Henry Hill: As the election looms, the tide seems finally to be turning against the Scottish Nationalists

18 Mar

This week marked something of a watershed moment, certainly for the Salmond/Sturgeon scandal and perhaps yet for devolution too. After months of watching the Scottish Government hamstring the official Holyrood inquiry into its mishandling of allegations against Alex Salmond, Westminster stepped in.

Liam Fox prepared the way, quizzing the Prime Minister and then the Speaker about Parliament’s responsibility towards civil servants in Scotland. As part of the broader Home Civil Service, it follows that they are accountable to – and should be able to call on the support of – their most senior colleagues in London. And that there is a Minister somewhere answerable to Parliament about them.

Then David Davis stepped up, using parliamentary privilege to put into the public domain what he claimed was fresh evidence he had received from a whistle blower about the conduct of the Scottish Government – evidence his source apparently claims ‘point to collusion, perjury, up to criminal conspiracy’. I wrote up his speech in detail yesterday.

Both interventions reflect a potential new front opening up in the constitutional battle between the Union and its opponents. Where the UK Internal Market Act has seen the Government start to assert itself more in previously devolved spheres, this represents the legislature stepping up to its responsibilities.

Unionists won’t want to rock the boat too much ahead of May’s Scottish elections. But when those are over, there is an interesting debate to be had about procedural or institutional changes that could address the issues these interventions have raised – perhaps bundling privilege for MSPs with stronger lines of accountability for civil servants, or even reviving Fox’s old idea of drawing an upper house for the Scottish Parliament out of the House of Lords. I’ll be looking at this in more detail later.

In the meantime, the polls continue to show a slide in the SNP’s support. They’re still on track to hold on to power in Edinburgh, but it looks as if whatever magic insulated their public standing from the torrent of bad stories their government was generating may finally be running out of steam. When you see Nationalist ministers snarling about ‘rigged polls’, and SNP efforts to put ‘indyref2’ on the ballot paper, you know they’re spooked. The latter play is especially important because it suggests they may be falling back on their (very substantial) core vote.

There have also been a string of polls from different companies putting the Union ahead in a hypothetical second referendum. Obviously this no more represents the ‘settled will’ of the Scots than did the previous string of pro-separation results, but it will all make it easier for the Prime Minister to maintain his opposition towards a granting a re-run of 2014.

One poll, commissioned by campaign group Scotland in Union, used the EU referendums Leave/Remain framing and delivered a pro-UK share of 57 per cent – a remarkable illustration of how high the stakes would be in negotiating the question and how reckless was David Cameron to concede so much to the SNP ahead of the 2014 vote.

The story continues to develop: just two days ago, after pressure from the Conservatives, the Scottish Government have finally published their own review into the Salmond fiasco, which calls for the process to be taken out of the hands of civil servants.There will doubtless be more to come in the weeks ahead.

Unionists will struggle to oust Sturgeon as First Minister. But she has already served in that role for seven years, and is finally showing signs of political mortality. If they can do enough to let Boris Johnson kick independence into the long grass, that might very well be enough.

Davis delivers yet more evidence of shady behaviour by the SNP – but will it matter?

17 Mar

Last week, we wrote about Liam Fox’s suggestion that Parliament might have a legitimate role to play in the political drama unfolding in Scotland, because the entire Home Civil Service, of which the Civil Service in Scotland is part, is answerable to it.

Yesterday, David Davis justified his own intervention in the Salmond/Sturgeon saga on different grounds: that due to shortcomings in the way New Labour set up the Scottish Parliament in 1998, he was able to speak with the protection of parliamentary privilege where MSPs were not.

Alex Massie dismisses his calls for an even more powerful Scottish Parliament as ‘concern trolling’, and one must hope so. But regardless of his motives, his speech touched on several different dimensions of this complex and confusing story. What did he say?

Initial complaints

For the benefit of those who haven’t been following the story in granular detail, Davis set out just how the Scottish Government first botched the investigation of allegations of sexual misconduct against Alex Salmond.

He highlighted how the former First Minister was investigated under a brand-new set of procedures. That these new system was lopsided, as it applied retro-actively to politicians but not to civil servants. How the Head of Propriety and Ethics in Whitehall “expressed discomfort” at this, but received no reply. But most importantly:

“However, the Scottish Government also ignored its own policy, the new policy and appointed an Investigating Officer who it emerged had had prior contact with the complainants. And not just any contact. A potential complainant was asked for their input on the draft procedure before they had formally made their complaint.”

