SCOTLAND IS BASICALLY DIVIDED into two camps right now: people who care about the inquiry, and people who don’t. In the former camp you will find politics nerds, who, despite themselves, have been drawn into the web of intrigue. In the latter camp are many of my activist friends, who tune out, I suspect, because they prefer their politics to have obvious goodies and baddies.
And that’s the trouble here. There’s no proverbial white and black Stetsons to keep you right. Everywhere you look, it’s morally murky: shady deals, power plays, flawed characters with a past. This House of Cards makeover isn’t necessarily a great look for Scottish democracy; having said that, it’s a long time since so many people tuned in to a Holyrood inquiry.
Alex Salmond made his long-delayed appearance on Friday, and all moral judgements aside, two conclusions stood out. Firstly, his performance lacked the predicted fireworks. Contrary to hasty BBC reports, he did not call for Sturgeon’s resignation, redirecting that curveball by noting Conservative breaches of the ministerial code. Nor did he rant and rave about conspiracies. His evidence was cold – and, worryingly for the First Minister, often convincing. Secondly, his close to six-hour testimony was no less captivating for the absence of hysterics. For those who like their drama in moral hues of grey, this was politics as theatre.
One effect was to draw attention to the side characters. I have disagreements, of varying severity, with Jackie Baillie, Murdo Fraser and Andy Wightman, but all seemed admirably poised. The same could not be said of the whole inquiry. Some SNP members, in particular, seemed over-briefed, bungling basic facts and playing right into Salmond’s hands. One or two were seemingly inserted entirely as comic interludes – or filibusters.
The reverberations of Friday have continued into the new week. Faced with likely defeat in a no confidence motion, the Deputy First Minister has been forced to release long-supressed legal advice relating to Salmond’s judicial review in 2018. This is due today, although in what state is unclear. Andy Wightman, the independent MSP, has previously been loyal to the SNP leadership within the inquiry. But now he wants to keep the no confidence motion on the table, in case the Government resorts to its familiar practice of redactions.
When this advice appears today, what will it reveal? Potentially, a great deal of wasted public time and money. Should you really care, in a world of pandemics, economic failure and climate change emergencies? It’s crucial to keep a sense of proportion. But I’m in the unfashionable camp of believing that answers to the above hinge on the public recovering its democratic agency. And these events, if nothing else, reveal a government that isn’t scared of opposition parties or the voters.
In that context, this legal advice seems to have scared the Scottish Government like nothing in ten years. Perhaps that’s simply because they are so used to control: maybe this will all be a great heap of nothing. Still, it’s refreshing to see the Scottish Parliament, for once, using its power to compel the Government. And kudos to Wightman and the Scottish Greens, especially, because they could have fallen into line, and they didn’t.