With a little help from Lady Dorrian in the Court of Session, and the Scottish Parliament’s Presiding Officer, the barriers of obstructiveness might finally be broken down, writes BRIAN WILSON
It is often said that this affair is too complicated for the hoi-polloi to understand, so it does not “break through” to popular awareness. However, it is only complicated because those with a vested interest in obfuscation have made it so.
Perhaps that barrier will now be cracked. What should have happened months ago will, it seems – though nothing can be taken at face value – be permitted. Salmond will be heard. Sturgeon will be heard. A view will be formed.
What could be simpler? There has never been any prospect of complainants in the criminal case against Mr Salmond being identified and it remains a criminal offence to do so. That was always a straw defence, as various legal eminences pointed out.
The Committee on the Scottish Government’s Handling of Harassment Complaints was not set up to re-try the criminal case or impinge upon the rights of complainants. Conflating the two – as somebody might tell BBC Scotland – is a ruse, with the complainants used as shields against other questions.
More prosaically, the committee was established because the Scottish Government squandered large sums of money defending an application for Judicial Review of its processes, which allegedly it had been told in advance it could not win.
The reason it could not win was that it had employed methods of internal investigation that were, in Lord Pentland’s words which merit a place in the lexicon of Scots Law, “tainted by apparent bias”. The Committee therefore had two questions to address.
First, not whether (unless Lord Pentland’s, pictured left, judgment was being questioned), but why that tainted process was deployed. Second, at what point Ministers were told they could not win the case and should therefore cut their losses.
It is crucial to note that both could have been answered with ease months ago. The civil servants could have given credible evidence and admitted to the flawed process. Counsel’s opinion could have been released, as twice instructed by the Scottish Parliament. The committee could have reported.
None of these things happened. Dates were changed. Incredible evidence was amended. Counsel’s opinion was (and continues to be) withheld. For anyone in these circumstances to blame the minority MSPs on the Committee for pursuing the task allotted to them is shameful and self-serving.
Which takes me to BBC Scotland’s much-trumpeted “exclusive” last weekend in which one of the complainants in the criminal case attacked, not very obliquely, the said MSPs for “politicising” the committee’s work which was “more traumatic than the criminal trial”.
Emotive stuff but, in my view, this was a seriously misjudged piece of broadcasting which played into a narrative set by Ms Sturgeon in advance of her appearance before the Committee. That had been due to take place last Monday – the day after the broadcast.
This gives rise to two questions I would like to hear BBC Scotland answer. First, what was the provenance of this interview – did they approach the individual, did she volunteer or was she offered up by the spin doctorate surrounding the First Minister? No breach of confidentiality would be involved in a straight answer.
Second, is she independent of current political shenanigans within the SNP? If so, fine. If not, viewers should have been told. And if that was not possible on grounds of self- identification, then it was another reason why there should have been no such highly pejorative broadcast.
This whole affair has long since gone beyond the bounds of Salmond versus Sturgeon, a conflict in which I am entirely neutral. Rather, it is about the whole way in which Scotland is run, with every tentacle of power and control intertwined.
Neither should we lose sight of the fact that an individual’s freedom was at stake – and that should only be determined in a court of law. If the identity of an individual ever matters more than that basic principle, we really are being run from within a moral vacuum.
EARLY INTERVENTION FOR POOREST KIDS MUST BE TOP PRIORITY
A generation has passed since I was Scottish Education Minister in the pre-devolution interregnum but one lesson never left me – the importance of Early Intervention – to education and society more widely.
My teacher was the late Elizabeth McGuinness, who chaired the education committee of Lothian Regional Council. She asked me to see what was being achieved through pilot schemes in a couple of Edinburgh’s most deprived areas.
The results were spectacular. Early Intervention is not just about the classroom but also the home, from birth. The roots of inter-generational deprivation lie in the inability of parents – who have usually the best intentions – to help. So they too need support.
During my brief stint, I threw the kitchen sink at Early Intervention, including pre-school provision and an army of classroom assistants. The civil servants didn’t like it because it was resource intensive – and the value was not entirely quantifiable.
I was reminded of all that when I heard this week about a report from the Education Policy Institute that only 20 per cent of “education catch-up” money in Scotland is being devoted to the most deprived pupils.
Yet heaven knows what further damage has been done to little kids in the most challenging environments who have missed out on their early schooling, with minimal help in homes where there may be little technology or parental input. Surely they must be the top priority.
We need to review some fundamentals in the wake of the pandemic. If the logic is to put resources where damage is greatest and needs most desperate, then Early Intervention should top the list. A lot else is worthy, but can wait.