BRIAN WILSON’S COLUMN: BEWARE OF HONEST JOHN SWINNEY

STURGEON’S CIRCUS OF OBSTRUCTION DEMEANS HOLYROOD

By BRIAN WILSON

Two years is a long time in politics and events leading to Theresa May’s fall may need brushing down in the memory.

With the DUP voting against, she lost a vote on releasing legal advice about her Brexit deal. Two weeks later, MPs voted again – and found her Government in contempt of Parliament by not complying with its instruction.

The advice was published the next day. Parliamentary authority had prevailed in a moment of political drama. That’s democracy in a serious Parliament.

There is nothing sacrosanct about legal advice. If Ministers choose, they can release it. If Parliament instructs them, “can” is replaced by “must”. Only tinpot dictators would argue otherwise.

But, hang on. Who do I behold on the horizon?  None other than Honest John Swinney, pictured left. front man whenever his party needs cover. And Mr Swinney’s current task is to act as, well … that tinpot dictator.

Holyrood is not a place of radicalism or resistance. But, on that rare occasion when it dares decide something inconvenient, Honest John is instructed to decree it will count for nothing.

That says a lot about how Scotland is run and why power should not belong to a movement that claims to embody the nation while treating its Parliament as a servant which should not get above itself.

For all the obfuscation, the issue is straightforward.  Ms Sturgeon’s Government launched an investigation into complaints against her predecessor, entrusting it to a civil servant who had prior contact with complainants.

When that emerged, the Scottish Government’s expensive lawyers probably told them they hadn’t a leg to stand on, in the case for Judicial Review raised by Alex Salmond. Month after month, they persisted. Eventually, Lord Pentland, pictured right,  inflicted maximum costs and described the Scottish Government’s behaviour as “tainted by apparent bias”.

Holyrood set up a committee to investigate this fiasco and learn lessons.  In January 2019, Ms Sturgeon told MSPs: “The inquiries will be able to request whatever material they want, and I undertake today that we will provide whatever material they request”. Instead, she has acted as ringmaster in a circus of obstruction.

It is blindingly obvious the legal advice is required. It would eliminate the need for hours of prevarication and (in the case of the Lord Advocate) professional humiliation as he was obliged, in his Ministerial role, to become party to concealment.

Thursday’s debate provided quality contributions. Labour’s Jackie Baillie, pictured left,  declared: “The Scottish Government likes to think of itself as a world leader, and indeed it is: a world leader at dissembling, obstruction and secrecy.”

The Greens’ Andy Wightman concluded: “There is only one party who stands in the way of releasing the legal advice and is defying the will of Parliament and the committee. His name is John Swinney.”

Donald Cameron, an advocate and Tory, took MSPs through principles of Scots Law and found: “It is absolutely clear from the ministerial code that the Government can release the legal advice.”

It takes something special – like natural justice – to inspire such consensus.

Let’s return to the Westminster drama of 2018.  It was, of course, treated by broadcasters as a huge story. Endless coverage of the debate. Breathless interviews on St Stephen’s Green. But what do we get in Scotland?

How was the second defeat on an issue of real legal and political significance treated?  BBC Scotland’s lead headline on its main bulletin, I kid you not, was: “Nicola Sturgeon anguished over Christmas lock-down.”

Fourteen minutes in, just before the shaggy dog item, they allowed a 22 second reference to the vote with no coverage of the debate.

This all fits Mr Swinney’s strategy – play it long, it’s not cutting through as long as Covid tops the bill, and it will fade away in the New Year. Alongside that, what does the credibility of Scotland’s Parliament matter?

We now look forward to an appearance by the First Minister’s husband, who runs the ruling party and has admitted to inciting others to pressurise the national police force in pursuit of a political objective. I wonder if that counts as a story in today’s Scotland?

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and her husband, Peter Murrell, SNP party chief executive.

SCOTTISH NATIONAL INVESTMENT BANK WILL HAVE TO EARN TRUST AND RESPECT

The chairman of the Scottish National Investment Bank says he wants it to become a “trusted institution owned by the whole of Scotland”.

That is a noble aspiration. However, trust must be earned particularly where bankers are concerned, given their recent history of bringing two great Scottish institutions to their knees.

The “£2 billion” headline sounds impressive but is over a decade and has been largely paid for by cuts to Scotland’s existing enterprise network which has been steadily eroded,  financially and in political independence.

Willie Watt hopes the new baby will be “a non-political institution” which seems optimistic when every other quango has gone in exactly the opposite direction.

The first investment, in the technology firm M Squared, is exactly what Scottish Enterprise would have done in the past, without the benefit of a photo opportunity at Edinburgh Castle.

A former chairman of the old Highlands and Islands Development Board, Sir Andrew Gilchrist, described it as “a merchant bank with a social purpose”. It took risks and we live today with many of the benefits. On that basis, it won trust and affection.

As an MP in Ayrshire, most of my dealings were with Enterprise Ayrshire,  part of the Scottish Enterprise network which was a successful model, closer to communities than a purely national agency, until it was scrapped as soon as the Nationalists took over.

Mr Watt should expect to be judged by the same criteria. For now, it is far from obvious why existing agencies have been marginalised or whether Edinburgh bankers are best qualified to define social purpose or local need in the furthest corners of our land.

2 comments

  1. Couldn’t agree more with Brian Wilson’s summary of the government’s wilful failure to release its legal advice.

    Something is rotten and it needs to be exposed to the light.

  2. In relation to Brian’s comments about a successful Scottish Enterprise, is that the government quango that together with treasury ministers and council leaders trots off to luxury real estate junkets in Cannes in France.

    And the same Scottish Enterprise that wants to sell off some 40 acres of ‘ worthless ‘ National Park land at Balloch to Gordon Gibb of Flamingo Land for a secret but understood to be a peppercorn price.

    Not really much difference between the privatising sell off’s under the SNP, with that of Tories and latterly New Labour.

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