One does not need to buy Salmond’s allegations of a conspiracy to see why he might be suspicious of a stitch-up.

Legal challenge

As we know, the former First Minister then brought a judicial review against the policy. He won, and was awarded costs “at a punitive level reserved for defences conducted ‘incompetently or unreasonably’, in Davis’ words.

When the Scottish Government was finally compelled, by the threat of a vote of no confidence in John Swinney, to publish its legal advice on the case, it emerged that it had insisted on fighting on for months against the advice of its own lawyers. Indeed, that it appeared to have actually misled its counsel, and caused them “extreme professional embarrassment” in the process. Davis:

“This was a government that actively withheld important, relevant information. In one case a critically relevant email was actively removed from an information bundle that was going to the court and which had already been approved by government counsel.”

The Scottish Government has yet to provide a compelling explanation for why the decision was made to fight on, at such huge public expense, when the lawyers insisted their case was doomed. The meetings where the decisions were taken were allegedly, and remarkably, not minuted. So again, one can see why Salmond might think they were hoping to string things out long enough that events overtook it and the story was eclipsed by his criminal trial.

The role of the Lord Advocate

Davis zeroed in on the role of the Lord Advocate, the Scottish equivalent to the Director of Public Prosecutions, who heads the Crown Office. Conspiracists have focused on the fact that the Lord Advocate sits in the Scottish Cabinet, and Davis too played up ‘separation of powers’ concerns. First, in relation to the above-mentioned court case:

“In one case a critically relevant email was actively removed from an information bundle that was going to the court and which had already been approved by government counsel. I don’t know who took that email out – I have it here. I don’t know who took it out, I don’t know who gave the instruction. But in my view the removal of that document would be a summary dismissal offence, and possibly a criminal offence. At the very least it would be in contempt of court. And yet over his three evidence sessions the Lord Advocate, the Chief Law Officer of Scotland, did not see fit to mention this crucial incident to a Parliamentary committee trying to get to the truth.”

Second, he highlighted how the Crown Office intervened to censor evidence being given to the Holyrood committee investigating the Scottish Government’s mishandling of the initial complaints. This was allegedly to protect the identity of the complainants, yet when the Spectator published the evidence online it revealed that the redacted passages referred instead to allegations that Nicola Sturgeon broke the ministerial code:

“But when The Spectator went to court to secure the publication of that evidence, the Crown Office made no objection whatsoever to the paragraphs it bullied the Holyrood inquiry to redact. This leaves an absurd situation where the inquiry cannot speak about evidence that is freely available to anyone with an internet connection. The redactions are clearly therefore not designed to protect the complainants. They are designed to protect the First Minister from accountability to the inquiry.”

The Crown Office’s intervention meant MSPs could not question witnesses about the contents, even though they were publicly available online.

The SNP

Perhaps the most serious allegation, however, was Davis’ claim to have new evidence, passed to him by a whistleblower, that senior figures in the Scottish National Party seem to have been playing an active role in trying to create a case against Salmond:

“…these texts show that there was a concerted effort by senior members of the SNP to encourage complaints. The messages suggest that SNP Chief Executive Peter Murrell coordinated Ruddick and Iain McCann, the SNP’s Compliance Officer, in the handling of specific complainants. On the 28th September, a month after the police started their investigation of the criminal case, McCann expressed great disappointment to Ruddick that someone who had promised to deliver five complainants to him by the end of the week had come empty or ‘overreached’ as he put it.”

Davis noted that one complainant said she felt “pressured, rather than supported”. That this process of ‘fishing’ – in the words of Sue Ruddick, the SNP’s Chief Operating Officer – continued after the criminal investigation into Salmond had begun. That other SNP members knew about this ‘witch hunt’ in the words of one, since 2018. That Peter Murrell’s claim that his texts about ‘pressurising’ the detectives investigating the case were out of character no longer stacks up.

Furthermore, Davis then claimed to have it “on good authority” that civil servants investigating the allegations against Salmond were complaining about ‘v bad’ interference from Liz Lloyd, Sturgeon’s Chief of Staff, in February 2018. The Scottish Government says: “The comment read out by Mr Davis in relation to the chief of staff does not relate to Ms A or Ms B and, at that time, she was not aware that there was any connection to the former first minister”.

But if so, why was Lloyd interfering? And if not, it shows that she knew of the Salmond case months before she told the Scottish Parliament she did.

So what?

This is a story with so many moving parts that it can be hard to pin down what’s important. Salmond’s wilder allegations of a grand conspiracy only muddy the waters further – and nothing that comes out as this story develops will erase the fact that the allegations against him were made, and the police felt them serious enough to take them to court.

