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.