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by Louise Wilson
19 May 2024
Sketch: Fergus Ewing is on the wind-up

Credit: Iain Green

Sketch: Fergus Ewing is on the wind-up

Fergus Ewing is a mischievous fellow. Not content with seeing his enemies (the Scottish Greens) unceremoniously dumped by Humza Yousaf, and then seeing Yousaf nearly unceremoniously dumped by the Scottish Parliament, Ewing wants to extend the joy. Time for a victory lap, he thinks.

Rocking up to parliament with his pet topic – the deposit return scheme – at the forefront of his mind, he has tabled a topical question on the Scottish Government being sued by a waste firm. If the government is so adamant the failure of the DRS is the fault of the UK Government, he asks innocently, will Scottish ministers sue UK ministers? Ewing is a pro, maintaining a straight face throughout.

Newly rebranded climate action minister Gillian Martin has the unfortunate job of replying to him, since human shield Lorna Slater is out of a ministerial job. She is sure Ewing will appreciate she cannot comment on ongoing litigation. He is a former cabinet minister, she says, so surely he knows that.

Russia has nuclear warheads; China has spies; Scotland has tin cans. All of them are equally alarming to the prime minister

Ewing, a boyish twinkle in his eye, replies that yes, he did have an inkling he wouldn’t get an answer. “I do as a former minister appreciate that when it comes to litigation, one’s cards have to be kept close to, if not actually glued to, one’s chest,” he says. But that won’t stop him stirring the pot.

He theatrically laments the cost of the failed recycling scheme to the taxpayer, and positively swoons at reports businesses have incurred costs too. But those things are nothing – nothing – compared to his main worry: the “profoundly concerning dispute between the Scottish and UK governments”. He simply hates to see the two arguing.

Perhaps the deposit return scheme row is the reason Rishi Sunak recently named Scottish nationalists one of the major threats to the UK. Russia has nuclear warheads; China has spies; Scotland has tin cans. All of them, as we know, are equally alarming to the prime minister – did he not rage mere months ago against plans to make people have seven recycling bins?

Despite being a threat to the UK, Scottish nationalist Ewing would rather not sue the UK Government. Instead, he wants to patch things up. Bury the hatchet, now the hatchet has been used to sever the Bute House Agreement. “Perhaps, with new leadership, a fresh start may now be appropriate,” Ewing suggests. A fresh start with fresh new leader John Swinney.

He offers to arrange a meeting with an expert – himself – to take her through what exactly went wrong

But even with the daisy-fresh Swinney at the helm, Ewing knows that fixing mistakes first means learning lessons. “Could I just ask the minister,” he begins, pretending butter doesn’t melt in his mouth, “if the Scottish Government has yet considered – and if it has not, whether it will now consider – holding an independent inquiry into not just what went so very badly wrong, but also how to avoid these mistake should there be some future scheme at UK and Scottish level?”

Just a teensy, weensy public inquiry so that he can categorically place the blame with Lorna Slater, perchance? Just an itty-bitty inquest to prove he was right to vote with the opposition in that no-confidence motion (two fingers up to the SNP for suspending him for that)?

Of course, if Ewing were in charge of such a probe, the conclusion would be that letting Green MSPs enter government was the biggest mistake. But then he’d happily blame them for most things.

Martin does not take the bait. She repeats the well-rehearsed lines that Scottish ministers followed the correct process at all times and it was the UK Government’s fault. Still, she is honorably willing to rise above that to work with counterparts to deliver a “workable DRS” for all the UK.

Ewing is deeply concerned by that answer. He offers to arrange a meeting with an expert – himself – to take her through what exactly went wrong. He can ensure the government is “better equipped and in a better position to avoid the disastrous mistakes that I believe were made with the previous scheme”. A true gent.

Through gritted teeth, Martin replies: “I’m happy to meet with Mr Ewing and any businesses that he recommends.” So much for that new-found SNP unity.

Moving on to much less probing questions, the parliament’s foremost waste expert and backmost Tory MSP Maurice Golden would like to know the cost to businesses. Martin blames the UK Government.

Labour MSP Sarah Boyack asks about engaging with businesses to discuss compensation. Martin blames the UK Government.

Green MSP Mark Ruskell says the Scottish secretary has “made a mockery” of devolution, going on to rage against the UK Government as a whole for being “reckless”. Martin agrees, and blames the UK Government.

Finally, some common ground at last. Perhaps the friendship between the SNP and Scottish Greens is not as dead as we thought. Do we blame Westminster?

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