Likewise, we should treat the claim of Davis’ whistleblower that the new evidence ‘point to collusion, perjury, up to criminal conspiracy’ with caution. It might, but leaks can serve agendas just as cover-ups do.

Sturgeon’s opponents have focused on the question of what the First Minister knew and when. It seems extremely unlikely that all of this could have been going on inside so centralised a party as the SNP without the leader of that party being informed. But if she did know, then Sturgeon misled the Scottish Parliament. In another universe, that might be a resigning issue. As might burning half a million pounds of taxpayers’ money losing a legal challenge one had to mislead one’s lawyers to fight at all.

But by drawing this out as long as it has, the Scottish Government may have got close enough to the upcoming Holyrood elections to stave off calls for the First Minister’s resignation. Sturgeon can simply say that it is for the Scottish electorate to judge her. (As Ian Smart points out, she appears to have neutered James Hamilton QC’s investigation into whether or not she broke the Ministerial Code in a like fashion.)

But Davis’ revelations will, alongside other developments only deepen the shadows this affair will cast over the SNP’s re-election campaign, just as polling suggests the scandal is finally starting to undermine the Nationalists’ position with the voters. And it may yet be that MPs at Westminster can uncover the smoking gun their colleagues at Holyrood have failed to turn up.

Iain Dale: Teaching unions are loud but wrong on vaccines. Besides, what about those without powerful public advocates?

26 Feb

Iain Dale presents the evening show on LBC Radio and the For the Many podcast with Jacqui Smith.

The Coronavirus pandemic has shown how true the maxim is that those who shout the loudest get the most attention.

Take teachers, for example.

And before I go on, I should say that originally I was going to be a teacher (of German, since you ask) and I have the highest regard for the teaching profession.

However, the very thought that teachers should be vaccinated ahead of other groups is for the birds.

There is no evidence that teachers are more likely to either contract or die of Coronavirus than anyone else.

Indeed, the league table of occupations with the most Coronavirus deaths put teachers almost at the bottom.

But the teachers unions have a very loud voice and they used it to persuade the Labour Party to press the Government to put teachers at the top of the next round of vaccinations.

It would have been easy to give in, but they didn’t. And quite right too.

This week the Joint Committee for Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) declared that teachers were no more at risk than other people.

What about those who don’t have powerful public advocates – refuse collectors, people who work in funeral parlours, taxi drivers (who top the death list), bus drivers? I could go on.

The JCVI is absolutely right to say that once the 1-9 groups are complete, the rollout should continue to be largely based on age bands.

– – – – – – – – –

Clickbait headline of the week has to go to Pink News, which came up with this gem: “Horny thief steals £600 of sex toys – including a vegan bondage kit”.

The mind boggles. I mean, a leather gimp mask made out of Quorn? Whatever next.

I’m afraid clickbait headlines are not just the province of tabloids. I’ve noticed even The Times has started to get down dirty in the hope of attracting more hits.

This week a headline tried to persuade us that prisoners (at least they didn’t call them “lags”) were going to queue jump and get the vaccine ahead of teachers and police officers.

What a shame the words underneath the headline said nothing of the sort.

Headline writers have a job to do, but that job is not to exaggerate the truth or reality.

– – – – – – – – –

All attention is now turning towards Rishi Sunak’s budget on Wednesday.

In some ways this could be seen as the most important budget for a generation.

It will set the tone for the next decade of rebuilding our economy.

It cannot be business as usual and has to show a huge degree of imagination and understanding of what is needed to recreate an enterprise economy.

Everything must be geared to encouraging economic activity and new business startups. Tinkering with the odd tax rate here and there won’t be enough.

It is also an important day for the Chancellor personally. His popularity ratings are rightfully very high, but this budget will define him for a lot of us.

Has he got what it takes, or will this it all be a bit of a damp squib with decisions delayed and a sense of “meh-ness” pervading the country?

We all accept that debts have to be repaid. But now is not the time to start putting up taxes.

It is rumoured he is thinking of increasing corporation tax.

For a party which traditionally can’t see a tax without wanting to put it up, it is supremely ironic that Labour has declared it would be against a rise, however minimal, in corporation tax.

But it’s a good bit of opposition politics, however opportunistic it is.

To put up corporation or any business tax at the moment would be a complete slap in the face for those businesses who, just as they see a degree of normality (and hopefully profitability) to return, they are told the first thing they will have to do is pay more tax.

