What is the feud between Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon all about? One can understand why the ordinary voter, both in Scotland and especially elsewhere, might not be clear about the answer.
Lots of people who don’t follow politics won’t have heard of the quarrel at all. Others will have a hazy impression of it being something to do with Salmond’s private life, and something to with Sturgeon’s account of what happened at meetings about it. Douglas Ross had a go at explaining what it’s about and why it matters on this site in January.
Some of our readers may have been bewildered by what he reported, but the Scottish Conservative leader’s efforts, plus the unfolding of events since he wrote, are producing results – at least if the polls in Scotland are anything to go by.
Politico’s poll of polls shows that Yes had led No on whether Scotland should become an independent country for almost a year – until March 2, since when it has recorded the two views level. The SNP’s lead for constituency seats and the regional list is still formidable, but it has dropped below 50 per cent in the first and hovers above 40 per cent in the second.
So while it would be complacent to believe that it may fall short of a majority in the Scottish Parliamentary elections this spring, it would not be absurd. That a senior MSP, Scotland’s Justice Minister no less, has complained of “rigged polls” shows that the SNP is nervous.
What seems to have happened since Ross wrote for us is that, as the story has developed, the views of an important slice of Scotland’s swing voters have crystallised. They are forming the conviction that the SNP isn’t governing Scotland well, and that this matters.
The issues that seem to have caught their eye (apart from claims and counter-claims about what the First Minister knew and when) are, first, why Salmond was investigated by the Government under new rules apparently crafted to investigate him and, second, why the Scottish Government resisted a legal action by Salmond, at taxpayers’ expense, after its lawyers warned that he would win.
Finally, there is the question of the conduct of the Lord Advocate, Scotland’s equivalent of the Director of Public Prosecutions: what reason he really had to censor evidence being given to an inquiry by the Scottish Parliament into the Scottish Government’s handling of the case against Salmond, and why he failed to tell MSPs about an e-mail that went missing from the latter’s evidence to court.
The original suggestion was that the evidence was censored to protect complainants against Salmond. But when the Spectator published the evidence online it revealed that the redacted passages referred instead to claims that Sturgeon broke the ministerial code. That Scotland’s Crown Office has demanded further redactions to the evidence from the Spectator will do nothing to bolster public confidence.
Stand back for a moment from the allegations and the detail (and indeed from the enquiry’s view, reported late yesterday, that Sturgeon mislead the Scottish Parliament) and return to that central perception of voters: that the SNP is not governing Scotland well. Why?
A glib answer would be because it’s the SNP – which has failed Scotland on education, health, the Coronavirus and almost everything else. But that would not get to the root of the problem, which is bound up with weaknesses in the devolution settlement itself. Some of these suggest more powers for Holyrood. Others, intervention from Westminster. Others still, a rebalancing of devolution within Scotland.
First, Holyrood. It is ridiculous that the Crown Office, which the Lord Advocate heads, made no objection when the Spectator went to court to paragraphs it had insisted MSPs not see.
As David Davis put it in the Commons this week, “this leaves an absurd situation where the inquiry cannot speak about evidence that is freely available to anyone with an internet connection”. There is clearly a strong case for entrenching parliamentary privilege at Holyrood.
Next, Westminster. As Enoch Powell once put it, power devolved is power retained. Ultimately, the civil service in Scotland accountable to Parliament. As Henry Hill pointed out on this site recently, that means that Ministers can be held accountable for its conduct at the despatch box, and Select Committees have the power to hold inquiries into it should they wish.
“Allegations of improper conduct on the part of any section of the Civil Service would seem a proper subject for an inquiry by the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee (PACAC), chaired by William Wragg,” he wrote.
Finally, devolution itself. One of the reasons why Holyrood works badly is not that there has been too much devolution in Scotland, but that there has been too little – and more often than not of the wrong kind. (If you prefer “localism” to “devolution”, we won’t complain.) Ross has called for Scottish councils to have the power to set business rates-free zones, rebuild local railways and deliver universal broadband.
And meanwhile, the UK Internal Market provisions and the Shared Prospertity Fund are shaping up to be indispensable means of delivering social progress throughout the UK.
Late last year, Aberdeen Council sought to open talks with the Government about the direct funding of local services from Westminster. If other councils haven’t put in similar requests, it may be because they’ve never been asked to. At any rate, more localism in Scotland should be a part of more localism throughout the UK as a whole.