Euan McColm: SNP claim to moral high ground is a con trick

The Scottish National Party was supposed to be different, wasn’t it?

Leslie Evans, Murdo Fraser, Derek Mackay, John Swinney, Nicola Sturgeon and Alex Salmond.

By Euan McColm in The Scotsman

Leslie Evans, Permanent Secretary to the Scottish Government, gives evidence at Holyrood to a Scottish Parliament committee examining the handling of harassment allegations against former first minister Alex Salmond.
She refused to answer whether female officials had been advised not to work alone with Mr Salmond, who was this year cleared of 13 sexual offences by a jury.

As it moved from the fringes of our politics to become the dominant force, it did so on a wave of optimism.

Voters, weary of the same old politics with its cronyism and its sleaze and its failure to listen to the concerns of voters, were told that a vote for the SNP was a vote for something better, for a more decent, honourable politics.

This message cut through to an electorate that felt they had been forgotten by those in power (a similar storm helped whip up pro-Brexit sentiment in the north of England, but point that truth out to an SNP MSP and they won’t like it. Take that from me).

 

Thirteen years after winning its first Holyrood election, the SNP brand isn’t quite so shiny. Even the most cursory examination of the party’s record shows it’s every bit as flawed as those it attacks.

Last week, we witnessed scenes which – had they involved any other party – would have sent SNP supporters into meltdown.

During the first day of the Holyrood inquiry into the Scottish Government’s handling of complaints of harassment levelled against Alex Salmond, Conservative MSP Murdo Fraser asked Leslie Evans – Scotland’s permanent secretary – about claims that female officials had been advised not to work alone with Alex Salmond.

The senior civil servant replied that she was unable to comment. (Secret Scotland once again. Ed)

So much for this inquiry being open and far reaching, eh? But, still, surely this powerful Holyrood committee would be able to compel Evans to answer?

 

Well, perhaps it might have if it hadn’t been for the convenor, SNP MSP Linda Fabiani, who said the question was inappropriate under the remit of the committee.

Imagine the committee had been investigating the handling of complaints against a member of another political party. Does anyone think an SNP politician would have been so quick to close down what appeared to be an entirely relevant – if uncomfortable – line of questioning?

Some, of course, are able to perform the mental gymnastics required to excuse Fabiani’s ruling. They will tell you that she was simply following the rules, ensuring that the inquiry was fair and balanced.

Others might suggest that what matters here is that MSPs were unable to get an answer to a simple question, the answer to which would reveal much about the working culture at the top of the Scottish Government while Salmond was in charge.

The Tories have now reported Evans to her boss, Sir Mark Sedwill, head of the UK civil service.

Recently elected Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross argues that “any reasonable person would accept there are valid questions to be asked about the claims that female civil servants couldn’t work alone with Alex Salmond”.

Surely he has a point?

As Ross pointed out, a number of women were let down by failures in the complaints process that led to the Scottish Government paying more than £500,000 to Salmond when he mounted a successful legal challenge to the process under which complaints against him were investigated.

The Scottish public, he added, deserves answers and the full truth of the matter won’t be uncovered if civil servants are allowed to evade scrutiny.

If that’s not enough to convince you that the modern SNP is every bit as contemptuous of the public as those parties it once accused of being out of touch, try this one on for size:

Evans also told the inquiry that she told First Minister Nicola Sturgeon in November 2017 that there were concerns about Salmond. Previously, Sturgeon said she hadn’t learned about complaints against Salmond until April 2018.

Again, imagine if this involved Labour, Tory or Liberal Democrat politicians. The SNP press office would be bombarding news desks with releases about contempt for democracy,  Nationalist politicians would be filling the airwaves and social media with their outraged takes on a fatally compromised inquiry.

With independence, they would add, Scotland would do things better. Vote Yes, they’d say, for a fairer, more honest politics.

We wait to see how this mess unravels but it is hardly the only example of the SNP behaving in a way that its members would utterly condemn in others.

Last week, the Nationalists launched a furious attack on the Scottish Tories for their “hypocrisy” over the exams results fiasco that affected pupils both north and south of the Border.

The gist of this attack was that UK education secretary Gavin Williamson was behind a disaster that would cost young people the chance to pursue their ambitions.

This attack would have been more compelling to non-partisans if it hadn’t been the case that Scotland’s education secretary, John Swinney, had presided over an identical farce.

Swinney’s inevitable U-turn – ordering that results should be adjusted to reflect the predictions of teachers – was no more honourable than the 180 performed by Williamson, yet the SNP tells a story of a Scottish minister doing better.

There are plenty more examples of the Scottish Government behaving in a way that the SNP would – quite rightly – condemn in others.

Take the case of former finance secretary Derek Mackay, forced to resign from the government earlier this year after it emerged he had messaged a 16-year-old boy on social media 270 times.

Had Mackay been a member of any other party, the SNP would still be demanding his immediate resignation.

Instead, he sits as an independent (though doesn’t attend parliament) and waits for a meaty pay-off next year.

The SNP is adept at the art of spin. Its much-quoted line that opponents of independence think Scotland “too wee, too poor and too stupid” to go it alone is a Nationalist creation.

The contemporary version of this is the social media hashtag #SNPbad, another Nationalist invention which is used to dismiss any legitimate criticism of the party as cynically political.

But behind the party’s smoke and mirrors sits an uncomfortable truth: The SNP’s politics is every bit as grubby as that it promised would be swept away under its leadership.

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