Nicola Sturgeon’s secret state

Holyrood is one of the most opaque regimes in the democratic world

9 April 2022

9:00 AM

9 April 2022

9:00 AM

As Westminster grapples with the P&O scandal, a very different farce over ferries has been playing out in Scotland. In the run-up to the 2014 independence referendum, a Glasgow shipbuilder went bust and was rescued by a Scottish National party adviser. It was later awarded a £97 million government contract to build two ferries. Neither emerged. The cost now stands at £240 million and last month Scots learned that there will be another eight-month delay to the boats. What happened? Why did so much public money change hands? Was the taxpayer swindled?

Those trying to get to the bottom of these questions have hit a problem common to Nicola Sturgeon’s Scotland: much of the relevant documentary evidence has vanished. Jim McColl, the businessman who funded the original bailout, now says the deal was ‘for political capital’, but no one has been able to prove anything. This is not a one-off. Poor planning, wilful waste and absence of accountability have characterised so many episodes in the SNP’s 15 years in power.

Under first Alex Salmond and now Sturgeon, Holyrood has become one of the most centralised and opaque regimes in the democratic world. The power devolved to Edinburgh in 1999 has been hoarded by a party and a government – it’s hard to tell where one stops and the other starts – that specialises in dodging accountability. The SNP’s record of failure on public services is matched only by its ability to conceal the extent of that failure.

All major decisions are expected to be signed off by Sturgeon’s office; even junior officials talk of referring decisions to her apparatchiks for final approval. The Scottish government’s 175 communications staff dwarf the BBC’s 34 reporters, meaning that even the publicly funded broadcasters have one person asking questions for every five who answer them. Remarkably, the bill for Holyrood’s press officers and special advisers has increased by 50 per cent since 2018, despite newspaper sales halving since the SNP came to power. Is it any wonder that important questions go unanswered when there is an excess of gatekeepers and a dearth of interrogators?

The Scottish parliament is supposed to hold government to account. The original idea was for a unicameral system to create huge efficiency, with no House of Lords to slow things down. But this system means there is little scrutiny. During the Alex Salmond trial, where his evidence against Sturgeon was redacted, members of the Scottish parliament were warned that they did not have protected speech as MPs do in Westminster: they can be prosecuted by Sturgeon’s lawyers if they speak out of turn. Such a threat would never and could never be made to MPs.

The First Minister’s latest idea is to dispense with even the pretence of parliamentary approval and, as part of a future pandemic law, to ‘modify or amend’ any act of parliament without a vote. Unusually for a democracy, the legislature and the executive would be merged. In her defence, one can argue that this has, in effect, already been the case for years.

Even businesses have been warned that dissent is not welcome. Jack Perry, the former head of Scottish Enterprise, last year explained how Scottish companies ‘get shot down instantly and boycotted’ if they cause trouble for the SNP. ‘It’s very slick,’ he said. ‘Tunnock’s [teacakes] got berated for promoting a British identity in export markets rather than Scottish. They subtly changed branding – and suddenly there were boycott calls.’ A 2018 newspaper investigation revealed that companies working for the Scottish government risk having their contracts terminated if they are disobliging about the SNP.

After 15 years of power, the boundaries between party and state have become increasingly blurred. The Salmond inquiry last year showed the lack of distinction between the SNP, its government, supposedly impartial civil servants and legal officers. This merger is embodied in Bute House, the residence of the First Minister which she shares with Peter Murrell, her husband – who is the SNP’s chief executive. Leslie Evans, the recently departed head of the civil service, is married to a prominent SNP activist.

In Westminster, political parties are internal coalitions with lively debates. But inside the SNP, parliamentarians are forbidden from criticising their leadership. Joanna Cherry, for example, was an SNP home affairs spokesman and a rising star until she demurred from the party line on trans rights. She has spoken about the ‘abuse, threats, bullying and smears’ she receives from her own side now she’s on the backbenches – a warning to others who may be tempted to challenge Sturgeon.

Intimidation and fear have been hallmarks of the wider regime. Charities have been subject to ‘gagging orders’ that prevent them from criticising SNP policies or backing rival campaigns to qualify for state funding. Quangos are now so concerned about political interference that they include it on their formal risk assessments. Universities, too, are on notice. When Louise Richardson was principal of St Andrews, she warned that Scottish independence might hurt research funding. She was subjected to a ten-minute ‘loud and heated’ phone call from Salmond.

The SNP hasn’t grabbed power just from Westminster, but from local government too. ‘Scotland is one of the most centralised countries in Europe,’ reported Cosla, the country’s association of local councils, in 2014. Since then, ambulances, schools and social care have all come under increased central control. Council tax freezes further erode local authority autonomy. Elected mayors have become commonplace in England but in Scotland, the man in Holyrood still knows best.

In England, the Crown Prosecution Service is independent of the government. In Scotland, the chief prosecutor – the Lord Advocate – sits in Sturgeon’s cabinet. This came in handy when she was facing accusations by Salmond that she conspired to put him in prison on false charges to remove him as a political threat.

Information has become increasingly hard to obtain from the state. Even before the pandemic, the country’s Information Commissioner warned that the Scottish public sector’s obsession with secrecy was a problem, with ‘serious systematic’ failures in the handling of freedom of information requests. These are routinely vetted, in spite of a legal requirement for them to be ‘applicant blind’. One was recently rejected on the grounds that it ‘would prejudice’ Scotland’s global relations if a critical report on the SNP’s school reforms – ‘Curriculum for Excellence’ – was published in full.

Good luck to anyone trying to assess how Scottish pupils are doing. The SNP specialise in hiding poor performance by ‘data divergence’: changing the metrics so it’s impossible to compare with England. Scotland’s schools have now been pulled out of inter-national league tables. Having withdrawn from TIMSS and PIRLS, PISA is the only international education survey in which Scotland still participates. Ministers have even debated quitting that: unsurprising, given its most recent damning findings.

Some problems are too big to conceal. Under the SNP, drug deaths have tripled to become the highest in the developed world by some margin. Numerous metrics point to the conclusion that Scotland has the worst health service within the UK. Yet the Health Foundation said in 2014 that it was impossible to compare health outcomes across the four nations, because Scotland had changed the way it collected the data since devolution.

During Covid, Sturgeon’s system clam-med up even more. But it now appears that ministers tried to cover up Scotland’s first major Covid outbreak in February 2020: the Health Secretary said the discovery of cases in an Edinburgh hotel should have been made public, but this was overruled. Ministers were also later found to have kept second-wave death and case predictions secret, in defiance of the law. Emails sent to and from special advisers about Sturgeon’s Covid briefings have been deleted.

If Boris Johnson had personally hushed up a Covid outbreak, there would have been a huge scandal and calls for his resignation. In Edinburgh, it’s business as usual, all part of Sturgeon’s secret state.

Devolution was supposed to allow the new government to be held accountable by a new form of scrutiny so that politicians were not in hock to ministers. Enoch Powell famously observed that ‘power devolved is power retained’. Sturgeon has made this the lesson of devolution.

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spectator.co.uk/TV James Heale and Jackie Baillie, deputy leader of the Scottish Labour party, on the SNP’s woeful record.

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