There are plenty of people who have done well out of the pandemic, the most obvious being Amazon. It’s fair enough to think of ways of finding new ways of taxing them, but however that is done, it’s important to ensure that it’s not the paying consumer who is hit.

I’d like to see a national insurance holiday for a year for any new business startup. As I said last week, I’d like to see IR35 and the loan charge abolished. This war against the self employed has to stop.

But most of all I want to see a truly radical budget speech.

We are about to find out of what metal Sunak is made.

– – – – – – – – –

I hope you’ve all got your popcorn ready for Alex Salmond’s appearance before a committee of the Scottish Parliament this lunchtime.

It promises to be quite an event.

I don’t profess to be an expert on the internal affairs of the SNP, but I have a feeling that an implosion is imminent.

And at last the English media has woken up to what could well become one of the biggest political stories of the year.

If the worst were to happen (for the SNP, I mean) and Nicola Sturgeon was to be forced out of office, it’s difficult to see who the ready replacement is.

Succession planning was something Salmond did well. He groomed Sturgeon for the job, and few could say with a straight face that she has made a hash of it (although if you work in Scottish education, or parts of the Scottish NHS you might contest that assertion).

She, however, has failed to do that. There is no natural successor.

And that’s a real concern, both for the SNP and for Scotland more generally.

Henry Hill: The SNP’s disdain for MSPs is discrediting the Scottish Parliament

25 Feb

It’s been just over two weeks since we last looked in on the unfolding scandal currently gripping Scottish politics, and relations between the SNP and the opposition continue to sink to new depths.

For those who haven’t been following the story – which has received scandalously little attention in the southern press – the Scottish Parliament is trying to conduct an inquiry into how the Scottish Government mishandled complaints against Alex Salmond. But having pledged her full cooperation, Nicola Sturgeon seems to have been trying to thwart MSPs at every turn.

Public money has been spent preparing ‘forgetful’ witnesses. Requests to broaden the scope of the inquiry have been denied. Peter Murrell, the SNP’s chief executive and Sturgeon’s husband, contradicted his wife’s testimony and then tried to refuse to return and explain himself. Most significantly, the SNP has tried very hard to prevent Salmond from publishing his evidence.

First, the inquiry voted against publishing the former First Minister’s submission on a party-line vote, citing legal advice. When the Spectator secured a legal ruling to the effect that there was no barrier to publication, MSPs nonetheless voted against publication again, also on independence lines. The issue was referred to the Corporate Body of the Scottish Parliament, which finally voted to publish.

But rather than being the end of the saga, the Crown Office (Scotland’s prosecutors) wrote to it to demand further censorship. Salmond’s evidence was retracted and redacted. But as the whole document is now in the public domain, we can see that the redactions relate not to the danger of identifying vulnerable women, but to criticism of the First Minister.

Now MSPs are demanding that James Wolffe, the Lord Advocate, appear before Holyrood to explain himself, whilst the Crown Office has also been ordered to release additional evidence which Salmond claims will prove the existence of the conspiracy against him.

Regardless of whether or not that turns out to be true, the scandal is having a toxic effect on the reputation of the Scottish Parliament. There is mounting concern amongst the SNP’s opponents about the extent of its apparent grip on civic life. Mainstream pro-UK politicians are talking in dire terms about the implications for the standing of the Scottish Parliament, doubtless concerned about being outflanked as devosceptic sentiment rises on the movement’s outer fringes.

What happens next is anyone’s guess. It seems increasingly apparent that the Scottish Parliament can’t hold the executive to account. But Scots have another government. Does there come a point where Westminster needs to consider stepping in and setting up a proper independent inquiry into the whole business?

The sheer pace at which this scandal is developing certainly helps to explain why the Scottish Government seems so determined not to delay the upcoming Holyrood elections, even as Sturgeon insists the situation is so serious that she needs to offer a slower roadmap out of lockdown than Boris Johnson. (Only a cynic would suggest she might also not want to give broadcasters an excuse to stop televising her daily ‘coronavirus briefings’.)

But it remains to be seen if any of this actually sticks. The SNP have been accruing bad news stories for months – we’ve even made a recurring feature of them for this column – and yet their polling seems scarcely affected. With reports that the Prime Minister’s resolve to refuse a second referendum might be weakening, it becomes more important than ever that the opposition in Scotland make this count.

Henry Hill: There’s something rotten in the state of Scotland. But can anyone do anything about it?

