The Gillian Martin debacle raises questions over the First Minister’s judgement
Nicola Sturgeon’s long-awaited reshuffle has, in the end, proved less interesting for who she has brought in and more for who she has now had to keep out.
There’s always a farcical element to government reshuffles that rewrites sackings as happy partings of the way and sideway steps as ‘challenging’ new opportunities but there was no dressing up the dramatic exit of newly appointed minister Gillian Martin.
Less than 24 hours after posing with the First Minister and her new ministerial colleagues on the stairs of Bute House, Aberdeenshire East MSP Gillian Martin, the new education minister, was unceremoniously dumped from the Scottish Government’s list of new ministers after opposition parties refused to back her appointment based on “deeply offensive” remarks about transgender people she made in a 2007 blog post.
In the blog, Martin, then a college lecturer, began by quipping that what she was about to write could get her fired and then graphically made a mockery of the trend for political correctness in higher education.
She wrote: “Will they install a third category of loo with a special transgender sign? Are they then going to pinpoint these transgender people and make sure that they get represented fairly on all undisclosed-because-I-don’t-want-to-get-fired-establishment literature in the same way our five endlessly tolerant Asian students do or that guy with the guide-dog does?
“Are we going to see lovely photos in the foyer of hairy knuckled lipstick-wearing transitional transgender Laydees being embraced by the principal of undisclosed college or visiting politicians for the press?”
She talked of an EU “tranny trove” of cash and, disturbingly, claimed that college public relations staff lasciviously “froth at the mouth with excitement if anyone in a wheelchair does anything that can be remotely described as an achievement.”
Perhaps what is most surprising is that the blog that has got her sacked now, didn’t get her sacked then.
Speaking in a debate to approve the new ministerial appointments in the Scottish Parliament, Jackson Carlaw, the Scottish Conservative deputy leader, was clearly troubled when he spoke of his regret at being unable to use the opportunity to say traditional kind words about those joining government and those departing.
He went on to cite additional racist comments from Ms Martin that were directed at Black Americans and Jews. He said that “a reshuffle that has been a year in the making should not stand as the most notorious reshuffle in the Parliament’s history.”
The fact that Martin had made some of the offensive remarks was not new. The revelations hit the front pages in 2016. What is more interesting is why the First Minister didn’t probe a little deeper. Why her advisers didn’t delve a little further. Not least, because for a party that was so quick to make a judgement on Mark McDonald’s inappropriate behaviour, it would seem hypocritical not to apply the same scrutiny and condemnation of a woman whose behaviour has been found wanting.
Indeed, on the same day that Martin was being invited onto the ministerial team, she and her MSP colleagues, bar some notable exceptions, were voting to exclude McDonald, a former minister, from the Parliament for a month.
Martin was among those leading a charge to punish McDonald for sending an inappropriate social media message with a hint of sexual innuendo, when all the time she must have known that she had her own dirty secrets to hide.
Given there were calls for him to stand aside as an MSP - because if you’re not good enough to be a minister, you’re not good enough to be an MSP - shouldn’t she too be considering her own position?
Notwithstanding Martin’s own culpability in her downfall, the whole debacle raises questions about the First Minister; her judgment of character but also, more worryingly for her, who she can trust.
One of the strengths of this SNP Government has been the tight bonds forged between key characters over three decades of being political allies. There is a loyalty that is sometimes difficult to comprehend, even between those that have had their differences – think Sturgeon and Cunningham – that means there is a shorthand, an instinctiveness, in government and in getting things done. Those links are not easy to replicate and those relationships impossible to clone.
The ‘Ladies-in-Waiting’ has been a well-worn phrase on the SNP back-benches, used to describe some of those women who came in at the 2016 election, many fired up by the referendum and impatient for change. All undoubtedly bright, talented and ambitious to be ministers but perhaps without properly understanding the need for honing the practised skills of being effective parliamentarians.
And in a zeitgeist which, quite rightly, aspires to gender equality and with a first minister equally determined to promote women, the opportunities to move on up and quickly have always been clear. But perhaps in a rush to close that gap, there has also been a carelessness, a haste to make change too quickly that can clearly lead to compromise.
Back-bench experience, committee convenorships and the hard slog of commitment to constituency and stakeholder demands are important markers in a parliamentary career and perhaps not awarded the kudos they deserve.
Which is why I was personally delighted to see Christina McKelvie elevated to the ministerial team. McKelvie has been passed over, time and time again, without putting a foot wrong but instead of getting bitter, she has poured her energies into becoming a rounded politician and an excellent convenor of the Equalities and Human Rights Committee which has done some ground-breaking work. She will be a force for good as a minister.
As Nicola Sturgeon reflects on how a reshuffle that was meant to refresh has simply allowed old news to resurface, it might also be interesting for her to wonder how that news leaked out now and from where.
After 11 years in power and with 42 per cent of the SNP MSPs in government, and with others now sacked from it or not promoted to it, there will be discontents. Politicians who don’t hold to the same SNP bonds that tie Sturgeon and her contemporaries to order. It is managing that, ahead of an important election, that could be the real challenge of this reshuffle.