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by Mandy Rhodes
02 June 2024
The SNP is wrong if it thinks voters don't care about the Michael Matheson scandal

First Minister John Swinney said the process against Matheson had been 'tainted' | Alamy

The SNP is wrong if it thinks voters don't care about the Michael Matheson scandal

As a small child in the mid to late 1970s, Michael Matheson remembers being constantly dragged by his mother to meetings with the council to complain about the damp in their two-bedroomed flat in Prospecthill Circus in Glasgow’s Toryglen.

He and his two elder brothers slept in one bedroom, his grandfather in the other, and for about 12 years his parents would roll out camp beds every night in the living room where they bedded down.

Black mould covered the paintwork, the rain seeped through the window frames and the wind howled through cracks in the walls. The council was constantly patching up and his parents forever painting over. But after his grandfather died of pneumonia, Matheson’s parents stepped up the pressure to get the family moved out.

Promises from a series of councillors, and even the local MP, that the family would soon be relocated passed by with years of inaction. And then a new councillor took up their case.

“I can remember the sense of excitement that something was at last going to happen, and then going back up to the primary school to see this councillor with my mum and dad, my dad was so keen that he hadn’t even changed from his work clothes, he still had his dungarees on.

“We thought this was it, we’re going to get a new house, it was really exciting. I was sitting outside the room, waiting, and I will always remember my mum coming out of that room crying because the councillor had lost our file, and nothing was going to happen,” he once told me.

That is just a fraction of the back story that led Matheson into politics. Rooted, as it was, in a belief that public service wasn’t about making promises, it was about getting things done. And the stark injustice of that moment, witnessed by a ten-year-old Michael Matheson watching hope ebb away and seeing his mother’s tears, was an early lesson in the painful consequences that flow from politicians’ lies.

That is why the Matheson iPad debacle feels like such a double betrayal. That for those of us who believed the former health secretary was motivated by decency, honour, and a legacy of knowing how the so-called ‘little people’ felt when they got shat upon, this has felt personal, more visceral. It has meant a reframing of one’s own judgement about who the good guys really are.

The unnecessarily protracted fiasco had already left its mark on Humza Yousaf’s unsteady tenure as first minister and has now been a test of Swinney’s incipient leadership – albeit his second time around – as much as it has been a test of Michael Matheson’s integrity. And when your main currency is trading on your slightly over-pitched moniker of Honest John –  of the ‘I always balance the books’ bank manager-style approach to trustworthiness – and you then deliberately expose your own double-dealing, political game-playing, and parliamentary trickery as nakedly as Swinney has done over the last week, then what’s left in your coffers when the next party-political crisis comes along when you’ve even forced Kate Forbes, whose real badge of honour was having the guts to once be honest about where she was coming from, to be tainted by this one?

Politicians’ popularity is ephemeral, as the first minister is now discovering having gone in the space of a week in the polls from being the most popular politician across these isles, to one now falling behind his nearest rivals, and the party he leads having been just two points behind Labour, now trailing by as many as ten.

Swinney’s general election boast of, “I’m the most popular political party leader in Scotland. That’s a huge advantage to the SNP, and we’re going to use it” is now looking distinctly thin and he only has himself to blame.

I honestly don’t understand what politics Swinney thought he was playing by backing Matheson, but when politicians base their approach on the idea that this is not an issue that is resonating with voters, and therefore they can do what they like, then you know they are out of touch with reality. Because on this, Swinney is wrong.

I walked up the Royal Mile on the day of the Matheson vote and in the space of a few hundred yards had spoken to one senior SNP MSP whose lengthy and completely confected defence of Matheson was so convoluted that even he got lost in the telling; two Labour MSPs who couldn’t quite believe their electoral luck at what Swinney was doing and the clear opportunity it gave them; and a very senior civil servant who has served under every devolved administration since 1999 and was in disbelief at the dishonourable attempts being made by the party of government to blame everyone else for the mess they had got into over a very clear expenses scandal, bar the man that was actually to blame. 

I’m sorry, Mr Swinney, you may think this isn’t what people are talking about on the doorsteps, but my evidence is otherwise. The public do not care about bizarre allegations of parliamentary impropriety which appears to be the ballast to which your MSPs cling. They are not interested in process or procedural details that can somehow excuse a “friend and a colleague” trying to wriggle his way out of the fact that he ran up an £11,000 bill on his iPad, claimed it on expenses, lied about it – repeatedly – and then complained about being found guilty and having to belatedly suffer the consequences.

They may also see through attempts to smear opposition colleagues and to blame the process as being flawed, simply, as your tribal opportunism. But all of this, in the midst of an election campaign where your party’s honesty is already sorely tested, and with a situation you could have avoided by doing the right thing at the start by casting Matheson adrift, leaves me as dumbfounded as everyone about what games are really being played.

And when our politics has already been denigrated and probity across our public institutions is at stake, when leadership, governance, and board responsibility are all under the microscope, the very least we should expect from our first minister is that he stands on the right side of decency.
Swinney and his party are, as ever, fighting a general election as a referendum on independence but if he’s not careful, this could become a vote much more about his own political future.

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