Henry Hill: Welsh Conservative leader under pressure to quit over Senedd drinking session

21 Jan

Davies reportedly mulling resignation as leadership rival is deselected

Paul Davies, the leader of the Conservatives in the Welsh Parliament, is apparently considering his position after being caught breaking public health rules at a ‘secret boozy party’ at the Senedd.

He and several other Labour and Tory MSs were reportedly kicked out of the building by security at 2am after getting “caught red-handed” helping themselves to alcohol from an “open bar”. Darren Millar, the Conservatives’ chief whip and a key ally of Davies, was also amongst those present.

The timing is terrible, as the scandal has completely cut across the Conservatives’ attempts to hold Mark Drakeford’s feet to the fire over his effective sabotage of the Welsh vaccine rollout. Labour have been swift to call for the suspension of those involved, and taken action against their own MS to increase the pressure. Meanwhile a growing chorus of grassroots Tories are also calling for Davies to go.

For his part, local sources suggest the leader has already offered to resign, but that Millar is digging his heels in. For the moment they have apologised and denied any wrongdoing. It isn’t entirely obvious who his successor would be, although several sources suggested Andrew RT Davies is the only contender with adequate profile and standing with the grassroots. ‘RT’ was ousted by an internal putsch in the summer of 2018.

Just as with the ructions inside the Scottish Nationalists, there are some who detect dark forces at work in the calls for Davies to step down. Whilst it makes sense for activists to wish to avoid a long (perhaps very long) election campaign fronted by a wounded leader, others see this as the latest salvo in a deepening split in the Party between the Cardiff Bay old guard and increasingly emboldened devosceptics.

Carwyn Jones, the former First Minister enjoying a second life as a federalist on the constitutional cabaret circuit, took to Twitter to suggest that whilst “of course” the incident needed to be investigated, the real question was whether or not the news was leaked to the press by what he ignorantly dubbed the Welsh Tories’ ‘English nationalist’ wing.

This echoes the language employed by Huw Irranca-Davies, a Labour MS, in this story about the surprising results of the Conservatives’ candidate selection contests. These saw Suzy Davies, a sitting MS who contested the last leadership election, placed bottom of her regional list by local members. Absent a surprise win in her target constituency of Bridgend, this means she will be leaving the Senedd.

Davies is widely viewed as being on the Welsh nationalist wing of the Conservatives, and even a source that regretted her deselection said that she was “not a Tory”. But despite the suggestion by David Melding, another outgoing MS on her wing of the party, that it was a devosceptic stitch-up, Davies herself insists it was simply down to the dynamics of her local party – although the two are of course not mutually exclusive.

Melding’s unease is readily explained by the fact that devosceptics are breaking out into the open inside the party. This week, the BBC reported that several Tory candidates are openly advocating abolishing the Welsh Parliament. Activists have been galvanised by the emergence of the Abolish the Welsh Assembly Party, which the latest polls suggest is on track to win two seats in the Senedd.

It has already shifted the centre of gravity on the Welsh right. Davies has previously tried to ‘reset’ his leadership with a devosceptic pivot, and the old Conservative strategy of seeking some sort of arrangement with Plaid Cymru now looks like an artefact of another era.

MSPs keep up the pressure on Sturgeon as they seek ‘explosive’ documents

It’s been nice to lead on something else this week, but we couldn’t conclude the column without checking in on the Alex Salmond affair. Last week, the former First Minister asked the official inquiry to grant him immunity from prosecution in order to make sure that he could honour his oath to tell the whole truth when giving evidence.

Now the Daily Telegraph reports that MSPs, whilst sceptical of the sources, are trying to find a way to get hold of documents allegedly secured by Salmond but which the latter is unable to publish. These apparently cast doubt on the evidence given to the Scottish Parliament by Peter Murrell, the SNP’s chief executive and Nicola Sturgeon’s husband. However, in a break for the First Minister it seems that important evidence from Geoff Aberdein, a close ally of Salmond, won’t be published.

Meanwhile she also faces more questions after officials accidentally leaked to Sky their media strategy for handling what ought to have been a run-of-the-mill request for a copy of the Scottish Government’s grievance procedure. It included seeking sign-off from the offices of both Sturgeon and Leslie Evans, Scotland’s most senior civil servant.

And your run-of-the-mill tale of SNP incompetence for the week: Jeane Freeman, their Health Secretary, has apologised to Matt Hancock after accidentally publishing figures which could jeopardise British vaccine procurement efforts. She may have breached the ministerial code.

Henry Hill: MSPs concerned that Scottish Government spent tens of thousands ‘preparing’ witnesses

14 Jan

Taxpayers face new £55,000 bill to prep civil servants for Salmond hearings

On Monday, I wrote about the latest twist in the ‘Alex Salmond saga’ which is gripping Scottish politics. The former First Minister has made explosive allegations against his successor, Nicola Sturgeon, to the effect that she has broken the Ministerial Code and misled the Scottish Parliament. If substantiated, they could end her career.

