and wider movement will become more restive.

That – as much as what the polls say – could dictate the future course of Miss Sturgeon’s political career, and how long it’s likely to be.

The focus in coming weeks will be firmly on the way in which that botched government inquiry into the allegations against Mr Salmond was handled, or mishandled.

(Happier times: Salmond and his protégée)

But there were also allegations at his trial that at least one senior civil servant knew about claims surrounding the former First Minister’s behaviour while in Bute House.

Part of his defence was that his conduct wasn’t always unimpeachable – indeed his lawyer, Gordon Jackson QC, conceded his client had been ‘stupid’.

There have been calls for a separate inquiry to look specifically at who knew what about precisely what was going on, and when – perhaps run by the UK civil service.

The web of knowledge about those Bute House years should be dissected; it may help to contextualise what followed, and establish how any concerns that were raised were, or were not, dealt with.

Whatever happened, Mr Salmond was cleared of all charges, and he now takes centre-stage in the Holyrood probe; he will give evidence, as he did at the trial – in a remarkable four hours of testimony.

And he remains the most potent threat to the Sturgeon hegemony, and to the reputation of the Scottish Government.

At pre-trial hearings, the argument Mr Salmond’s lawyers were forbidden from airing in court was outlined in some detail.

In text messages read out to the court, Mr Jackson said Mrs Evans had texted a civil servant, saying: ‘We may have lost the battle – but we will win the war.’

It was alleged that a ‘huge amount of material’ had been obtained from a phone which had ‘been in the possession of Susan Ruddick’, chief operating officer of the SNP, which had ‘hundreds of texts’.

A minister, who cannot be named for legal reasons, texted Miss Ruddick to say they were ‘convening SPADS [special advisers] for a council of war’.

Doubtless these claims will be examined in the days and weeks ahead, and Mrs Evans, whose contract was recently extended to spring 2022, will have her say.

But it’s rare that we are afforded quite so much access to the key people in a vast bureaucracy normally closely guarded by battalions of press officers and well-paid political advisers.

Spin is endemic in this regime – but today (TUES) could mark the start of a detoxification.

An old maxim from Italian politics is that power wears out those who don’t have it – a ruling elite can become complacent or corrupt after a long spell in office.

But their lengthy incumbency also wears down the opposition, which over time is rendered impotent after years of failing to put the brakes on their enemies’ success.

Now there’s a chance for MSPs, who have all too often failed to check the power of this administration, to strike a blow for voters fed up with its rank incompetence, secrecy, and unaccountability.

*This column appeared in the Scottish Daily Mail on August 18, 2020.

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Graham Grant.

Home Affairs Editor, columnist, leader writer, Scottish Daily Mail. Twitter: @GrahamGGrant Columns on MailPlus https://www.mailplus.co.uk/authors/graham-grant