18 Feb

Two weeks ago, when we last checked in on the Alex Salmond affair, we led with the calls for an independent, judge-led inquiry into the whole thing as confidence that the Scottish Parliament could actually hold the Scottish Government to account.

Well readers, it has got much, much worse since then.

Here’s what’s happened. First, the MSPs on the Holyrood inquiry into the Salmond affair voted 5-4 against publishing the former First Minister’s evidence. As a result, he refused to appear. They claimed this was on legal advice, but opponents smelt a rat because the vote was split exactly along independence lines.

As a result the Spectator, which had previously been calling for a judge-led inquiry, went to court to seek a clarification about whether the original judgement precluded the publication of the evidence. In their own words: “Lady Dorrian made it clear that the court had no intention of obstructing a parliamentary inquiry or stopping a free press from doing its job — the Salmond evidence can now be published and the whole story told.”

Yet this is not what happened. Despite the judge’s clarification, the Committee once again voted against publishing Salmond’s submission – again pleading legal advice, although in light of Lady Dorian’s comments it isn’t obvious what this is. Journalists have also pointed out that this second vote was on publishing a revised submission which MSPs haven’t actually seen.

Now the decision has been referred to the Corporate Body of the Scottish Parliament, which meets today. Its membership comprises five MSPs, one from each party (the Independent used to be a Green), plus an SNP chair. If a majority of the ordinary members vote for publication, will the Presiding Officer side with the minority to block it?

Whatever happens today, the saga seems to be turbo-charging a sea-change in attitudes towards the Scottish Parliament. Adam Tomkins, a high-profile Conservative MSP and no devosceptic, has been leading the charge, comparing the state of the SNP administration to that of John Major’s Government in the ‘sleaze’ era.

Meanwhile Mandy Rhodes, the editor of Holyrood magazine, has been if anything even more brutal. In an editorial entitled ‘Something Rotten’, she brutally assesses not just the Salmond inquiry but the litany of broken promises and governance failures we cover so regularly in this column. Rhodes concludes:

“They say that a fish rots from the head down. And something is beginning to reek. The question will be whether by 6 May the electorate is simply prepared to just hold its nose.”

That’s quite a journey for a magazine which marked the advent of Nicola Sturgeon’s first ministership by branding her the ‘Angel of the North’ and running a cover posing the question ‘Can she do no wrong?’. And here’s Alex Massie, another man who’s no devosceptic but finds himself compelled by circumstances to reach for our hymn sheet:

“For this now risks becoming something greater than a mere fiasco. It is fast reaching the point at which it embarrasses all Scotland’s political parties and the institution of parliament itself. Holyrood’s committee structure is plainly incapable of dealing with issues of this kind and Scotland’s political culture has – equally obviously – failed to produce or promote representatives capable of discerning the distinction between party interest and the public interest.”

For his part, Salmond remains keen to testify. The Herald reports that he has ‘cleared his diary’ after submitting the revised version of his evidence. But he continues to insist that its publication is a precondition of his appearing before MSPs, and the Nationalists seem deeply committed to preventing that from happening.

In the meantime, the SNP have suffered from their usual brace of bad-news stories. Jeane Freeman, the Health Secretary, has been forced to deny that officials spent days ‘plotting how to spin’ an official report into care home deaths. Stephen Daisley writes about the Scottish Government’s ‘education stitch-up’, as ministers shunt the publication of an official report into education back until after the upcoming elections – although apparently the courts may yet intervene. Taxpayers apparently face a £100m bill over a bungled prosecution of businessmen involved in a takeover of Glasgow Rangers football club.

And on the party civil war side, we have Kenny MacAskill, a Nationalist MP and critic of Sturgeon, calling for the Scottish independence campaign to be formally separated from the SNP.

But as ever, the question is: will any of this make an impact on the Scottish electorate? There are some signs of a fall in poll support for independence, which is very welcome. But the Nationalists have faced a torrent of awful news stories for months without it knocking them off track to form the next Scottish Government. Clearly the unionists need to up their game – hopefully a slick new attack ad which emerged on Twitter this week is a taste of things to come.

P.S. Writing in the Times, Kenny Farquharson points out that the Government’s mooted ‘Festival of Brexit’ has been captured by the usual suspects and acquired a new working title: ‘Festival UK* 2022’. We humbly submit that if Ministers are serious about waging the ‘culture war’, they can start by making sure that a festival celebrating this country doesn’t feel the need to qualify the name of the country. Honestly.

Radical: Cherry and the SNP. Gender ideology is being used as a proxy for control of the party.