The First Minister already seems to be in a potentially tricky position. Salmond claims to have several witnesses who can corroborate his version of events, whereas Sturgeon and her husband, Peter Murrell (who also happens to be the SNP’s Chief Executive) have contradicted each others’ testimony.

Now the Daily Telegraph reveals that Scottish taxpayers stumped up almost £55,000 to help “prepare” six senior civil servants who gave evidence to the Scottish Parliament’s inquiry into the affair, sparking concerns from astonished MSPs that these witnesses might have been ‘coached’. As the paper reports:

“Staff logs released in response to a Freedom of Information request also show that witnesses spent several hours preparing for sessions, only to then face criticism for “forgetting” crucial details, giving misleading evidence, or dodging questions. Despite the extensive and costly preparation, and appearing under oath, four of the six civil servants were forced to correct or clarify their evidence after their appearances.”

Salmond himself has also hit out at the expense, saying that “the cost of the cover-up continues to mount”. MSPs are of course investigating because he ended up being awarded over £500,000 in costs after the courts ruled that the Scottish Government’s initial inquiry into him was unlawful and potentially biased.

The Telegraph also reports that the ex-SNP leader is wrangling with lawyers over whether or not he can release certain documents he obtained during his trial. Salmond says that if he is not allowed to do so, it may render him unable to fulfil his oath of truthfulness in front of MSPs.

In the meantime, the Nationalists’ posture of extreme defensiveness towards the whole thing is unchanged. Having frequently stonewalled the inquiry and refused to release evidence, now John Swinney, the SNP’s deputy leader, has refused to broaden the scope of the inquiry into his boss.

According to the Herald, a cross-party group of MSPs on the Holyrood committee wanted the Scottish Government to formally broaden the scope of the investigation being conducted by James Hamilton, the independent advisor on the Code, to address the specific allegations levelled by Salmond. But whilst Sturgeon has said that he can explore ‘any issue’, Swinney’s refusal to officially sanction the broader investigation suggests they are not nearly so relaxed as the First Minister would like people to believe.

There were also some interesting stories on the health front. First, the Sunday Mail revealed that the SNP’s £500 bung to NHS workers is being paid for out of the Covid-19 grant from Westminster. This has been attacked because it will go to “highly paid doctors and health service ­managers” and not low-paid frontline workers outwith the NHS.

Second, the Times reports that claims by Jeane Freeman, the Nationalist health minister, that the UK Government had ‘back-ended’ Scotland’s vaccine shipments are not borne out by the data. Earlier this week, my colleague Charlotte revealed that SNP members are amongst the least likely to take the vaccine, and most likely to worry that it will prove unsafe or ineffective, of any political group.

Nor have the other divisions within the SNP gone away whilst this drags on. This week Joanna Cherry, a high-profile Nationalist MP and ally of Salmond, made headlines by urging separatist activists to prepare alternative pathways to independence in the event that the British Government continues to refuse to grant a re-run of the 2014 vote. This reflects growing grassroots frustration with Sturgeon’s gradualist, by-the-book approach which could yet boil over if the First Minister finds herself politically wounded, yet in office and deprived of a plebiscite, after the upcoming Scottish elections.

Johnson and Gove to meet and set Union strategy

On the subject of the referendum, the Herald reports that Boris Johnson and Michael Gove “are set to hold private talks on how to give the Union a “big push” in the face of rising support in opinion polls for Scottish independence and May’s Holyrood elections.”

The plan is apparently to launch a new campaign to promote the UK in the spring, ahead of the Scottish elections currently slated for May but which will probably be pushed back into the summer. Officials have reportedly been discussing the four Home Nations ‘jumping together’ to delay the polls. Central to it will be the delayed Dunlop Review, which is looking at how the British Government can maintain and enhance its ‘Union capability‘ in the era of devolution.

As I noted on UnHerd yesterday, such a meeting could also see an important clash between the Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster (‘CDL’, in Whitehall parlance) over the broader direction of the Government’s pro-UK strategy. Johnson’s instincts seem to be much more aggressive than Gove’s, who has some in government worried about an ‘appease the SNP’ mentality on the part of his team.

In other news Michelle Ballantyne, a right-wing MSP who has previously challenged for the leadership of the Scottish Conservatives, has defected to become the first representative in the Scottish Parliament of Reform UK, Nigel Farage’s latest vehicle. This will probably be a disappointment to the Alliance for Unity (George Galloway’s outfit), who have been trying to position themselves as the outsiders’ force in Scottish unionism.

Douglas Ross: No more excuses. No more evasion. Sturgeon’s position is untenable if Salmond is telling the truth.

14 Jan

Douglas Ross is Leader of the Scottish Conservative Party, and is MP for Moray.

The claims made by Alex Salmond about his successor are genuinely jaw-dropping.

Salmond asserts that Nicola Sturgeon knew about the Scottish Government internal investigation into alleged sexual harassment by him in advance of meetings on the 29th of March and 2nd of April 2018. He also alleges that Sturgeon’s top special adviser, Liz Lloyd, leaked the name of one of the complainers to Salmond’s former chief of staff.

