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by Professor James Mitchell
23 March 2021
Comment: The Salmond affair has shown Scottish politics to be hyper-partisan and toxic

Comment: The Salmond affair has shown Scottish politics to be hyper-partisan and toxic

The report of the Hamilton enquiry on whether the First Minister "breached the Code in respect of meetings and discussions with the former First Minister Mr Alex Salmond between 29 March 2018 and 18 July 2018 and related matters" will join that long list of works frequently quoted but rarely read. 

As ever with such reports, most people are only interested in its key finding.  And this was unambiguous and came early in the report: "I am not aware of anything in the conduct of the First Minister in respect of the introduction of or her observance of the Procedure which could be considered to be a breach of the Code."

SNP supporters portray the report as exonerating the First Minister and the last word on the matter. 

They suggest that the parliamentary committee investigating the Scottish Government’s handling of the harassment complaints was a hopelessly partisan matter. 

They have a point, but the committee report cannot be dismissed so easily. 

These two reports need to be read alongside the Dunlop Review of the Scottish Government procedure for handling harassment complaints involving current or former ministers. 

Hamilton’s remit was tight but arguably made sense.  It allowed focus and an unambiguous conclusion. 

But even with this tight remit, the blow by blow account of different interpretations of various meetings will leave most readers bewildered and confused.  Large chunks of the report are redacted adding to the confusion.

This is not entirely the author’s fault.  The subject matter plus the need for redactions do not help clarity. 

Perhaps Hamilton would read more coherently if the redacted passages were available, but Hamilton presumably chose to include parts which would be redacted for a reason. 

Perhaps he hoped that the redacted elements would be acted upon even if they were never to become public. 

Hamilton’s report on whether Carwyn Jones, the former Welsh First Minister, misled the Welsh Senedd over allegations of bullying at senior levels in the Welsh government was a much clearer report aided by the absence of redactions.

There was clearly considerable concern in the senior reaches of the SNP that the report would go against the First Minister. 

The efforts that went in to shoring up the First Minister in advance of the publication do not speak of confidence that she would be exonerated. 

Much was necessarily left unexamined given Hamilton refused to stray from his brief. 

"It is for the Scottish Parliament to decide whether they were in fact misled", reports Hamilton. 

Elsewhere he states: "I do not consider that at present the First Minister has any responsibility under the Ministerial Code for any shortcomings or wrongdoing in the behaviour of other persons", implying or at least leaving open the suggestion that such "shortcomings or wrongdoings" exist.

Crucially, we cannot ignore the fact that two women were failed in the Scottish Government’s handling of the harassment complaints. Something went badly wrong. 

The Scottish Government’s handling of the petition for judicial review of the complaints procedure was, in Hamilton’s words, a "saga of failures to disclose relevant evidence". 

This was within the remit of the parliamentary committee.  The committee should have been capable of addressing these serious matters in a mature non-partisan manner. 

The imminent election and prospect of another referendum have not helped. 

What ought to have been an exercise in scrutiny occasionally turned into a partisan battleground during the committee’s proceedings. 

The committee was frequently undermined by the Scottish Government’s efforts to impede the enquiry, including a failure to provide evidence timeously. 

Obfuscation, delay and gaps in information do not speak of transparency but of a body with something to hide. 

The example of the request for records relating to how complaints had been handled (paras.42-53) is damning and ought to be a major cause for concern. 

The two women complainants appear to have been treated as pawns in a game between the Scottish Government and the former First Minister. 

The Daily Record leak demonstrates that the person who leaked the story cared less about the complainers than about damaging Alex Salmond. 

Salmond was able to issue a statement in response but the women had "no control over the process" and this took an "incredible toll" (para.409).  This shameless and damnable behaviour should not be ignored.

The committee report is a much more thorough and full enquiry than that conducted by Hamilton. 

The timelines produced in the report help not only in reading the committee’s report but also help make some sense of Hamilton’s report. 

Some of the most damning evidence in the committee’s report concerns the Scottish Government’s handling of the judicial review. 

The Scottish Government’s procedure for handling document disclosure during the judicial review proceedings was "seriously flawed". 

The report offers an important analysis of what went wrong, within the limits afforded to its members by evidence provided.  It makes a series of recommendations that ought to be given serious attention.  Reading the report alongside that of Laura Dunlop ought to result in important changes in procedure.

There are wider considerations.  The manner in which the issues addressed in the three reports – Hamilton, Dunlop and the parliamentary committee – has been discussed in the public realm sheds a harsh light on the conduct of Scottish politics. 

Most social media commentary has been viewed through a partisan prism with supporters of the parties selectively quoting elements from the reports.  The glee on the part of some SNP supporters mirrors the social media tricoteuses awaiting the First Minister’s head amongst their opponents.

These are very serious matters that deserved a more mature and dispassionate response. 

Scottish politics is angry, hyper-partisan and operates in a toxic political environment. 

This does not augur well for the future.  Any discussion of more powers or independence will need to be accompanied by a discussion of how we improve our political culture, share power and increase accountability.

Read the most recent article written by Professor James Mitchell - Family Feud: The weird coalition that is Alba

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