17 Feb

Victoria Hewson is a solicitor and Rebecca Lowe is the former director of FREER, and a former assistant editor of ConservativeHome. Together they found Radical, a campaign for truth and freedom in the gender recognition debate.

From the sacking of Joanna Cherry from their Westminster front bench, to the astonishing legal and political battles surrounding Alex Salmond, SNP infighting has been making headlines all round. From a Radical point of view, this has caught our attention, because gender ideology is serving both as a cause of splits in the party, and a battleground on which a proxy war for its control is arguably being fought.

You’ve probably noticed that the Scottish government has been pushing ahead with reforms to the Scottish Gender Recognition Act — reforms that would enable people to change their legal sex on the basis of a personal declaration, with no need for any diagnosis of gender dysphoria or other external validation. Yes, this would entail a seismic policy shift to what’s generally referred to as “self-ID”, and which the UK government recently decided not to pursue.

This topic been causing disagreements within the SNP for some years, with senior women including Cherry and finance minister Kate Forbes having expressed their opposition to the introduction of self-ID. Then, at the start of February, Cherry was sacked from her position as SNP spokesperson for Justice and Home Affairs. This followed a high profile and acrimonious row with fellow SNP MP Kirsty Blackman, and the SNP LGBT group “Out for Independence”, which involved allegations of transphobia and antisemitism.

The row was triggered by Cherry’s support for Sarah Phillimore, a barrister who was suspended from Twitter for expressing gender critical views. Phillimore has commenced legal proceedings against Blackman for defamation, and, in an extraordinary twist, another SNP front bencher was sacked after donating to Phillimore’s crowd funder for legal expenses.

It’s crucial to note that this ongoing debate over sex and gender is closely linked to the hate crime laws also being pushed by the Scottish government. The Hate Crime and Public Order (Scotland) Bill currently progressing through the Scottish Parliament would create a new offence of “stirring up hatred”, the scope of which would include relevant incidents related to the protected characteristic of “transgender identity”.

This had led to concerns that it might be the case that, with the passing of the bill, expressing opposition to gender recognition laws, or simply expressing the view that human beings cannot change biological sex, would become criminalised, or that freedom of expression related to these matters would at least become seriously curtailed, owing to people’s fear of falling foul of the new offence.

An amendment to the bill, intended to protect free speech in the “discussion or criticism” of transgender identity, appears to have provoked an “exodus” of young SNP activists from the party. And this, in turn, led to Sturgeon making a speech, in which she firmly took the side of the trans activists, and declared an aim of zero tolerance for transphobia within the party.

This response to the free speech amendment seems to validate the concerns of critics of the bill. After all, as we have argued here many times, the introduction of self-ID is not unequivocally in the interests of trans people: just look at the healthcare risks trans people will face if census-data collectors continue down the self-ID route.

It is absolutely essential for the purposes of proper healthcare resource allocation that there are reliable national statistics, for instance, on the number of people who need access to regular cervical smear tests, or information about testicular cancer screening. It is in nobody’s interests for the simple recognition of biological facts to become illegal — and to equate such recognition with hatred is to diminish the serious genuine struggles trans people often face.

Now, since Cherry is firmly on the “gender-critical” side of the debate — the side, that is, that believes in biological sex, and the societal importance of recognising truths about it — her sacking could easily be seen as a related power play by Sturgeon.

Polling suggests that the removal of Cherry from the front bench has the support of a majority of SNP members. Moreover, Cherry is also associated with Salmond. And the Scottish Parliament’s ongoing inquiry into Sturgeon’s behaviour in connection with the complaints against Salmond — and the eventual criminal proceedings that arose from these complaints — could conceivably result in a finding that Sturgeon violated the ministerial code, and would therefore be expected to resign.

Shoring up her position with party members on a cause that is a priority for many of them will surely help, if Sturgeon is forced to fight to retain the position of first minister and party leader. And SNP members and voters generally support gender-recognitions reforms, even if these are not widely supported by Scottish voters as a whole (indeed, polls suggest that reform of the Gender Recognition Act is of low salience, and only supported by 37 per cent of voters in Scotland).

Now, playing to the party base in times of trouble is, of course, nothing new in politics. Indeed, for supporters of other parties, it’s tempting to enjoy the schadenfreude of SNP MPs, MSPs, and activists turning their customary sanctimony and high-handedness on to each other.

But don’t forget that this power struggle isn’t simply limited to arguments about sex and gender. It carries with it serious threats to free speech and democratic accountability, and reflects deep structural problems with the devolution settlement in Scotland.