In addition, he states that Sturgeon failed to inform the civil service of government meetings with him. He accuses her of having “broke” the ministerial code on numerous occasions and making “untrue” statements that “misled” the Scottish Parliament.

The sheer severity of these claims can only mean that the First Minister’s future is on the line. Nicola Sturgeon repeatedly told the Scottish Parliament that she was unaware of the complaints against Salmond before the meeting on the 2nd – only to later recall that she had ‘forgotten’ about a ‘chance’ meeting with Salmond’s former chief of staff on the 29th.

If it is true that the meeting on the 29th was prearranged and not a chance encounter, and that she knew about the investigation into Salmond beforehand, then Sturgeon has clearly been lying to the Scottish Parliament.

The media has been caught up in the spectacle of the struggle between the First Minister and her political mentor, the former First Minister, but at the crux of this dispute are women let down by the complaints process, and the issue of public trust in our politics.

There is the indisputable fact that the SNP Government’s botched mishandling of the process saw over £500,000 of taxpayers’ money paid out to Salmond. The need to uncover the truth and restore trust is especially important at a time when we are relying on public compliance with the decisions taken by politicians to combat the coronavirus pandemic.

That is why the Scottish Conservatives have continually challenged the SNP Government on its failure to allow proper scrutiny of this murky business. On two occasions we led the opposition parties in defeating the SNP in the Scottish Parliament on its failure to release legal advice. Outraged SNP MPs should look closer to home when they are considering their next target to accuse of treating the Parliament with contempt.

Meanwhile the SNP Government in Holyrood has done everything it can to avoid transparency and scrutiny throughout this process. Even Linda Fabiani, the SNP chair of the Salmond inquiry committee, has said that she was “completely frustrated” at the lack of evidence from the government. Sturgeon promised that the entire SNP Government would “co-operate fully” with it but, like much else concerned with this sordid affair, that promise could not have been further from the truth.

Now it is rejecting any attempt to expand the civil service’s independent investigation. If there is nothing to hide, then why is the SNP Government seeking to avoid further scrutiny. Why is Sturgeon so bullish about all of this in public yet, behind closed doors, holding back evidence, and hiding behind committee and investigative terms of reference? These actions only raise suspicion.

Sturgeon knows that her position is untenable if Salmond is telling the truth. She was on the opposition side when Henry McLeish resigned as First Minister for subletting his constituency office. And when David McLetchie had to quit as Scottish Conservative leader for using publicly paid for taxis for party political purposes.

Then, as Deputy First Minister, she welcomed Wendy Alexander’s resignation as Labour group leader over failing to declare donations to her leadership campaign in her register of interests. Nicola Sturgeon knows the precedent for Scottish political leaders – and they all resigned for far less than she is accused of.

There can be no more excuses, no more obfuscation. The complainants deserve the truth of why they were let down so badly by the Scottish Government’s internal process. Scottish taxpayers deserve to know the truth of why public money had to handed to Salmond. The Scottish Parliament deserves to know the truth of statements that the First Minister made to it. And just a few months ahead of the Scottish Parliament Election, voters deserve to know the truth of whether they can trust Sturgeon’s word.

If there is nothing to hide, then she should have no problem with giving us the truth.

Salmond’s sensational attack on Sturgeon threatens to tear the SNP apart

11 Jan

Over the weekend, the Times reported that Alex Salmond, the former First Minister of Scotland, has made an extraordinary attack on Nicola Sturgeon, his successor and one-time protégé.

In evidence to the man investigating the SNP leader’s conduct, he claims that Sturgeon has misled the Scottish Parliament and broken the ministerial code by failing to keep civil servants informed of her meetings with him over sexual misconduct allegations.

We’ve covered the affair in the Red, White, and Blue column, although this latest twist has seen another round of pieces offering the broad sweep of the story. But the nub of it is that Salmond is convinced that Sturgeon and her allies stacked an official inquiry against him in order to try and prevent his return to front-line politics in Edinburgh, and now he’s out for revenge.

This inter-personal drama is made much more dangerous for the broader party because it intersects with several other fault lines running through the Nationalists, over independence strategy, gender politics, and more besides. Just as the SNP stands on what might be the cusp of fulfilling its historic mission, its phalanx-like discipline is breaking down.

What the political fallout of all this will be is less obvious. So far, the Scottish Government has enjoyed the same sort of political un-life enjoyed by Theresa May’s administration when it was shedding Cabinet ministers left and right but still comfortably above 40 per cent in the polls. The SNP’s electoral coalition is held together by an existential constitutional question and seems fairly impervious to day-to-day misgovernment.

But if Salmond’s allegations against Sturgeon are substantiated – a big if – that could be a problem of a different order. The First Minister would probably have to resign, and even if she toughed it out her reputation would be severely damaged. The damage to the broader Nationalist cause could be severe because, as research from These Islands has illustrated, the extraordinary esteem in which she is held by Scottish voters is one of the biggest assets they have.

The Nationalists took office in 2007, and since then unionists have not succeeded in building a political machine to match them. It would be a strange twist of fate if the thing to deliver the Union from the SNP was the SNP itself.

