SNP’s secret state and why the more inquiries we have, the less we find out
HAPLESS Jim Hacker in the classic TV sitcom Yes Minister wonders aloud whether a public inquiry should be ordered into the latest failings of his department.
As a safeguard, he suggests to his Permanent Secretary, Sir Humphrey Appleby, that the judge chairing it could be leaned on to come up with a favourable outcome.
Sir Humphrey, the consummate mandarin, is outraged at the idea, asking his boss if he was serious – after all, wouldn’t it be better to appoint a judge who didn’t need to be leant on in the first place?
The history of inquiries, in whatever form they come, is littered with expensive whitewashes, ordered by ministers when they are in a corner – and desperate to look as if they are doing something constructive.
It’s strange that the more inquiries there are, the less we ever seem to find out of any real value: nearly six decades after the Profumo Affair, with secret files still firmly sealed, and Lord Denning’s inquiry long ago exposed as a sham, are we really closer to finding out what went on?
Inquiries, parliamentary grillings, or forensic inquisitions by formidable judges, provide breathing-space for the culpable – and by the time they report back, those responsible have moved on, though not always voluntarily.
In Scotland, inquiry culture has reached its zenith under the SNP – indeed it’s arguably our only growth industry – to the extent that there ought to be a Minister for Inquiries, at least until they have to step down over a career-shredding scandal that would have to be investigated by, er, another inquiry.
We might be reassured, of course, that blunders, missteps, and catastrophic errors of all kinds come under the microscope with almost tedious regularity – but they are also a symptom of entrenched maladministration.
MSPs on the rural economy and connectivity committee are examining the collapse and nationalisation of the Ferguson Marine shipyard in Port Glasgow, which left taxpayers with a colossal estimated bill of about £230million.
As two partly-built ferries rust in a Clyde shipyard, they are trying to get to the bottom of a fiasco which saw senior members of the shipbuilding firm subject to gagging orders – in keeping with the modus operandi of the SNP’s secret state.
One of the key protagonists in the farrago is former Finance Secretary Derek Mackay, since driven from office by revelations of his extensive online interaction with a teenage boy: don’t hold your breath for an inquiry on that one …
Then there’s the planned inquiry by Lord Brodie into two botched construction projects: the Queen Elizabeth University Hospital (QEUH) in Glasgow, and the Royal Hospital for Children and Young People in Edinburgh.
Parents of children who were treated at the QEUH have raised concerns that their deaths could be linked to contaminated water supplies – while the children’s hospital has been deemed unfit for use.
Amid this torrent of revelations, Health Secretary Jeane Freeman reached for the judicial speed-dial – taking Lord Brodie, another serving judge, out of commission.
Lady Smith, also a High Court judge, is already at the helm of the £30million Scottish Child Abuse Inquiry.
Even former judges can’t enjoy their retirement, it seems, without the dread prospect of being summoned back into active service by the Scottish Government.
Lord Bracadale has been tasked with leading the inquiry into the case of Sheku Bayoh, the young father who died in custody in 2015 amid claims of police brutality.
The retired judge, a former prosecutor in the Lockerbie bombing trial in 2000, has promised a ‘careful and thorough examination of the facts’.
Chief Constable Iain Livingstone said last month (FEB) that this probe would take police into ‘uncharted territory’ – as it will be the first time the actions of the service in Scotland have been publicly scrutinised in such depth.
(Mandarin: Sir Humphrey had his minister under tight control)
And there’s no doubt that questions remain unanswered, after the Crown Office ruled out prosecutions of the officers involved.
In fact, most of these inquiries are entirely worthy exercises – even if their combined cost runs into several million pounds – though often the expense was avoidable, if only horrendous mistakes hadn’t been made in the first place.
It would be worse if inquiries didn’t happen, of course, but then look at the Hutton report on the death of former United Nations weapons inspector Dr David Kelly, in the row over the allegedly ‘sexed-up dossier’ used to justify war in Iraq.
A poll carried out by Sky News after Lord Hutton published his findings in 2004 showed 67 per cent said no to the question: ‘Has the Hutton inquiry got to the truth?’
Then there was the Fraser inquiry, looking at the fiasco over the building of the Scottish parliament, which cost more than £400million (the original price-tag was around £10million).
Predictably enough, no-one was disciplined, let alone sacked. Perish the thought that public servants should be made to carry the can …
Those fearless fact-finding probes look good – but often they seem designed to get key figures in the government of the day off the hook.
And that surely must be the purpose of John Swinney’s pledge of a full, if rather grudging, review into the troubled schools curriculum – a move he was forced to order after losing a Holyrood vote.
It has come far too late, after several years of parental concern about subject rationing – a problem that was also confirmed by, you guessed it, a Holyrood inquiry.
Conclusions from the forthcoming review, carried out by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, aren’t due until early in 2021 – more than a decade after the Curriculum for Excellence was introduced.
That will be just a few months ahead of the Holyrood election: can we really be confident that the Scottish Government’s interpretation of that study will be free from what we might euphemistically describe as ‘political interpretation’, to use a Sir Humphrey-ish formulation?
Extra supplies of whitewash may have to be ordered in …
Then again, no amount of spin can hide what parents and children have experienced first-hand, and one topic worthy of further robust study is the SNP’s ham-fisted reform of state education.
In fact, shouldn’t there be one grand ‘super-inquiry’ into the way this limping, discredited administration has gone about its business, often in the shabbiest possible way, since the Nationalists were first elected in 2007?
Even focusing on the chicanery that surrounded the SNP’s pitch for independence ahead of the 2014 independence referendum would provide ample work for a panel of judges – and a legion of handsomely remunerated lawyers.
Ultimately, the real winners in this ceaseless search for truth – as flexible a concept as that has become – are those legal practitioners for whom an inquiry is a lucrative income-stream.
Taxpayers bankrolled the incompetents whose failures prompted all of these noble attempts to figure out what went wrong.
And then they dutifully picked up the bill for the judges and politicians sent in to mop up the mess – a true scandal that surely merits a prompt and detailed inquiry, assuming we haven’t already run out of judges to take charge of it …
*This column appeared in the Scottish Daily Mail on March 10, 2020.