Sturgeon may be happy to instrumentalise the interests of trans people and women alike — for it is women who will suffer most at the introduction of self-ID — to try to hold on to her power over what increasingly often seems like a one-party state. But this isn’t just wrong in itself: it likely won’t end happily for anyone.

As the SNP chief executive faces the threat of a perjury investigation, the Salmond fiasco goes from bad to worse

9 Feb

Last week, I wrote about the ongoing collapse of the Scottish Parliament’s official inquiry into the Alex Salmond scandal. Things had got so bad that the Spectator had called for the whole thing to be superseded by a formal, judge-led investigation.

Well, we’re less than a week on and things just keep going from bad to worse.

The catalyst for the latest wave of bad news was the second appearance before MSPs of Peter Murrell, the chief executive of the Scottish National Party and (apropos of nothing) Nicola Sturgeon’s husband.

His first testimony covered neither in glory, as he appeared to contradict the First Minister’s evidence on a vital detail about a key meeting with her predecessor. Sturgeon said that it had been Party business – and thus there was no need to take official minutes – whereas Murrell said it had been Scottish Government business. Failing to keep proper minutes of official business would be a breach of the ministerial code.

As chief executive you’d expect him to know, but Murrell now says that his previous statement was merely ‘speculation’. This has prompted incredulous MSPs to call on the Crown Office to investigate whether or not he committed perjury by lying under oath. And they are reportedly considering it.

Nor is that the only front where the Scottish Government is coming under increasing pressure. Despite Sturgeon promising the inquiry her full cooperation, it has since been revealed that her ministry spent £76,000 preparing civil servants before they gave evidence – and thousands more on lawyers who tried to block MSPs from asking ‘crucial questions’, as the Sunday Mail reports.

Of course, none of this is conclusive evidence of conspiracy. But coming on top of officials changing their stories, panicky responses to run-of-the-mill media requests, and John Swinney’s refusal to authorise a broadening of the inquiry’s scope, it definitely looks as if the Scottish Government has something to hide.

And all of this is unfolding alongside the SNP’s own civil war. A week ago we saw a dramatic development when Joanna Cherry, a high-profile MP and vocal critic of Sturgeon, was dismissed from her role on the Nationalists’ front bench at Westminster. Now the party is reportedly ‘at war’ over fresh allegations against Salmond.

Sue Ruddick, the SNP’s chief operating officer, alleges in a statement that she previously reported the former First Minister to Police Scotland over “an act of physical aggression”. But his legal team have released a statement by Anne Harvey, who works in the Nationalists’ Westminster office, which says: “I know that to be wrong since I was the only witness to this supposed event.”

Who knows where these stories will be a week from today?

Henry Hill: As the Scottish Government digs in, calls grow for a judge-led inquiry into the Salmond scandal

4 Feb

Do we need a judge-led inquiry into the Salmond affair?

The formal inquiry into the Scottish Government’s woeful mishandling of sexual misconduct allegations against Alex Salmond is entering its final weeks, and the SNP is continuing to fight it every step of the way.

Peter Murrell, the Nationalists’ chief executive and Nicola Sturgeon’s husband, has declined a request from MSPs to return and try to explain the important discrepancies between his initial evidence and that of his wife – the Tories have now threatened a parliamentary vote.

Meanwhile MSPs have also James Wolffe QC, the Lord Advocate, to ask whether the Scottish Government has been censoring its evidence to the committee on political grounds, and one of the First Minister’s senior advisers has been accused of saying criminal proceedings would ‘get’ Salmond where the internal probe had failed.

There’s no doubt that something reeks about the whole affair. And it may be that Alex Salmond is able to land some serious blows when he appears before MSPs. But there is growing concern in some quarters that Scottish devolution’s checks and balances aren’t adequate to holding the Scottish Government to account. The Spectator puts it thus:

“The devolved government in Edinburgh is easily the least scrutinised ministry anywhere in the UK, if not further afield. The Scottish parliament lacks the structural robustness of the House of Commons. There is no revising chamber. Committee chairs are handpicked by party whips and there is a near-absence of checks and balances on any executive.”

That’s why the magazine is calling for a judge-led inquiry into the whole thing. Earlier in the week, Stephen Daisley made the case in more detail. For him, the crucial point is that seven of the nine MSPs serving on the current Holyrood committee are not legally trained. This is a fatal flaw in a body charged with forensically investigating a complex legal issue, and to his mind raises the question of whether or not the whole thing was designed to fail by the Scottish Government.