Henry Hill: Johnson suggests 40-year wait for the next Scottish independence vote

7 Jan

Johnson calls for decades-long wait for second independence vote

Last month, I wrote that there was unease in parts of the Government about an alleged “appease-the-SNP mentality” on the part of some of those charged with setting its strategy for combatting the Scottish National Party.

But the New Year has not seen any softening of Boris Johnson’s approach to the Scottish question. In fact, on Monday he went some way towards firming it up.

Comparing the Scottish referendum in 2014 to the EU plebiscite two years later, the Prime Minister suggested that there ought to be a 40-year gap between such votes on significant constitutional issues. This goes even further than I suggested when I wrote in 2017 about imposing a 20-year moratorium on the independence question.

Although the status of Johnson’s off-the-cuff remarks is never certain, this could be a welcome step towards fleshing out the case against granting a poll if the SNP win this year’s Holyrood elections. They will insist that his position isn’t sustainable, but it is. Whilst simply repeating the ‘once in a generation’ mantra probably won’t cut it, there are plenty of further arguments for such a refusal. But ministers will need to start deploying them sooner rather than later if they are to look as if they’re being made in good faith.

The real question is whether or not the Prime Minister has the wisdom and the inclination to use the time it’s so obviously his intention to buy himself to put in long-term work to shore up the Union.

Meanwhile Scotland’s opposition parties have demanded that Nicola Sturgeon pause campaigning on independence to focus on the pandemic, a Tory MSP has been accused of “insensitive and irresponsible” comments about Covid-19, Johnson claimed the UK has been central to the vaccine rollout in Scotland, and Ruth Davidson has urged politicians to ensure that the nation repays its debt to the young when the crisis has passed.

Civil servant at centre of Salmond inquiry in line for payout as MP demands sackings

The Daily Record reports that the senior civil servant who apologised for the unlawful Government probe into Alex Salmond “is in line for a £250,000 lump sum when she retires”, as well as an annual sum of £85,000.

Leslie Evans, who currently serves as the Scottish Government’s Permanent Secretary, has come under sustained criticism over its handling of the botched inquiry into allegations against Alex Salmond. The former First Minister had legal costs of over £500,000 paid by the Scottish taxpayer after a court ruled that the process had been, as the paper puts it, “unlawful and tainted by apparent bias”.

Although she apologised, Evans has subsequently been criticised by MSPs investigating the fiasco over the Scottish Government’s refusal to hand over key documents, as well as for having to ‘correct’ some of the evidence she gave personally.

Salmond has called on the Permanent Secretary to consider her position, and he isn’t the only one looking for scalps. This week Kenny MacAskill, a Nationalist MP, wrote in the Scotsman about the lack of consequences for those involved. And in another sign of the SNP’s fraying discipline, he didn’t confine his fire to the officials:

“After the debacle of the civil case, she could have resigned quietly and much would have been forgotten or not gone much further. Likewise the SNP CEO could have called it quits and allowed others to take over. But no, so now we face many more being drawn into the mire. Hell mend them I say.”

UDA issue threat against Foster

Arlene Foster has been warned by the police of a threat to her life by the Ulster Defence Association, one of the Province’s largest loyalist paramilitary groups, the Belfast Telegraph reports.

This is apparently not related to the Irish Sea border but stems from her support for the family of Glenn Quinn, a terminally-ill man who was murdered by men believed to be linked to the UDA in January last year.

Politicians from across the spectrum – including Sinn Fein, whose relationship to political violence is unavoidably ambiguous – have condemned the threat to the First Minister.

Bogdanor hits out at the folly of federalism

A potentially noteworthy development in the constitutional debate today as Professor Vernon Bogdanor, one of the UK’s highest-profile constitutional thinkers, comes out against both federalism and endlessly ceding more powers to the SNP.

Writing in today’s Daily Telegraph, he argues that there is no precedent for a successful federation where one unit comprises 85 per cent of its population, as England would, and that there is no mandate for breaking England up into regions. And as for the usual call for ‘more powers’:

“Nor does it make sense to devolve more powers to Scotland. She already controls domestic policy – education, health etc – and effectively income tax also. The more powers devolved, the less leverage for Scottish MPs at Westminster, to the benefit of the separatists. Besides, the SNP does not effectively use the powers it already has… Perhaps the best argument for the Nationalists’ policy of “independence in Europe” is that Scotland could hardly be worse governed by Brussels than she is by the SNP.”

Obviously this won’t fix much on its own. The key problem with the current constitutional debate remains that Labour is hopelessly committed to trying to validate the mistakes it made in the 1990s. But following as it does Boris Johnson’s unguarded but accurate comments about devolution having been ‘a disaster’, and coming from a former advocate of reform, it’s the latest signal of a slow but significant shift in pro-UK thinking.

In 2021 the Union is in danger, but there is a way to ridicule and defeat the Nats

1 Jan

On Wednesday, Ian Blackford enlivened the start of the debate on the European Union (Future Relationship) Bill by insisting on a superfluous division and raising several spurious points of order.

The duty of the Opposition is to oppose, and as parliamentary leader of the Scottish nationalists he performed that function.

