Transparency in government? Sorry, but what happened to Honest John?
JOHN Swinney was full of righteous indignation about the ‘deliberate flouting’ of Covid regulations by Rangers fans on Sunday.
He was quite right, of course, but it’s a bit rich of the Deputy First Minister to present himself as a moral authority on abiding by the rules.
The Minister for U-turns has another role as the Minister for Cover-Ups, and he’s excelled in that job so far – but now he’s running out of road.
Parliament demanded legal advice on the SNP Government’s ill-fated bid to contest Alex Salmond’ s judicial review against its deeply flawed harassment probe.
But Mr Swinney ignored two votes urging him to publish the documents – and didn’t even ask his law officers about them until last week.
He caved in – or appeared to –only at the eleventh hour after he faced the Tory-led threat of a no confidence vote, which was put on ice when he claimed he’d complied.
Since then, the information has been drip-fed into the public domain – with some of the most damning material delayed until after Nicola Sturgeon’s parliamentary appearance last week.
Now Mr Swinney is in trouble again – the vote of no confidence will now take place this week, possibly as early as today, and he may well lose it – which would lead to resignation calls.
It could be high noon for Honest John, a moniker that doesn’t quite fit any more – and it would be more than fitting if he were to be the first casualty of this appalling Nixonian shambles.
The Salmond committee, tasked with finding out why the in-house sexual harassment investigation of complaints against the former First Minister went so badly wrong, will consider today whether Mr Swinney has published all of the legal advice.
If its judgment is that he hasn’t – and even some of the inquiry’s loyal SNP members are sick of being treated like fools – the sycophantic Greens, normally de facto Nationalists, might just rediscover their spines and vote against Mr Swinney.
No one would be shocked if Miss Sturgeon’s brass-necked deputy tried to cling on – but it would be a bad look for a government led by a woman who is at the centre of two high-profile inquiries.
The SNP will close ranks, as it always does, and will doubtless suggest that a dastardly Unionist conspiracy is afoot, but they’re rattled – the polls show a lot of Scots don’t believe Miss Sturgeon has been telling the truth.
An SNP majority, which was taken for granted for so long, may be sliding out of the party’s grasp – the grassroots and even drone-like SNP MSPs may be prepared to stomach Miss Sturgeon’s flexible relationship with the truth, but they won’t forgive her for messing up the election.
The arithmetic of the poll result in May is key to keeping the independence dream alive – they’d bang on about it if they won without a majority, but they’d be flogging a dead horse; they might even have to do boring stuff for once, like governing.
Exiling Miss Sturgeon’s consigliere to the backbenches would be a major blow just before the election, and surely the beginning of the end of Miss Sturgeon’s tenure, notwithstanding the outcomes of the Holyrood committee’s deliberations, and a standards probe.
Minister for Cover-Ups: vote could be high noon for Swinney
In this long and tawdry drama, Mr Swinney has emerged as one of the most disreputable protagonists.
Last week Scottish Tory MSP Murdo Fraser said Mr Swinney had deigned to publish the legal advice only when a gun had been held at his head, prompting a not entirely convincing fit of pique from the Deputy First Minister about the inappropriateness of the comparison.
When hapless Henry McLeish was First Minister, Mr Swinney accused him of ‘knifing his Labour colleagues’… well, who said politicians had to be consistent?
The metaphor was more offensive to the minister than the substance of the allegation – and in any event it’s the SNP now knifing each other rather than Labour.
Mr Swinney’s on trial, in effect, and the case against him isn’t looking good – if he consulted top lawyers now about his chances of political survival, they might be even gloomier than they were about the judicial review.
He claimed before Miss Sturgeon’s appearance at Holyrood on Wednesday that he’d released ‘all key legal advice’ from the Salmond judicial review case.
But on Friday more legal opinion was published showing Roddy Dunlop QC pleading with the government not to ‘plough on regardless’ on December 17, 2018, weeks before SNP ministers finally conceded the case.
Miss Sturgeon seemed clueless or forgetful, or perhaps both, on some points of fact, never the SNP’s strongest suit at the best of times, during her testimony last week.
You might recall that she wasn’t ‘aware’ of government lawyers threatening to quit the case in disgust, and yet the latest tranche of legal advice shows they were considering ‘very seriously’ whether to resign as early as December 10.
The cost to the taxpayer of this debacle is more than £600,000, and Mr Salmond contends it was driven by a vendetta against him, a claim strenuously denied by Miss Sturgeon.
You can see why the government wasn’t in a rush to release this material – and yet there are minutes that have gone missing, or perhaps never existed.
This is a hallmark of most of the big SNP controversies – either shredders were working overtime or contentious decisions were made in quiet corridors, with no need for an official record.
Whatever your assessment of these reams of paperwork now seeing the light of day after months of MSPs being given the runaround, you’d need to be either trusting or more likely gullible to believe that there isn’t more of it sitting in a filing cabinet.
Mr Swinney had the key and only reluctantly turned it when he faced losing his ministerial salary, but how much more is he holding back?
He will argue he’s been as transparent as he could be, but given his delayed release of these documents – with the aim of saving his boss – how can anyone regard him as an honest broker?
Even those willing to give him the benefit of the doubt would have to concede his policy of releasing the documents at strategic intervals wasn’t just cynical – it was a calculated gambit to take some of the pressure off his boss.
In reality, Mr Swinney traded in any vestigial claim he may have had to honesty some time ago – reduced from a safe pair of hands to the willing lap-dog of a regime drowning in its own secrets.
If his career does come off the rails this week, don’t be taken in by the talk of a good man being brought low by his unscrupulous opponents.
It’s about time some of this disgraceful shower of charlatans paid the price for dragging our democracy into the mire.
*This column appeared in the Scottish Daily Mail on March 9, 2021.