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by Mandy Rhodes
28 January 2024
Has any politician ever seen their political currency fall so fast as Nicola Sturgeon?

Nicola Sturgeon will give evidence to the Covid inquiry on Wednesday | Alamy

Has any politician ever seen their political currency fall so fast as Nicola Sturgeon?

Through a variety of lenses, we were provided last week with a dismal snapshot of public service leadership that appears reduced to a shocking husk of a thing.

We have been faced with an array of different inquiries: the Scottish Government’s handling of the pandemic; the Post Office’s prosecution [or for that read persecution] of subpostmasters; the Fatal Accident Inquiry into the deaths of Katy Allan and William Lindsay in Polmont Young Offenders’ Institution; and the employment tribunal examining the dismissal of a counsellor at Edinburgh Rape Crisis Centre for holding a belief that biology is immutable. Taken together, it paints a depressing thread of spineless cowardice, terrifying groupthink and an inability to speak truth to power.

And it matters not just to the individuals directly affected by the inquiries detailed above, but to the rest of society because when the bonds of trust in the relationship between the public and the institutions that collectively knit us together are broken, social discord follows.

And while we now know that Nicola Sturgeon considered the former prime minister a “fucking clown” in relation to his handling of the pandemic, and for that she may garner some support, I know no public servant, including politicians, who didn’t start off with a kind heart, good intentions, and a drive to make life better for the public that they ultimately serve. 

But the question I have been asked most in recent days, following the revelations and insights about Sturgeon’s own actions during Covid-19, is, ‘what happens to good people?’ And that is where I find the roots of my own dismay.

What happens to good people when they fly too close to the sun? When they become so bedazzled by their proximity to power that they start to believe in their own vainglory? I know Nicola Sturgeon didn’t start off as a self-seeking fake, but she was the architect of her own final creation, and that journey of self-promotion, that put her front and centre of every decision made during her time in government, and importantly during a global pandemic, has ultimately been one of self-sabotage.

And what a distance she has travelled. Has any politician ever seen their political currency fall so fast as Sturgeon’s? She may be yet still to speak at the Covid inquiry, which will come this week, but through the evidence of others and the reality of now public and pieced together private messages, it seems there is no bottom to the degradation of her legacy.

The human cost of the pandemic is known to us all in varying degrees, but it is the pain of betrayal, heard in the voices of the bereaved families last week, that is hard to hear. That having listened to evidence from senior civil servants and politicians, who they had put their faith in to lead us without fear or favour through a pandemic, they now feel cheated by Sturgeon. 

Deleted messages, advice to ignore government protocols, the use of private email accounts, utilising political tactics to publicly shame the UK Government into bending to her demands, putting independence back on the table when she claimed it was off, policy on the hoof, insular decision making, it all adds up to a catalogue of political opportunism that jars with how Sturgeon was favourably presenting herself at the time against a widely discredited and shambolic prime minister. That perception of Sturgeon now lies in ruins.

I guess, as a politician, she can almost be forgiven for playing politics, but equally as damaging for the civil service is the exposure of key individuals as being so servile, so craven to power, that no one, no matter their seniority, had the balls to question why they would follow orders in doing something so utterly wrong as deleting messages. And while the very act of deletion may carry more significance than perhaps was contained within the messages themselves, we will never know because they have gone. Whatever the reasoning, it was wrong. Perception is all in politics. And the perception here is that something stinks.

I personally know the key civil servants interviewed during the inquiry last week: Jason Leitch, Lesley Fraser, and Ken Thomson – damn it, I was on the interview panel that recruited Thomson to be DG. I would consider them all intelligent, sensible people with integrity and a degree of maturity that would have given credence to the view that they were the adults in the room.

Indeed, Jason Leitch was, by proxy of his high-profile public-facing role during the pandemic, in all our rooms almost every day. I would have assumed they all had the confidence to question orders. But we now know they did not. Leitch routinely deleted his pandemic WhatsApp messages, flippantly describing it to other officials as a “pre-bed ritual”. Ken Thomson warned Leitch and others in August 2020 to delete their chats because they were “discoverable under Freedom of Information”. “Plausible deniability are my middle names,” said Thomson, which begs the question of what would any senior, non-political, public servant need to plausibly deny? We’ll never know.

What happens to good people? They seem to find themselves in a trap of their own making, seduced by the machismo of the moment and luxuriating in the afterglow of power that feeds their own vanity and self-importance.

Leitch once told me during an interview that, for him, the only thing worse than a pandemic would have been not having a role in it, i.e. being on the sidelines. I wonder if that is where he would feel most comfortable now.

At its heart, the pandemic, and the subsequent inquiries, were and are all about people, lives lost, lives broken, and those of us who now live in the full knowledge that we are the lucky ones.

Nicola Sturgeon has previously said it changed her. Safe to say, it changed us all. And regardless of the caveat that ‘I was only doing my best’ which seems to always prefix the justification for any mistakes, we should all be disturbed by the evidence coming out during the Covid inquiry.

All that Scotland had during the fear and uncertainty of those terrifying days was a belief that Sturgeon was doing it better than Johnson. It was a view she clearly held herself, but it appears some of it was a work of fiction. 

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Read the most recent article written by Mandy Rhodes - The SNP doesn't need another 'reset', it needs a complete rework.



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