So although the thought of breaking the Union of 1707 fills me with horror – I believe the destruction of Great Britain would be “a monstrous act of vandalism” and turn England and Scotland into narrow-minded nations – one should perhaps, as one stumbles into the new year, lighten up occasionally, and admit that the Nats bring life to a House of Commons which might otherwise die of boredom.

Quentin Letts, sketchwriter for The Times, yesterday described them to ConHome as

“a sketchwriter’s dream – I often give thanks for them. Labour are a non-event. The Scots are always indignant about something.”

Boris Johnson has stolen many of Labour’s clothes, and with them many of Labour’s seats. He tore Brexit from Jeremy Corbyn’s palsied grasp, and on Wednesday left Sir Keir Starmer with no sane course but to follow in the Government’s wake.

Labour under its new leadership has not yet worked out what it believes in, who or what it is there to fight for.

The SNP knows exactly what it is fighting for, and can adopt the most irresponsible tactics as it strives to embarrass the British Government.

It hopes that this year will be its year, and that by sweeping the board at the Holyrood elections in May it will place Johnson under unbearable pressure to concede another referendum on independence.

It also regards Johnson as the best recruiting sergeant for Scottish independence. Kirsty Blackman (SNP, Aberdeen North) opened her speech in Wednesday’s debate by declaring:

“I want to take this opportunity to thank the Prime Minister. In recent years he has done more for the cause of Scottish independence than any other Unionist politician.”

And yet the role of Blackford and his colleagues at Westminster is not quite as easy as it looks. Later in her speech, Blackman said:

“I refuse to vote for this dreadful deal. It is a bit like we had been drinking a lovely glass of water. The Brexiteers offered the UK a malt whisky, but they are now saying that we will all die of thirst if we do not choose to drink the steaming mug of excrement that the UK Government are offering us. There is no way that I am choosing to drink that excrement, and neither will I be complicit in forcing my constituents to do so. Scotland’s future must be in Scotland’s hands, not those of the Prime Minister.”

This kind of horrible image, well calculated to appeal to the cybernats, gets any amount of play on social media. Blackman used the Commons as a broadcasting suite, with Twitter as the amplifier – an attitude by no means confined to the SNP.

But as a shrewd Scottish journalist remarked to ConHome, “There is a law of diminishing returns on that.”

He observed that if the SNP talks too often in that manner, respectable voters, whose support will be needed in the Holyrood elections and any subsequent referendum, will declare in a stern tone: “You’re an embarrassment to Scotland.”

And neither Blackford nor most of his colleagues wants to be an embarrassment to Scotland. They are not disgusting people, and in their most objectionable performances at Westminster there is a high degree of bogusness.

As Jacob Rees-Mogg, Leader of the House, put it to ConHome,

“The difficulty for Ian [Blackford] is that he’s such a fundamentally decent and nice man that he can’t really upset proceedings in the Commons. He’s not Parnell.”

Blackford’s speech in the debate was too long, and contained a flagrant inaccuracy about Scotland’s role in the Hanseatic League, identified by my colleague Henry Hill.

But as the next speaker, Sir Peter Bottomley, the Father of the House, remarked,

“The House will know that the right hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford) is a more cheerful person than his speech suggested.”

Other witnesses have confirmed that Blackford, whatever his public awkwardness, is in private life a delightful man.

Because of the obstructionism of Charles Stewart Parnell and other Irish MPs in the late 19th century, the Commons amended its standing orders in order to prevent business being brought to a standstill.

So even if the SNP wished to wreck the Commons – and delightful people do sometimes feel an urge to wreck things – the necessary means are not to hand.

But most of the SNP MPs are not, at heart, wreckers. Many of them grow fond of the Commons. Just as a footballer cannot help feeling an affection for a stadium in which he or she scores goals, so a debater cannot help feeling an affection for a Chamber in which he or she scores points.

The SNP’s star players include Stuart McDonald (Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East), Joanna Cherry (Edinburgh South West) and Tommy Sheppard (Edinburgh East).

Martin Docherty-Hughes (West Dunbartonshire) is described as being “terrific in the Defence Committee”.

And what is even more wonderful, some of these SNP MPs yearn to become members of the Privy Council, entitled to be addressed as Right Honourable, and sworn to defend Her Majesty the Queen against all assaults by her enemies.

In 2015, when the SNP made its great Westminster breakthrough, winning 56 out of 59 Scottish seats and supplanting the Liberal Democrats as the third party, its then parliamentary leader, Angus Robertson, was made a Privy Counsellor, having been appointed a member of the Intelligence and Security Committee.

To compile a full list of the SNP MPs who yearn for this distinction would be beyond my powers, especially as those on the list might deny any desire for such a bauble.

But only last month Patrick Grady (Glasgow North), the SNP’s Chief Whip, remarked of his party’s longest serving MP, who was first elected in 2001:

“I also pay tribute to my hon. Friend —he really ought to be my right hon. Friend—the Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart).”

Grady is an amiable man, who may be presumed to know that Wishart (who incidentally would have loved to become Commons Speaker) would also love to become a privy counsellor, so entitled to be addressed in the Commons as right hon.

