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by Professor James Mitchell
04 March 2021
Comment: Sturgeon's performance was a masterclass in obfuscation and deflection

Nicola Sturgeon during her evidence session. Picture: PA

Comment: Sturgeon's performance was a masterclass in obfuscation and deflection

Woodrow Wilson, America’s 28th President, was a better scholar than politician. In his study of Congressional government, published in 1885, he argued that "Congress in session is Congress on public exhibition whilst Congress in its committee-rooms is Congress at work." 

That is generally true of legislatures.  But Nicola Sturgeon’s appearance before the committee investigating the ‘actions of the First Minister, Scottish Government officials and special advisers in dealing with complaints about Alex Salmond’ was pure parliament on public exhibition.

Sturgeon’s performance was a masterclass.  As an exercise in open government, transparency and accountability, her performance and that of her government throughout this enquiry was lamentable.  As the best debater in Holyrood, with skills honed over a career in adversarial politics, she knows how to parry, obfuscate and shape agendas.  She used the same skills before the enquiry.

From her opening statement, the First Minister set out to deflect her government’s failings onto matters beyond the committee’s remit.  When confronted with robust questioning, she almost invariably looked to her mentor for support.  Alex Salmond became Nicola Sturgeon’s shield to deflect difficult questions.  She framed the discussion in simple binary terms: Salmond vs Sturgeon. 

As Lord Pentland stated following the concession of the judicial review in 2019, the Scottish Government’s actions were “unlawful in respect that they were procedurally unfair” and “tainted with apparent bias”. 

He awarded the highest levels of costs.  This was not just a defeat for the Scottish Government in the Court of Session. This was staggering and demanded serious investigation.

We are still left with no explanation, no comfort in assuming that something like this would not happen again.  How can we be assured that the repeated failures to disclose information timeously and fully is aberrant and not systemic? 

Would this have come to light if anyone other than a former First Minister was centrally involved?  Governments are powerful and we must have checks on that power. 

SNP members of the committee were execrable.  The late indomitable Margo MacDonald feigned spraying house plants in the chamber whenever a planted question was asked by government backbenchers.  Margo’s plant spray would have been in frequent use yesterday. 

And let us be very clear.  This would be no different if another party was in office. Opposition members were, of course, behaving in partisan mode but they at least can claim that their proper role scrutinising government coincided with party interest. 

In fairness, Liberal Democrat Alex Cole Hamilton had calmed down since Friday and was more reasoned.  Would opposition MSPs have behaved any differently had it been the other way around?  That is very doubtful.

A large part of the problem arises from the committee’s inability – sometimes for good reason but not always – to access to relevant information. 

There is something fundamentally wrong when important evidence is withheld until there is a threat of no confidence in the Deputy First Minister and then only appears the evening before the First Minister’s appearance in the morning. 

This evidence should have been released earlier.  It raises the question of whether and what else has been withheld.  It stretches credulity to breaking point to dismiss that possibility out of hand.  But there has been no shortage of credulous commentary throughout this saga. 

Too much commentary has fallen into the binary trap set by the First Minister.  To raise serious questions about the conduct of the Scottish Government and the First Minister does not mean taking Alex Salmond’s side.

This binary strategy has severely limited the enquiry and contributed to it becoming a Wilsonian public exhibition.  This has not been an exercise in investigating the "actions of the First Minister, Scottish Government officials and special advisers in dealing with complaints about Alex Salmond".  It was performative politics, Parliament on public exhibition.

Nicola Sturgeon’s government failed.  It failed two women complainants.  It failed the Parliament in its consistent refusal to share relevant information.  It failed the public in allocating large sums of money, not to improving life chances but on a legal case its advisers warned about.  It has failed to be accountable.  It has failed to be transparent.  This ought to worry all of us, including members of the SNP. 

It should be possible in a mature democracy, especially one that may become an independent state, to recognise that the Scottish Government must be more accountable, more transparent and share power. 

Whether the parliamentary committee can rise to the occasion in addressing these matters will only become clear when it issues its report (assuming it is even able to agree a report).  But don’t hold your breath.

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