He concludes that: “The only way forward is for the Holyrood inquiry to be dissolved and for parliament to pass legislation requiring ministers to establish a judge-led public inquiry into this entire saga.” But will the Scottish Parliament be ready to take that step?

Downing Street shakes up the Union Unit

A surprising development this week was the sudden departure of Luke Graham, the former MP for Ochil and South Perthshire, as head of Downing Street’s Union Unit.

He is apparently moving north to assist the Scottish Conservatives ahead of the upcoming Scottish elections and being replaced by Oliver Lewis, a Vote Leave veteran who apparently enjoys the monicker ‘Sonic’. The FT reports that Lewis “is said by colleagues to have wanted “a clean slate” and to build a new team.” Other reports float other reasons: some suggest that Graham didn’t build alliances in government, others that he wasn’t given sufficient authority to actually do his job and direct Union policy.

What isn’t yet clear is what the change of personnel means in terms of policy. Apparently the Prime Minister wants a ‘change of tone’ when it comes to Scotland, but what does that mean? We can only hope it has nothing to do with Michael Gove’s recent meeting with Gordon Brown, and doesn’t presage any change in his well-justified policy of refusing a second referendum.

But the evidence so far is hopeful. In fact, this week the Government got more pro-active in its efforts to try and use its recent successes on the Covid-19 front to undo some of the damage wrought by its earlier failures in tackling the pandemic.

Highlighting the fact that the Scottish Government’s vaccine rollout has fallen behind the rest of the UK, Alister Jack wrote to Sturgeon to offer HM Government support. There followed a row when the Ministry of Defence announced that the Army would be taking an expanded role in the jabs programme north of the border, amidst fears that current efforts had created a ‘postcode lottery’. Gove took up the ‘stronger together’ theme in an op-ed for the Sun.

Downing Street had a further fillip this week when new analysis suggested that the economic cost of leaving the United Kingdom would weigh three times more heavily on Scotland than those associated with Brexit, offering them a useful line of counter-attack against the SNP’s efforts to woo No/Remain voters.

In the meantime there is the usual brace of stories about SNP misgovernment. Its response to an inquiry into the mishandling of a high-profile ferry contract has been criticised, whilst the Courier reports that school teaching materials featuring the Nationalists’ logo have been branded ‘politically biased’. There was also the sacking of Joanna Cherry, which I covered earlier in the week.

Cherry’s dismissal shows that the SNP leadership is under more pressure than ever

2 Feb

Yesterday morning, the Scottish National Party’s Westminster group called an emergency meeting at which they voted to sack Joanna Cherry from her frontbench role as the party’s Justice spokesperson.

This is not the first move the Nationalist leadership has made against Cherry, a high-profile critic of Nicola Sturgeon who is widely seen as an ally of Alex Salmond. The party previously changed its rules on MPs seeking election to the Scottish Parliament in a blatant effort to prevent her from contesting Edinburgh Central this year.

But it is nonetheless an escalation of the civil strife which has been brewing inside the SNP for a while now, and perhaps a sign of the mounting pressure Nicola Sturgeon is under as MSPs continue to press the Scottish Government over the Salmond affair.

The rift between the First Minister and her predecessor is so deadly because it maps on to several other splits which have been opening up between different parts of the SNP over highly emotive subjects such as independence strategy and gender issues. Cherry is a vocal feminist critic of the Nationalists’ hard pivot towards trans activists, which has become a source of growing tension between different elements of the party.

So too has a recent decision to give disabled and ethnic minority candidates all the top spots on the SNP’s regional lists in this year’s Holyrood elections. Taken alongside the recent victory by opponents of the leadership in elections to the party’s National Executive Committee, it is clear that the SNP’s previous iron discipline is rusting fast.

None of this means that the disgruntled activists pose an immediate threat to Sturgeon, who still commands the loyalty of the great majority of her MPs, MSPs, and activists, most of whom surely recognise that she is an absolutely indispensable asset to the cause of independence.

But it does nonetheless leave the First Minister more vulnerable than she would otherwise be. If Sturgeon had the SNP phalanx of old behind her, she could face her opponents in the Scottish Parliament with much more security in her position. Were she not mired in the Salmond scandal, she could probably be much more sanguine about a dissatisfied minority inside her own party. As it is, there are people ready to strike if the Holyrood inquiry does enough political damage – or if the First Minister fails to induce Boris Johnson to grant another independence referendum later this year.

For their part, the Scottish Conservatives have claimed that the move is a ‘dead cat’ strategy to distract the media from the Scottish Government’s inadequate vaccine rollout.