This streak of conservatism – of loyalty to existing institutions – within Scottish nationalism is not sufficiently appreciated.

Nor are the deep divisions within the SNP between supporters of the present leader, Nicola Sturgeon, and supporters of her predecessor, Alex Salmond, sufficiently understood.

The Nats preserve an outer unity which is far from doing justice to their inner hatreds.

Their discipline renders them incapable of working out what to do when one of their number – for example Margaret Ferrier – strays from the strict path of virtue.

They are, in short, in many ways ludicrous. As Michael Gove, winding up Wednesday’s debate and using to the full the advantage of being born a Scotsman, asked:

“What have they said in the past? Nicola Sturgeon said that no deal would be a ‘catastrophic idea’, that the SNP could not ‘countenance in any way’ no deal, and that SNP MPs will do ‘everything possible’ to stop no deal—except, of course, by actually voting against it today.

“Indeed, so opposed to no deal was the SNP that the hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry) went to court to ensure that if the Prime Minister took us out of the European Union without a deal, he would go to jail. Now the leader of the SNP is voting to take us out of the EU without a deal—something that his own party said should be an imprisonable offence. So what is he going to do now? Turn himself in? Submit to a citizen’s arrest at the hands of the hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh South West? If his party follows through on its previous convictions, I, of course, will campaign for him. The cry will go out from these Benches: ‘Free the Lochaber one!'”

The SNP ought not to be taken as seriously as it wishes us to take it. Much the best way to embarrass its members at Westminster would be to hail them as friends and fellow members of the Establishment.

Henry Hill: MSPs scent blood as the Scottish Government fights to thwart the Salmond inquiry

26 Nov

It’s been another week of increasingly bitter fighting between Nicola Sturgeon’s government as MSPs as the Scottish Parliament tries once again to force the publication of its legal advice in the Alex Salmond affair.

When last we checked in on this story, the First Minister was facing calls for the scope of the formal inquiry to be ‘broadened’ as her timeline regarding what she knew when was called into question.

Since then, the Scottish Government has been fighting a ferocious rearguard action against Holyrood’s formal investigation. So much so that Linda Fabiani, an SNP MSP who is chairing the inquiry, has attacked its delays as “unacceptable”. The spur for this was John Swinney refusing to send two senior civil servants to give evidence. In a letter, the Deputy First Minister claimed that their appearance “would create an unacceptable risk” of allowing the ‘jigsaw identification’ of the people who made the original complaints against Salmond.

Murdo Fraser, one of the Conservatives on the investigation, claimed that the SNP “continue to block the vital work of this committee at every turn and are evading any sort of scrutiny.” Jackie Baillie, a Labour MSP, branded it an ‘outrage’. The Scottish Government’s defeat in court by the former First Minister cost taxpayers half a million pounds.

Legislators have also stepped up their efforts to force ministers to publish the legal advice it received ahead of the Salmond case. MSPs voted a second time for the Scottish Government to do so, in what has been described as an ’embarrassing’ defeat for Sturgeon. The vote was 55-45, with four abstentions – the Greens breaking away to vote with the unionist parties and robbing the Nationalists of their usual de facto majority.

Now the Scottish Conservatives are threatening to take the administration to court in an attempt to force their hand.

(Although they apparently won’t be doing the same the SNP’s decision to impose movement restrictions. Adam Tomkins, a Tory MSP and constitutional specialist, has questioned whether or not the Scottish Government’s move to restrict travel between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom is “within Holyrood’s competence”. But the Tories voted for the plans anyway, prompting Oliver Mundell to resign from the front bench.)

For his part, Salmond is continuing to do everything he can to make life difficult for his successor, most recently on defence. His supporters have accused the Nationalist leadership of jeopardising the party’s long-standing commitment to unilateral nuclear disarmament after they pressed for the multilateral alternative as part of the Government’s latest defence review. The ex-First Minister told the Times that: “For the SNP, the cause of unilateral nuclear disarmament has been second only to independence throughout the party’s history. It would be a fatal bargain to desert either, with victory in sight.”

If successful, this attack could open yet another fault line inside an increasingly divided Nationalist party, alongside those on gender issues and independence strategy, and give Salmond another opportunity to pose as the voice of the true believers against his successor’s gradualist approach. Martin Docherty-Hughes, the SNP’s defence spokesman, said he was “sceptical at the motivations” of those alleging the Party had betrayed its unilateralist roots.

And if the First Minister didn’t have enough on her plate, she has had to step up to defend her Westminster lieutenant after he was accused of ‘bullying’ a photographer. Critics claim Ian Blackford MP was trying to ‘stir up hatred’ when he called Ollie Taylor out for taking photographs of scenes in his constituency, alleging that the photographer – whom he assumed was based in England – was breaking lockdown rules. Taylor has dismissed his subsequent apology as ‘pathetic’ and has apparently started legal proceedings.

