By the end of this week, it is entirely plausible that Nicola Sturgeon will no longer be First Minister, the SNP will be in further disarray, and the question of independence will, for real this time, be shelved for a generation. At least that’s what most commentators would have told you before she was cleared of charges on Monday afternoon. The Scottish conservatives have called for Sturgeon’s resignation. Keir Starmer has called for the prioritisation of recovery over a referendum. Even Alex Salmond, the architect of Scottish nationalism, has stated the scandal which he is directly involved in is evidence enough that Scotland’s institutions aren’t ready for independence. The reality is, Salmond and Sturgeon have been the most skilful and successful British politicians of my lifetime, running rings around the conservative governments of the last decade, and yet now they might be the cause of one another’s demise. Whatever you think of their politics, it is hard to believe that their current actions, which appear as an egotistical personal spat, are for the common good of the Scottish people during a global pandemic and worsening economic crisis.
James Hamilton, an independent prosecutor, has just published his report answering the binary question of whether Sturgeon did, or didn’t, break the ministerial code by misleading parliament. If he had concluded that she did, it is incredibly unlikely she’d have ended the month as First Minister. But what is this report all about? Alex Salmond has accused Nicola Sturgeon of conspiring to side-line him after he was acquitted of sexual assault allegations. Furthermore, he has accused her of breaking the ministerial code after she said she received information about Salmond’s sexual assault allegations on April 2nd, 2018, failing to mention an earlier meeting on March 29th of the same year in her testimony under oath to the Scottish parliament’s inquiry into Salmond’s misconduct. On the face of it, Sturgeon failing to mention one meeting seems a trivial matter, hardly comparable to the Watergate scandal, the most damaging event in 20th century American politics. But this isn’t just about the First Minister, and I agreed with Starmer when he said this is also about the integrity of the entire Scottish parliament. Yet I would go further and suggest it is also about the mechanics, and decay, of Scotland’s democratic institutions.
Watergate asked the question: could a current president do something wrong and get away with it? Or would the president be able to undermine any investigation into his/her conduct? My point is, a fair and just investigation into a scandal implicating the head of the government is a real test of parliamentary democracy, a test which America passed fifty years ago with Nixon’s resignation, yet Scotland is failing today. Last week, the High Court declared there was no legal case for Salmond’s evidence not being published. Yet, the Crown Office, headed by a member of Sturgeon’s own cabinet, quickly ordered that the Scottish parliament censor it nonetheless. Moreover, the investigating committee of the Scottish parliament is chaired by an SNP member, who, it is important to note, was one sacked by Salmond himself. Despite a leaked document showing that this committee concluded Sturgeon did present inaccurate evidence to parliament by a small majority of 5-4, she has nonetheless dismissed it as a prejudgement based on party lines in an attempt to undermine its legitimacy, even though the only four votes in her favour were from members of her own party. To top it off, Sturgeon is now hanging on days before Holyrood (the Scottish parliament) closes for the start of the Scottish parliament election campaign, a direct result of how the parliamentary committee’s work has been delayed throughout by the withholding of evidence in an attempt to protect the First Minister. Forgive me for repeating myself, but Scotland is hardly setting an example of parliamentary democracy, never mind a country seeking independence.
Unsurprisingly, there has been a recent dip in support for both the SNP and an independence referendum in the polls, but this is not to say for certain that the SNP has too much cause for concern in the upcoming elections in May. Firstly, Hamilton’s report has now acquitted her of breaking the ministerial code, so Sturgeon will remain in power. Secondly, so close to an election, SNP loyalty will be centralised around her because it will improve the likelihood of a majority to push for a second referendum in the Scottish parliament, with the further consequence of salvaging Sturgeon’s reputation.
However, Sturgeon’s acquittal has wider implications, because with a majority in May’s elections, the Alex Salmond case will be reduced to – albeit unsavoury – history. If we ignore issues about currency, Britain’s nuclear programme, Scotland’s armed forces and their bid to re-enter the European Union with regards to Scottish independence, then surely the failure of the Scottish parliament to scrutinise its own First Minister is evidence enough that it is not yet ready for that leap. If Sturgeon can’t be investigated independently, without interference from her or her party, over explosive claims made by her previous political ally and someone so integral to the rise of the SNP, then how is she to be held accountable over Scotland’s economic and social policy?
To conclude, recent events have shown that the devolution of Scotland, which gave the country its own parliament in 1997, hasn’t delivered its promise of giving power to the people. Instead, power has been accumulated by politicians in Edinburgh, with the SNP holding a centralised grip over its system. Voters can sympathise with their desire for a greater role in the decisions made in Westminster which affect affairs north of Berwick-upon-Tweed. However, as the Alex Salmond case and the lacklustre investigation into Sturgeon’s misconduct have exposed, the integrity of their institutions is insufficient for a successful independence. It would be a great shame for a cherished member of the United Kingdom to gain independence, but an even greater shame if it was granted too early by an under-scrutinised government. For now, if Sturgeon keeps on swimming, Salmond will sink.