The campaign for a Scottish parliament was rooted in the notion of a ‘democratic deficit’. Scotland kept voting Labour but the UK kept getting Conservative governments. Devolution, so the logic ran, would give Scotland a more responsive government. Two decades on, a new democratic deficit is emerging: the chasm between the minimum accountability demanded by the parliament and the maximum Nicola Sturgeon’s government is prepared to give. A new establishment has taken root in Edinburgh, more powerful and less accountable than the old one.
The Alex Salmond inquiry, which began as a recondite tale about a failed attempt by Sturgeon’s government to probe sexual misconduct claims against the former Scottish National party leader, has narrowed to three stark questions. Did Sturgeon lie to parliament about what she knew and when? Did she break the ministerial code in failing to inform civil servants of a secret meeting with Salmond at her private home until two months after the fact? And is there any credence in Salmond’s incendiary accusation that people around Sturgeon, including her husband, the SNP chief executive Peter Murrell, conspired to have him imprisoned?
The investigation of these questions has exposed where power really lies in Scotland. The Lord Advocate, James Wolffe QC, a member of Sturgeon’s cabinet and head of the Crown Office prosecution service, this week gave evidence to a Holyrood committee investigating the Salmond affair. Wolffe started off reminding Holyrood politicians that — unlike MPs — they are ‘punishable’ under the law for statements they may make in parliament. The doctrine of parliamentary privilege, a cornerstone of Westminster’s democracy, does not exist in Scotland.
But when Wolffe was asked if his fellow government ministers are punishable under the law, he had far less to say. What would happen, he was asked, if (as Salmond alleges) ministers refused to hand over a cache of documents, despite being subject to a search warrant? Would this be illegal? ‘I am not going to make any comment in the abstract on what might or might not be a criminal offence,’ he said.