On top of that, Scottish Government ministers “are under growing pressure to release full minutes from meetings of the coronavirus advisory group after accusations that they are failing to be open with the public”, the Times reports. This comes alongside the news that ‘proportionately more people north of border have been dying of coronavirus than in England’, which risks undermining the impression of competence which has lifted the Nationalists’ fortunes in recent months after years of Brexit failing to do so. Sturgeon has also apparently broken ranks on a common UK-wide approach to Christmas restrictions, when polling suggests voters strongly support a common set of rules.

Yet more evidence, then, of a deeply divided party, held together in part by the imminence of next year’s Scottish Parliament elections and then – if the separatists secure a majority, and the British Government is feeble – a second independence referendum.

But can the opposition parties make this count? Douglas Ross has been out saying he’s ‘in it to win it’ in 2021 (although of course he would), and even went so far as to suggest a coalition with Labour to kick the Nationalists out. The latter of course immediately rejected it, but that could simply signal to committed unionist voters that they are less solid on the constitutional question than the Tories whilst the original offer sends the message that Ross’s Conservatives are a mainstream, centre-facing party.

Yet he will need to watch his unionist flank. The decision to support the Nationalists’ travel restrictions has led to a few cut-up membership cards, and the last thing the Scottish Tories need is a Wales-style split amongst their core supporters.

Garvan Walshe: Gloomy Sturgeon projects competence. The Government doesn’t – and the Union may be the price it pays.

19 Nov

Garvan Walshe is a former National and International Security Policy Adviser to the Conservative Party. He runs TRD Policy.

The Prime Minister’s reset has had immediate effects on Scotland. Out with “devolution is a disaster”, in with a “Union task force” (£). And in the Financial Times to boot, no longer boycotted by the No 10 media operation, but graced by a Prime Ministerial op-ed.

Details about the task force, which is to include English, Welsh and Scottish Tory MPs, are scarce. As the party with no Northern Irish MPs, it would be wise to add a Northern Irish peer, and David Trimble is an obvious candidate. Its mission to make the emotional and cultural case for the Union is welcome. Merely pointing to the fiscal benefits of Scottish membership of the Union is too easily spun as “we pay for you, so shut up” (a problem that scuppered Arthur Balfour’s unsuccessful “killing home rule with kindness” in relation to Ireland at the turn of the century).

The Scottish experience in the Union in the 100 years before the independence push has been a good deal better than the Irish (it’s only a decade since the last Scottish Prime Minister), but that hasn’t stopped the SNP dominating Scottish politics as Charles Stewart Parnell and John Redmond dominated the Irish scene.

Unlike Redmond and Parnell, the SNP doesn’t hold the balance of power at Westminster, but it has, because of the devolution, a platform to show how it would govern an independent Scotland.

Though it might irk unionists, who can point at failures in education, a self-inflicted wound over trans self-ID, the grubby mess involving Alex Salmond’s trial, and cruelty of anti-Covid measures applied to Scottish students, it’s a platform the SNP has made good use of.

It took maximum advantage of two events — Brexit and the Covid pandemic — to switch the balance of risk away from independence and convince Scots that leaving the Union had become the safer option. Brexit moved public opinion to give independence a slight edge. Covid has turned that slender lead into a solid advantage of around ten points.

The effect of Brexit will not be possible to address in the short term. There’s simply a difference of belief between the Government, which was elected to get Brexit done, after all, and Scottish public opinion, which is strongly against it, but safety and predictability are things the Government should, in principle, be able to get a handle on.

Number 10 has come in for heavy criticism for its management of the pandemic, which, however true it may be in an absolute sense, feels distinctly unfair when compared to Scotland.

England’s record has not been particularly good, but then neither has that of France, Spain, Belgium, Sweden, the United States, or most pointedly Scotland. All have had high death rates, found their test and trace systems overwhelmed, and struggled to gain acceptance for public health restrictions. These serious problems are common to almost all Western countries. An independent Scotland is just as likely to suffer from them.

What the SNP has been able to do has been to communicate stability (something that comes more naturally to Sturgeon than the bombastic Salmond). Unlike the Government in London, which has veered between seriousness and hope, Sturgeon has been consistently sober and gloomy. She has avoided overpromising on test and trace, and did not convert useful rapid antigen testing into a grossly over-the-top operation moonshot. This has allowed her to be perceived as far more competent despite having the same Western Standard Average performance in managing the disease.

There is, however, a useful lesson to be drawn from this. Projecting competence does not require achieving excellence. The public will react positively to a government that provides a realistic assessment of the difficulties faced. They understand that governing a country isn’t like pitching for investment in a start up, and would prefer a tolerably realistic assessment of the difficulties ahead then to endure an emotional rollercoaster of hopes raised only to be dashed.

This is not to rule out inspiration as a part of political rhetoric, but it is best for mobilising support for very long-term struggles, like the fight against climate change.

Scots go to the polls next May, and whether the SNP can get an overall majority at Holyrood will be a key test of their movement. Douglas Ross has an uphill battle to stop them, but reset towards realism from the Government could just convince wavering Scots that it’s safe to stay in.

