Ground control to Major Willie
The idea that the civil service is impartial is slightly misleading – members are actually partial to a lot of things. On the whole though, it is probably fair to say that appearing in front of parliamentary committees is not one of them.
But if government officials treat these appearances with the same attitude displayed by a cat being slowly prodded off a diving board, they usually have good reason to. After all, like a Lib Dem in a coalition, it is generally hard to see what the official gets out of it.
MSPs, on the other hand, tend to give the appearance of quite enjoying themselves, probably because it gives them a chance to be on the other end of the grilling for once. But for the politicians to have fun, they need to find the right witness.
A recent meeting of the European and External Relations Committee – aimed at discussing legal issues affecting Scotland in the event of independence – was a case in point; plenty of room for grilling here.
But, unfortunately for any publicity-hungry members, it started on human rights. Unless Robert Mugabe was appearing, it seemed unlikely they would get a witness to argue with.
First up was Bruce Adamson, legal officer for the Scottish Human Rights Commission – who sadly did an excellent job in his opening remarks of saying nothing controversial whatsoever.
He reminded the meeting of the importance of respecting human rights and congratulated the assembled members on the work they had already done.
This was no good. Convenor Christine McKelvie decided to give him a prod – turning questioning to a handily named report, entitled ‘The application of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights in the UK: a state of confusion’.
She said in reading the report: “I was not very confused but I was worried by references to the dis-application of human rights responsibilities.” But Adamson was having none of it, saying that human rights are important regardless of independence.
Professor Adam Tomkins looked more promising – being an active member of Better Together and a member of the Conservatives’ Devolution Commission. He started off by outlining the relative legal statuses of the remaining UK and Scotland after independence.
Then, the moment that they had been waiting for – Tomkins asserted that the White Paper is wrong in its assessment of how UK oversees property would be divided, and that its assertion “has no basis in law.”
He continued: “That is not a negotiating position or a matter of politics or of opinion; it is a matter of law. It is unfortunate that the independence White Paper – the most important document published in the lifetime of the Scottish Government – proceeds on an inaccurate footing as a matter of international law.”
The convenor fired a few contrary expert opinions at Tomkins. He shot them down, referring again to analysis done by Professors Crawford and Boyle on the issue.
When the convenor kept pressing, Tomkins replied: “What international law says on the question of state succession is partly based on established principles of international law – which Professor Crawford knows more about than anybody else on the planet, frankly – and it is also based on state practice.”
This presented a problem. If Professor Crawford knows more about the issue than anyone on the planet, the implication is clear – the committee must go to someone from another one.
Enter SNP MSP Willie Coffey. He said: “I am a wee bit disappointed with the tone of some of Professor Tomkins’s contributions. It is almost as if there is going to be a great big bun fight, with a battle, arguments, disagreements and aggression after independence.
“That is completely at odds with the spirit that is enshrined in the Edinburgh Agreement, through which a Yes vote for independence for Scotland will lead to a respectful and understanding negotiating position on the part of both Governments.”
A bun fight! Finally, something to put on the grill.
Unfortunately, Tomkins yet again disappointed, coolly responding: “First, the Edinburgh Agreement commits both sides to respecting the outcome of the referendum. It says absolutely nothing whatsoever about how the very difficult process of unpicking a 307-year-old union should proceed thereafter.
He continued: “I have absolutely not said what you have accused me of saying. I have not said that, in the event of a Yes vote, the rest of the United Kingdom keeps everything. I am afraid that, inconvenient as it might be to some people, in the event of a Yes vote, the public institutions of the United Kingdom automatically become the public institutions of the rest of the United Kingdom.”
But Coffey was not going to let an expert on international law lecture him on international law, cleverly deciding to switch to a new strategy of interrupting Tomkins every time he tried to speak.
It was quickly becoming apparent that Professor Tomkins represented an altogether different type of unsuitable witness – being both able to calmly and eloquently explain himself as well happy to take on an MSP in a matter in which he is a known expert.
This was not supposed to happen. None of the MSPs were happy, while the other witnesses clearly had no interest in being dragged into a similar argument. The session ended with nerves frayed all round – though Adamson looked pretty happy to have avoided any trouble.
Yet again, MSPs had ended up on the wrong side of the grilling.
And with Tomkins due to appear at the House of Commons Scottish Affairs Committee, where he hopes to give his evidence in full, the committee members may have started a fire they cannot extinguish.