Defeats in politics sometimes appear to be victories at first, and victories to be defeats. The SNP has survived a vote of no confidence (VONC) at Holyrood, as it was always going to. The Nationalists were home and dry before the debate was even called thanks to the backing of the Greens. The Conservatives tabled the motion against John Swinney, Nicola Sturgeon’s deputy, after he ignored two votes in parliament requesting that he hand over the Scottish government’s legal advice to the Alex Salmond inquiry. Only when the possibility of a VONC was raised did he hastily release some of the documents.
Obstruction has been a hallmark of the SNP government’s approach towards the inquiry. The parliamentary probe was set up after Alex Salmond, Sturgeon’s mentor-turned-enemy, took the government to court over an internal sexual harassment investigation it launched into him in 2018. The Court of Session ruled the process had been ‘unlawful’, ‘procedurally unfair’ and ‘tainted with apparent bias’ and Salmond was awarded costs in excess of £500,000.
Two weeks later, a criminal case was brought against him on 13 charges of sexual assault. He was acquitted on all counts at the High Court in Edinburgh last March. Salmond alleges that he was the victim of an effort by people around Nicola Sturgeon, including her husband and SNP chief executive Peter Murrell, to have him imprisoned, a charge they deny.
Even though the inquiry was set up on their preferred, very narrow terms, and chaired by one of their own MSPs, the SNP has made every effort to hamper the committee’s work. It has delayed the disclosure of documents, or not provided them at all; some were only shared after Sturgeon had already testified to the committee. It has repeatedly revised evidence given on oath, refused to allow certain witnesses to appear and spent £76,000 ‘preparing’ civil servants to testify.
Central to the committee’s frustrations has been SNP ministers’ refusal to hand over the full legal advice on Salmond’s civil case. We know from the partial advice forced out of Swinney that the government’s QC was warning ministers in increasingly fraught terms that its case was doomed. The latest line, one repeated by Swinney during Wednesday's VONC debate, is that there are no ‘minutes’ of key meetings held between the Scottish government, one including Sturgeon herself, and external counsel.
Jackie Baillie, one of the inquiry members, noted Swinney’s use of the word ‘minutes’ rather than ‘notes’. She told Holyrood:
“There will have been notes. There absolutely will have been notes. Scottish government lawyers and external counsel are required to take notes. It is a matter of professional duty to do so.
Since the government had already waived legal privilege to partially publish counsel’s advice, Baillie said there was ‘no reason’ for it not to release the notes — ‘unless, of course, it has something to hide’
The gulf in quality between Baillie and many other members of the Scottish parliament is yawning. She could easily hold her own at Westminster. Most MSPs would struggle to chair a sparsely-attended local book club. She sketched out the genre of obstruction the Scottish government has engaged in, the scale of which is probably not grasped at Westminster:
“The SNP government has form. It withheld documents from the judicial review, which resulted in the 'professional embarrassment' of its own senior counsel. It withheld documents despite a search warrant in the criminal case against Alex Salmond, which is, in itself, a crime. It has also withheld documents from the committee. There is a pattern of behaviour here, and it is one of obstruction, secrecy and contempt for the institution of this parliament.
It has been said many times but bears repeating: if a UK government, Tory or Labour, had done even a fraction of this, a hamstrung parliamentary review would be the least of its worries.
Yet Swinney survived the VONC because he had the support of the Scottish Greens. Unlike the Greens in England and Wales, the Scottish Greens are not a fully-fledged political party in any meaningful sense. They are, in effect, a faction of the SNP that just happens to exist outside the formal structures of the SNP. Their twin priorities are Scottish independence and denying biological reality. If it doesn’t involve flags or pronouns, they’re not interested.
This is mostly down to their co-leader Patrick Harvie. If Swinney is Sturgeon’s attack dog, Harvie is her lapdog. He used his contribution to the debate to assail the Scottish government’s critics, or, as he characterised them, ‘those using conspiracy theories to attack their opponents or promoting delusional ideas of Scotland being some sort of corrupt failed state’.
These people, he averred, ‘must ask themselves how on earth they ever expect to lift Scottish politics up from the low point that they have brought us to’. The low point that they have brought us to.
Nicola Sturgeon’s government is technically a minority administration but it operates as though it had a landslide majority. The SNP parliamentary party is a bloc vote, with whip-breaking, rebellions and conscience votes almost unheard of, but it is in the subservience of the Greens that Sturgeon’s real power lies. Harvie positions his party as a force that keeps the SNP honest: his MSPs, after all, did vote for the legal advice to be published in the first place. It is this last fact that damns him and his colleagues. Asked for their principles, the Greens sided with parliament. Asked to live up to them, they sided with the government.
Having two political parties (or one and a bit) that put the cause of independence above all things, even the government’s accountability to parliament, has so far been to the advantage of nationalists. This vote might prove to be a turning point, however; an expediency of the political moment that comes to be rued in the longer term. Yes, Holyrood spoke and it spoke in favour of John Swinney, but consider what it was made to say in the process. The Scottish parliament has said it is proper for ministers to ignore the Scottish parliament. Of course, governments the world over try to ignore parliaments, but seldom do parliaments then endorse that behaviour. Tony Blair once compared Holyrood to a parish council. Now Holyrood has allowed itself to be trodden over in a way no self-respecting parish council ever would.
One of the enduring myths of Scottish nationalism is that Westminster is bent on undermining devolution. The Scottish government repeated the charge earlier this week in a pre-election broadside against the Internal Market Act, produced as such political attacks on the UK government routinely are by employees of the UK civil service. The report protests that ‘the Scottish parliament’s views on Brexit have been ignored by the UK government’. Yet the SNP is happy to ignore Holyrood — twice — when it suits. They are not interested in parliament; they are interested in power.
Those of us who want to see devolution not undermined but reformed should recognise the import of this vote. Holyrood has shown itself to be feeble-willed and compliant. It has demonstrated how a faultily designed and dishonestly sold parliament became a command centre for the campaign to break up the United Kingdom and how that objective trumps even the most basic review of government conduct.
Devolution has been captured by its enemies, those who seek to tear it up and replace it with a separate state, and its lack of checks and balances, of transparency and accountability, of a fully-developed democratic culture has made their task chillingly easy.
The Scottish parliament may have been defeated but the chance for a better parliament has been given a vital, if unlikely, boost. Onwards, reformers.