Alex Salmond is expected in the Scottish Parliament today with perhaps the most extraordinary story ever heard in modern British politics. He claims that Nicola Sturgeon’s allies conspired to use the law to remove him as a political threat – even, as he puts it, to “imprison” him – and almost succeeded. It all makes the Jeremy Thorpe trial appear mundane. Such an allegation would seem ludicrous in Westminster where it’s implausible for any Prime Minister to plot to throw a rival in jail or exert any kind of political pressure on government prosecutors. But in Scotland? That’s where it gets more tricky.
The scandal here isn’t so much the allegation but what it reveals about the mechanics – and decay – of democracy in Scotland. Salmond might be peddling the most outrageous conspiracy theory, or he might have a point. We’ll never know if the claims are not investigated. But the Scottish parliament committee has decided to censor his written testimony which, under its rules, affects what he can discuss when giving evidence today. It also affects which allegations Sturgeon can be made to answer.
All this is a far cry from the Scottish Parliament that was promised to voters in 1999: one that would scrutinise the government and guarantee transparency. At the time, I was a passionate supporter. I even cheered on Tony Blair in 1997, willing his creation of an Edinburgh parliament that would harvest a new crop of politicians to apply better answers to Scottish problems. Yes, government would go wrong. But this new unicameral parliament would scrutinise, harangue, expose and correct it.
The arguments against devolution – that it would expose Scotland to cronyism or permanent Labour government – could be answered by pointing to Holyrood. Its powerful committees would surely expose any failings. If Labour was found wanting, it would collapse. There would be a multi-party system: the idea of any party winning half of the votes, let alone the SNP, seemed fantastical. I left my job in London and moved to Edinburgh to be a political reporter.
My first assignment was to drive off one evening to find the church that Gordon Brown was getting married in. I drove slowly, looking for banns outside churches – and now accept that I may have been confused for someone with improper intent. I was wearing my dad’s raincoat (my belongings had not yet arrived from London) and deserved the strange looks I got from passers-by. When I confessed my embarrassment to a colleague, I was astonished how quickly word spread. It even reached a politician I spoke to for the first time the next day.
“You’re the kerb-crawler!” she said when I introduced myself. I asked her how on earth she knew. “One thing you’ll soon find out about Scotland,” she replied, “is that everyone knows everything about everyone.” This was Nicola Sturgeon, who now says she had no inkling about the extraordinary allegations against Alex Salmond until she was formally told on April 2 2018. Untrue, he says. He has a rival version of events. It has become a question of her integrity: what did she know and when did she know it? If she misled parliament, she may have to resign.
This might sound like a Lilliputian squabble: does it matter if Sturgeon found out on April 2 or March 29? Isn’t this a trivial detail, being spun as the new Watergate by over-excited journalists in Scotland? But I’ll tell you why it matters. Watergate raised a question: if a sitting president did something wrong, could he ever be found out? Or would he find ways of killing the investigation? Could he cover things up or make evidence disappear? It’s a litmus test for a parliamentary democracy – and one being failed in Scotland.
We at The Spectator took the unusual step of going to the High Court to ask if there was any legal impediment to Salmond’s evidence being published. There was not. But the Crown Office (run by a member of Sturgeon’s Cabinet) ordered the Scottish parliament to censor it anyway. The investigating committee in Holyrood is chaired by an SNP member (and one who was, once, sacked by Salmond). So Scotland’s parliament, it seems, will not be holding government to account. It’s unclear, now, who will.
The wider implications matter. If Sturgeon cannot be properly investigated over such explosive claims, brought by her predecessor as first minister, how can she be held to account over the (scandalous) school attainment gap or the (dismal) health performance? And where is the scrutiny that the new parliament was supposed to bring?
Devolution now looks like a chimera. Power was never really devolved to the people: it has instead been hoarded by politicians in Edinburgh. Powers to choose or even set up state schools, granted in England, have been denied to Scots. Patient power, another Blair-era reform, was confined to England. There is no Scottish Andy Burnham figure, no city mayor, challenging government. Even the regional police forces have been merged into Police Scotland. At every stage, power has been centralised. The SNP’s grip over that system – formal and informal – is amazing to behold.
In London, some ministers are now talking about what can be done about Scotland. In No 10, there’s talk of liaising directly with councils to intervene in areas where the SNP failure is worst: drugs deaths, for example, the highest in the world. But this agenda would take years. Postal voting for the Scottish Parliament elections starts in just four weeks. Polls suggest Ms Sturgeon will win her majority – thanks to an army of supporters who care more about independence than about what she said (or did) to Alex Salmond.
She benefits from a weak, fractured opposition. Her regular televised Covid press conferences give her plenty of media exposure at a time when her rivals are not free to meet, rally or knock on doors. And she benefits from an investigating committee system that will never find out the truth about the Salmond imbroglio because it was never supposed to.
When the Scottish parliament was opened, a poem was read about its mission and is today displayed on the ground floor of the building. “A nest of fearties is what they do not want,” reads one line. “A phalanx of forelock-tuggers is what they do not want.” These words now stand as a tragic reminder of what could, and should, have been.