Fraser Nelson

Hamilton Report clears Sturgeon on all four counts – but with redactions

Hamilton Report clears Sturgeon on all four counts – but with redactions
(Photo by ANDY BUCHANAN/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)
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Nicola Sturgeon did not break the ministerial code over the Alex Salmond affair. This is the verdict of James Hamilton QC after his inquiry, with a 61-page report that clears her on all four charges.  She got things wrong in her account to parliament, Hamilton said, by giving an 'incomplete narrative of events.' But this was a 'genuine failure of recollection' and not deliberate. On the four points he was asked to look into (many of the questions facing her are outside Hamilton’s brief) he has given as strong an exoneration as she could have hoped for. And did she mislead parliament? He ducks this question. "It is for the Scottish Parliament to decide whether they were in fact misled."

To Hamilton's apparent fury, his report has been censored so much as to be incomprehensible in all too many places. He has issued a separate statement to complain that his report "cannot be properly understood by those reading it, and presents an incomplete and even at times misleading version of what happened." He refused to change the wording of his report: the dozens of redactions seem to be his form of protest. He said he wanted his report "to be presented in such a way as to show precisely where and how much text has been removed, so that those reading the report may understand the extent to which the information they are provided with has been limited by legal constraints." Our friends in the Crown Office (who are also asking The Spectator to censor what we have published) seem to have been unsparing in their use of the censor's pen.

But the bits we can read look at four issues: that Sturgeon failed to record meetings with Salmond, attempted to influence the investigation into Salmond, misled parliament over the dates of her meetings and that she defied legal advice in pursuit of him. In each case he lists what Salmond alleges, how Sturgeon responds — and he sides with Sturgeon. 'I am of the opinion that the First Minister did not breach the ministerial code in relation to any of these matters,' he concludes.

Overall, his report reads as if he was generally far more impressed with her than with him. On the final issue - that she spent £500,000 fighting Salmond's legal action against her government in spite of being told that she'd lose - Hamilton suggests Salmond was wrong to claim that any rule here was being broken. She was "fully entitled" to rely on the advice of law officers, he says, who urged her to fight on even if she'd lose.

He adds that Salmond "appears to be under the misapprehension that the government is under a duty to withdraw a case if advised that there is less than an evens chance of winning". There is 'scope for political criticism,' of her he says, but 'this is not a matter for me to express any view upon'.

Investigating a leak to the Daily Record (another one of Alex Salmond's points) was 'not part of my function', he said. 'If Mr Salmond has any evidence to support this complaint, he should refer the matter to the police.'

He does disagree with Sturgeon on one point: the crucial question of her meeting with Salmond - which she had claimed was a party meeting, ergo not disclosable as a government meeting. Hamilton's verdict:-

Although I accept the First Minister’s statement that her motivation for agreeing to the meeting was personal and political, and she may have sought to underscore this by hosting it in her private home with no permanent civil servant present and no expenditure of public money, it could not in my opinion be characterised as a party meeting. Members of political parties do not ordinarily attend party meetings accompanied by their lawyers, and when the First Minister’s husband, who is chairman of the SNP, arrived home, he did not join the meeting. In fairness the First Minister did not seek to make any case to me that this was a party meeting.

So the thinks, in other words, that this is no big deal. He accepts her rationale that "it would have been impossible to record such meetings or discussions without a risk of prejudicing the proceedings or interfering with their confidentiality".

All told, his report is a godsend to the SNP.  There might have been embarrassing bits in the passages censored, but we'll never know. What remains is so good for Sturgeon that if she had written it herself, it would not have read much differently. It clashes with the expected conclusion of the Scottish parliament’s own committee, to which Alex Salmond recently gave evidence, expected to publish tomorrow. Leaks have suggested that it will conclude that she did mislead parliament, albeit not knowingly. Sturgeon will face a no-confidence vote this week, which she is now expected to survive easily.

Although Hamilton was commissioned by John Swinney, Sturgeon's deputy, there was no suggestion that he was likely to go easy on her. So it will be hard for the Tories to call this a whitewash: this was simply a question of whether Hamilton found Sturgeon credible. He did. 

A few weeks ago, the polls suggested that she was on course to win a majority quite easily: she looked unstoppable. Now, that's less certain - but after today, still very possible. Sturgeon remains one of the most formidable politicians in Britain, perhaps Europe, with a huge personal following. Even nationalists who are appalled at her behaviour — and the Scotia Nostra culture exposed by the Salmond inquiry — will turn a blind eye to this in pursuit of the wider goal of a nationalist majority in Holyrood followed by the prospect of a second referendum.

The enduring problem for her is not what she did or didn't tell parliament, but what Scots have seen is something different — a glimpse of how the SNP wields power. The use of court orders to try to intimidate journalists and politicians scrutinising her was an appalling look. Even Hamilton was stymied, and says so. He complains that he is 'deeply frustrated that applicable court orders will have the effect of preventing the full publication of a report which fulfils my remit and which I believe it would be in the public interest to publish.' He had to publish 76 redactions in his 61 page report, making it pretty hard to follow.

Sturgeon will claim full vindication after this, but the question remains as to whether the whole affair has showed how the SNP just has too much power. Just as Theresa May was denied a majority by people who thought her better than Corbyn but a bit too power-hungry, Sturgeon may now be returned as First Minister but without a majority and her wings clipped. But today, she has emerged unscathed from what was perhaps the biggest risk to her.