Henry Hill: Sturgeon’s timeline on Salmond scandal called into question as MSPs demand evidence

12 Nov

SNP timeline on Salmond grows ‘murkier’ as MSPs demand legal advice

Two weeks ago, this column had a section entitled “SNP woes deepen again”, the latest in what is becoming a regular feature on the growing laundry list of problems besetting the Scottish Government (not that you’d know it from the polls).

At the top of quite a long list of new challenges was a call by Alex Salmond for the ongoing inquiry into the handling of allegations against him by the SNP administration should be ‘broadened’ to look at “whether the First Minister would be investigated for potentially misleading parliament and failing to act on legal advice”.

It’s been a little while since we last had a proper look at how this row is developing, but this week saw a couple of important developments as the former First Minister, and opposition MSPs, continue to pick through the Nationalists’ story.

The first, reported here in the Courier, is that Nicola Sturgeon appeared to write to her most senior civil servant to confirm that the Scottish Government’s new harassment policy would apply to former ministers only two days after a meeting between her principal private secretary and one of the women who made allegations against Salmond.

As the paper notes, the timing of these events will only encourage those who accuse Sturgeon of being out to get her predecessors. This group certainly includes the man himself and his supporters, but opposition MSPs have also suggested that the two events “appeared to have been co-ordinated”.

Meanwhile Sturgeon has also been trying to claim that she has forgotten the details of a ‘bombshell’ meeting at which she first learned of the allegations against her predecessor. Jackie Baillie, a Labour MSP, attacked her administration’s “pervasive culture of secrecy” after it provided the same “no information” answer to five separate questions about the incident.

The SNP suffered another setback when they were ordered by the Scottish Parliament to hand over the legal advice it received during its ‘doomed’ legal battle with Salmond, according to the Herald. The defeat led to the current Holyrood inquiry after the former First Minister mounted a successful legal challenge to the Scottish Government’s handling of complaints against him, accusing it of bias. His victory cost the taxpayer over £500,000.

Now MSPs have apparently given ministers a Friday deadline to hand over the documents. Writing in the Scotsman, Murdo Fraser suggests that the “only reason for the Scottish Government not to publish legal advice is if they have something to hide”.

Yet typically, the SNP’s woes were not confined to this single front. It is reportedly refusing to reveal the final destination of cash the party raised through an ill-judged sale of branded anti-Covid masks, which was promised to charity.

Meanwhile, the Scottish Sun reports that the Scottish Government’s test-and-trace system “is performing up to five times worse than previously claimed”. According to a ‘bombshell report’: “Staff at the virus defence scheme failed to contact around half of recent positive cases within 24 hours of being told of their swab results, revised official stats reveal.”

Douglas Ross, the Scottish Conservative leader, has attacked the SNP for “peddling wildly inaccurate data”. This is a key issue for the Tories because the Nationalists’ perceived competence in handling the Covid-19 crisis is one of the big drivers fuelling support for separation in the polls.

Elsewhere on that front, Alister Jack appears to have hardened the Government’s opposition to a second independence referendum by reiterating once again its “once in a generation” argument (more robust arguments are available) whilst Sir John Major suggested offering the SNP a two-vote plebiscite instead.

Loyalist protests anticipated against backdrop of Stormont’s ‘rank incompetence’

The police are reportedly ‘actively’ monitoring loyalist groups in the expectation of organised protests against Boris Johnson’s Brexit deal. Activists may ‘descend’ on ports to oppose the new Irish Sea border the Prime Minister signed up to when he capitulated on the Irish Protocol.

Unionist opinion is rapidly hardening against the deal, which sees sweeping new checks imposed on commerce between Northern Ireland and the British mainland, as the scale of the impact becomes clear. Owen Polley provides an overview at CapX, but the most visible symbol of unease is the joint letter from Arlene Foster, the DUP leader, and Michelle O’Neill to the European Union urging it not to impose checks which risk severely restricting Ulster’s food supplies.

Advocates of the Irish Protocol insisted on a sea border over a land border because the latter was easier to police. But this failed to factor in that the volume of trade between the Province and the mainland vastly exceeds that with either the Republic or the rest of the European Union, so any checks there would affect a much greater slice of Northern Irish economic life.

It is also notable that nobody is suggesting that loyalist protests against a sea border render it a breach of the Belfast Agreement, despite the prospect of republican anger at landward checks being taken as evidence of such – another sign of the Government’s hapless failure to develop its own interpretation of the treaty.

One concession ministers did secure was the right of Stormont to set aside the Protocol. Obviously neither Brussels nor Dublin expected it to do so, now that unionists have lost their majority – but a unionism with fight left in it would recognise that protecting east-west commerce could be grounds on which such a campaign could be won.

Yet such a campaign seems a long way off with the DUP, unionism’s pre-eminent party, deeply embroiled in an entirely dysfunctional Stormont system. This week the News Letter has run some truly excoriating reporting on the “rank incompetence” of the Executive, a DUP-Sinn Fein duopoly.

Over the years since this column started, we have covered several attempts to establish new forces in Northern Irish unionism, focused less on little-Ulster rent seeking. In these stories one can see the space where such a party, running against the Protocol and the Stormont system, could make headway. But it remains nowhere to be seen.