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Comment: The SNP's 'secret Scotland' short-changes us all - even independence supporters

Comment: The SNP's 'secret Scotland' short-changes us all - even independence supporters

Last month, Holyrood published a deep-dive into the SNP’s relationship with media scrutiny and accountability – from refusing requests for interviews, blocking journalists from attending campaign launches, to knocking back freedom of information requests.

Titled ‘Secret Scotland’, we examined how the Scottish Government and the SNP, which are increasingly intertwined after 15 years of government, approach requests from Scottish voters on the government’s activities.

In the aftermath, the usual polarised comments appeared on social media – of unionist accounts celebrating the SNP’s secretive nature with glee, and indy-supporters doing their best to explain away their chosen party’s approach to the “unionist media”.

But the argument against secrecy in government is nothing to do with whatever constitutional argument you wish to put forward, and everything to do with power and how it is managed in a democracy.

You have a right to know how your taxes are spent, what is done in your name, and more importantly the right to demand competence from ministers and other politicians – especially if you gave them your vote.

To that end, independence supporters would do well to remember the crux of their argument is that Holyrood, and the current government, should be the centre of an independent nation. Would it not favour the arguments for independence if that government was transparent, competent, and effective? The prize of an independent Scotland is not worth the cost of living under a secretive government.

The conclusion of the article, that the Scottish Government does everything it can to keep essential but potentially embarrassing information from Scottish voters, is somewhat irrefutable when their history with the media is examined.

Journalists from print media were not allowed to attend the SNP’s local election launched in Glasgow. The party didn’t bother to hold a spring conference. The media team responds to press enquiries with obfuscation and delay.

And now, to the surprise of absolutely no one in Scotland’s media corps, the Scottish Government has been rapped on the knuckles by the Scottish Information Commissioner (SIC) for blatantly contravening freedom of information laws.

Under freedom of information legislation, anyone can request information from the government about anything that is not already in the public domain, and which does not contravene certain exemption such as commercial sensitivity (most frequently used to deny FOIs about business ventures) and security.

But the Scottish Government has routinely failed to uphold this law.

The SIC recently published a progress report on the government’s handling of FOIs, the third such report since the commissioner intervened over its handling of requests in 2018 after the media raised concerns.

The commissioner reported “substantial problems in the Scottish Government’s ability to track, monitor and report on (and therefore improve) FOI performance”, and “evidence of significant delays and organisational ‘bottlenecks’ in some areas”. 

The report reads: “I also found evidence of significant and systemic failures to comply with case file records management requirements with the effect that, for many of the cases examined, it was not possible to fully assess how a case had been handled, who had been involved in case handling, or why particular decisions were taken”. 

Particular concerns were raised over the failure to record the involvement of ministerial aides, known as special advisers, in FOI cases.

In one example, an FOI request about the extremely controversial discharge of coronavirus patients from hospitals to care homes had taken eight months to answer because "the case sat with special advisers for at least three months".

Even the most ardent SNP supporters must bristle with fury that party officials delayed the release of such important information, and no doubt opposition parties will speculate as to the SNP’s intentions.

The report comes just a week after the Scottish Government belatedly found a ‘lost’ email in its records that went to the heart of the CalMac ferries fiasco.

The independence movement does have some cause to be wary of the media, that much needs to be acknowledged. Before The National was launched, the SNP was rarely given a fair hearing in Scotland’s print media, and indy-supporters’ opinion of the BBC is currently at an all-time low.

But demanding a competent government transcends constitutional arguments, and a government cannot be held to account in the dark. To that end, the press needs to no longer be treated as the enemy by the SNP and other indy groups.

To those wanting to put forth a case for an independent Scotland, who need more voters to come over to their side: show voters what you can do with the limited powers you have, and show them what an alternative to Westminster really looks like. Otherwise, a choice between Holyrood and Westminster isn’t really a choice at all.

Read the most recent article written by Joseph Anderson - In Context: Parliament recess

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