Linda Fabiani is an SNP MSP of 21 years standing. Well respected, well liked. She is a former government minister and a deputy presiding officer of the Scottish Parliament. She is also chair of the committee established to examine the circumstances which led the Scottish Government to blow half a million pounds of taxpayers’ money on a bungled investigation into complaints made against the former first minister, Alex Salmond.
Her appointment as chair was not without controversy, with questions raised about her potential for impartiality. But last week, critics were silenced when Fabiani announced that her committee was so “frustrated” by the key players, including her former and current bosses, in not providing evidence to it, that it could not do its job.
It was claimed by the committee members that their inquiry was being treated “as a laughing stock” and that witnesses, including Salmond, Sturgeon and Peter Murrell, the chief executive of the SNP – who also happens to be Sturgeon’s husband – had been “obstructive”.
Fears that the inquiry would be a whitewash were raised.
In the chamber, Tory MSP Oliver Mundell accused the First Minister of being a “liar”. She, meanwhile, said she has done nothing wrong and supplied the committee with everything it asked of her. The members have yet to see it.
With such diametrically opposed accounts, it begs the question – ‘what is going on?’
Here in Scotland, where the SNP has been in power for almost 14 years, where the country’s first minister is married to the chief executive of the party that she leads. Where the former leader of the party, who Sturgeon’s husband used to work for, took his ex-protégée’s government to court over the way it had investigated complaints against him. Where Murrell is accused of writing WhatsApp messages encouraging others to put pressure on the police about Salmond. Where all three are now accused by Fabiani of frustrating parliamentary process. Where the Crown threatens all with legal action over the handing over of sensitive documents. Where a former special advisor to Sturgeon has urged her to, metaphorically, throw senior government and party colleagues under a bus to save her own skin. Where the former SNP Justice Secretary and now MP, Kenny MacAskill, has called for Murrell to go and for the police to be called in. And where MacAskill now finds himself potentially under investigation for handling leaked material.
It surely is a tangled web that’s been woven. But this is Scotland and that’s how it now rolls.
I remember, years back, a source close to Sturgeon asking me whether I thought it was right that as a woman, she was being put under pressure to sack her husband as chief executive of the SNP simply because she had been promoted to party leader.
There was then, and remains now, a groundswell of unease about what that close relationship meant in terms of the governance of such a small nation, but at the time, and given the way the question was framed, I agreed it felt sexist and wrong.
But the clash was still to come.
Since then, disquiet has only grown. Complaints to HQ from elected politicians, as well as from ordinary members of the SNP, go unanswered, decision making on party policy and selection of candidates, has become mired in a discontent about conflicts of interest, who is listening to who, and doubts about the separation between state and party.
And now, we are where we are. With the governance of the country under the microscope, with the reputation and careers of some of the most powerful people in Scotland under scrutiny, that blurring of lines, that concern over where influence lies, threatens to bring down the whole house of cards.
There’s a lot of ground to cover: when Murrell claimed that he didn’t know why his wife was meeting with the former first minister at their home. When Sturgeon seemed to contradict herself over whether the matter was about party or government. When credulity was surely stretched when we were asked to believe that husband and wife, boss and employee, didn’t discuss matters that could seriously affect them both. When the Permanent Secretary said she couldn’t recall, wasn’t aware, declined to reply, or misremembered. When a ‘Head of People’ at the Scottish Government joked that the process of investigating complaints about Salmond had taught her “to look for another job”. When a senior civil servant said she did not remember receiving a text message from the Permanent Secretary on the day that the government lost to Salmond in court that, reportedly, said, “we may have lost a battle but we will win the war”. But later wrote to the inquiry to say she might have forgotten about the text because she was on holiday at the time but would now check. When seemingly selective amnesia allows the erasure of memories and situations that would surely be career-defining moments. When the excuse of legal privilege and almost entire redaction makes documents all but unusable. When Sturgeon says she has submitted her written evidence to the committee, but the committee members haven’t seen it. And when the First Minister, who is also the SNP leader, says that if people want to know about leaked WhatsApp messages, they should be asking the person that had written them, not her. But when that is allegedly her husband and the chief executive of the party that she is ultimately responsible for. Against this backdrop, then you could excuse anyone for starting to believe that maybe there is something to hide.
It may be inconvenient during a pandemic that the First Minister has to answer questions on her role as both the leader of a country and a political party, in a complaints procedure that she signed off and has become so mired in the detail that led to the criminal trial of Alex Salmond, but these are vital issues about trust, scrutiny and good governance.
It’s a common refrain from the SNP that Westminster continually disrespects devolution and democracy, but it is here in Holyrood, where the First Minister, her party, and her government are seen to be denigrating the work of a vital committee attempting to get to the very heart of what can go wrong within government, with power. And with truth.
There were many who started this process as highly skeptical of a rumoured conspiracy against Salmond, but as always in these matters, it is the perception of a cover-up that is now doing the damage, and there is now undoubtedly a growing seed of doubt.