Breaking a pledge to co-operate with the Salmond inquiry has undermined faith in government
By Magnus Linklater in The Times of London
Comparing Watergate to events in Scotland is stretching it, I accept. But over the past two years the way in which the Scottish government has withheld, delayed, bypassed or concealed information on the Alex Salmond affair has become a mounting scandal.
In January 2019, Nicola Sturgeon told the Scottish parliament that her government and her party would “fully co-operate” with the parliament’s inquiry into how allegations of sexual misconduct against the former first minister were investigated by civil servants. “I undertake today that we will provide whatever material they [the committee] request,” she stated. “That is the definition of full, open and thorough inquiries.” Then she added: “My commitment is that the government will co-operate fully with [the inquiry] which is, I think, appropriate.”
Some of the main players in the Salmond Inquiry – Alex Salmond, Nicola Sturgeon, Kenny MacAskill, and Peter Murrell, the First Minister’s husband.
No one could have imagined then that the Holyrood committee, whose timetable envisaged wrapping up its investigation and reporting back before last Christmas, would still — two years on — be recalling witnesses and poring over redacted documents in an attempt to get at the truth. Time is not on its side, and the two protagonists, Sturgeon and Salmond, have yet to testify. If and when they do, there may be less than a fortnight to go before an election campaign begins and evidence is lost in the mire of manifestos and party hustings.
The delay is largely due to the obduracy of the government, its lawyers, civil servants and political advisers in providing the evidence the committee has requested. In direct contravention of Sturgeon’s undertaking, witnesses have dodged and weaved their way through the committee hearings, to the frustration of a panel of MSPs who have been short of the legal structure and back-up which a full-blown judicial inquiry would have offered. The refusal by Peter Murrell, the SNP’s chief executive — recalled for the second time to give evidence earlier this month — to give straight answers to the committee’s questions summed up the weakness of its position. It was also symptomatic of the whole proceedings, however, and the way in which facts have come second to protecting reputations.
The government, in defending its position, has had the advantage of a Crown Office sheltering behind legal convention, a raft of lawyers, and even the advice of an outside firm of solicitors, brought in to help witnesses protect themselves. The fact that one or two have complained about the questions fired at them by the committee should not disguise the fact that, in a full-blown court of law, they might by now be held in contempt.
I am not a huge fan of the Wings Over Scotland website, whose view of the first minister falls somewhere short of objective, but it has performed a gruesome service by assembling a full list of every occasion on which facts have been withheld, or requests for information refused.
From the blank page in the first minister’s diary for March 29, 2018, when, as we now know, she was briefed about the Salmond allegations, to John Swinney’s refusal to hand over the Crown Office’s legal advice, the “wrong information” given under oath by the permanent secretary and her subsequent apology, the blocking of witnesses, the redacting of documents, the emails suppressed, and the WhatsApp messages not forthcoming, this has been a litany of evasion. The website calculates that there have been 58 separate obstructions to the committee since it began its work.
The most egregious is surely the refusal to release the legal advice given by the lord advocate to the Scottish government, both when it first set up its inquiry into allegations against Salmond, and later when it pursued its case against the judicial review he brought against it, which revealed an inquiry “tainted by apparent bias”. Long after it was clear the case would be lost, the government persisted in its attempts to fight it. The cost to the public purse may amount to more than £1 million; the cost to the reputation of civil servants, law officers and their advisers is hard to calculate.
The government argues that it is bound by a convention that the legal advice it receives from the Crown Office or its lawyers is confidential. It knows full well, however — and so do we — that there are precedents for bypassing that convention when the public interest demands it. By refusing to be open with the committee, it is simply reinforcing the impression that it has something to hide.
And that is what a cover-up is all about. The only reason for withholding information is because that information may be damaging, whether to ministers, civil servants or both.
The more excuses are offered for hiding behind convention, or using privilege to withhold evidence, the more suspicion grows that there really is more to this than meets the eye. The first minister’s undertaking, given to parliament back in 2019, has been broken. And that undermines public confidence in the government.
Commenting on the Watergate affair, all those years ago, the late John le Carré gave this verdict: “Until we have a better relationship between private performance and the public truth . . . we as the public are absolutely right to remain suspicious, contemptuous even, of the secrecy and the misinformation which is the digest of our news.”
True then. True now.