When The Spectator went to High Court in Edinburgh to seek clarification over the Alex Salmond case, we did not act out of chumminess or a conviction that he was telling the truth. We are not natural allies of his. We are not sure if his explosive claims are correct, but we are sure that they should be scrutinised by a free press and free parliament.
Sturgeon's allies were instead dealing with his allegations against her by seeking to stop Salmond's full story ever being told. The SNP-led investigating committee had said it would not publish his submitted evidence - which, as they knew, would mean he would not appear in front of them. The pretext? That Salmond's evidence somehow identified the women who complained against him - and ergo risk contempt of court. This was nonsense. Spectator readers already knew it was nonsense as we had published Salmond's evidence online weeks ago. But the Committee looked set to brazen it out, and keep pretend that contempt of court would stop it pursuing his claims.
Our High Court case was intended to put this very question to the highest legal authority in the land. We asked: was any legal impediment to his evidence being published? Lady Dorrian made this clear in her judgement last week that there was not. This cleared the way for him appearing in a televised evidence session.
A cover-up was being alleged. But an attempted cover-up had just been exposed, for the world to see. A Holyrood committee supposed to be investigating Salmond's evidence had instead sought to conceal it. Such behaviour is (to put it mildly) unusual in parliamentary democracies. Salmond was accusing Sturgeon’s allies of conspiring to use the law to remove him from the political scene — even, in his words, to 'imprison' him. It may sound fantastical. But perhaps less so now after the behaviour we just witnessed.
Then came the second attempt by the establishment to censor. The Crown Office (Scotland’s answer to the CPS) went rogue, defied the High Court ruling and asked parliament to redact some of Salmond’s accusations against Sturgeon. Even worse, parliament did. The Crown Office refused to give reasons: I suspect because the real reason was to spare Sturgeon the scrutiny, to limit what Salmond was allowed to say verbally and limit the questions that she herself would be asked. This is all the more worrying given that the Crown Office in Scotland is not independent: it’s run by a member of Sturgeon’s cabinet. It would be unthinkable for the CPS to interfere with a House of Commons investigation in this way. The actions of the Scottish Crown Office represented an indefensible abuse of power, an affront to the principles of free democratic inquiry.
The Scottish Parliament's Twitter handle boasts that it 'holds @ScotGov to account'. Well, that was the original idea. But can it really do so if @ScotGov appoints the chairs of the investigating committees? (They are freely elected by MPs in Westminster). Can parliament hold government to account if it bows down before the Crown Office, run by a member of that @ScotGov?
We saw, this week, the Scottish establishment in action, closing ranks to protect an SNP government that's heading for a majority and - ergo - four more years of unchecked power in Scotland. It doesn't pay to be on the wrong side of that lot. The Law Society itself weighed in to this political row, with the 'nothing to see here' refrain, making out that the Crown Office's outrageous overreach was somehow the 'rule of law' in action.
— Law Society Scotland (@Lawscot) February 25, 2021
Our President, @amanda_millar has called on people with a public platform to "reflect carefully on the language they use, and respect the rule of law and the role of the legal profession." https://t.co/KwoLJCCzeg pic.twitter.com/gctYeyYokL
You almost have to admire the audacity of it. Sturgeon has responded to accusations of an establishment stitch-up with an establishment stitch-up - leaving no one in any doubt where the power lies. As Salmond put it, 'these events shine a light on a government whose actions are no longer true to the principles of openness, accountability and transparency — the core principles on which this Scottish parliament was founded.'
Another one of Sturgeon's ministers referred to me as a meddling 'Scottish exile' the other day: odd language, but it offers a glimpse into the nationalist mindset. Scots in London, France or Shanghai will care deeply about their country and its democracy: our High Court case was driven by our chairman Andrew Neil, who writes the cheques and thought this legal case firmly in the magazine's traditions.
News is what someone, somewhere wants to suppress. Plenty of people in Edinburgh wanted to suppress the Salmond evidence: we published it, then went to the High Court to make clear that parliament could publish it too. So if The Spectator’s court case small role in removing the excuse for democracy dodging and exposing how the system is being abused then yes, it will have been worth it.
This scandal wasn't so much about what Salmond says, but the methods deployed to seek to stop him saying it. That exposes the decay in Scottish democracy, and it's something that should concern us all.