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by Kirsteen Paterson
10 February 2024
Civil War: The battle brewing in Scottish politics over Covid Inquiry revelations

First Minister Humza Yousaf leaves the UK Covid-19 Inquiry | Alamy

Civil War: The battle brewing in Scottish politics over Covid Inquiry revelations

“It has not been the government’s finest hour.” Those are not the words of a critic nor a commentator, but of First Minister Humza Yousaf as he addressed the deficiencies in government record-keeping and the use of informal communication channels during the pandemic.

Deleted WhatsApps, non-existent minutes for Gold Command meetings, varying interpretations of the official data retention policy and a row over which civil servant said what, and why – the Scottish module of the UK Covid-19 Inquiry has turned up enough negative lines to send a press officer into early retirement. Many of them will have been familiar to anyone who watched earlier sessions of the inquiry, including those with Prime Minister Rishi Sunak. He didn’t have his private messages either, and, as in Scotland, scientific advisors suggested decision-makers hadn’t been ready, and bereaved families raised frustrations about the process.

When the Institute for Government (IfG) think tank stated this month that recent revelations had created “the perception of a government more inclined to cover up than open up”, it was referring to Sunak’s Conservative administration at Westminster, which has found it so difficult to shrug off partygate’s long hangover. And at First Minister’s Questions, Yousaf drew a clear distinction between himself and Sunak. He handed over his WhatsApps, Yousaf said, while the PM “has refused to hand over a single message and who, of course, took the inquiry to court” over its request for the production of messages sent between Boris Johnson and others, “only to lose”.

Still, with questions over honesty, propriety, and politicisation amongst both elected and unelected Scottish Government figures raised by inquiry KCs during the hearing’s 13-day run of testimony in Edinburgh, some might wonder if the IfG’s description applies also to ministers based in that city and the civil servants who support them. And, as we look down the barrel of a general election, with a Scottish Parliament election set to follow soon after, it’s hard not to ask where we go from here.

“It’s difficult to say how much people’s knowledge will have gone beyond headlines,” says pollster Mark Diffley of the Diffley Partnership. And he warns that the evidence heard already – Sturgeon’s closest special advisor sketching plans for a “political rammy”; the Scottish Government’s director of external affairs sending emails from the deputy first minister’s account on the implications of Spanish travel restrictions for independence; the director-general of strategy and internal affairs joking that his middle names are “plausible deniability”; the national clinical director stating that message deletion was his “pre-bed ritual” – could leave some voters so scunnered that they stay at home when the ballot boxes next open. 

“For some people it will possibly add to their distrust of ‘the system’, which will not just include politicians but the machinery of government,” he says, and “push some more towards apathy or more extreme political positions which attempt to criticise the machinery”. “There is a possibility that that will happen,” he tells Holyrood. “Wider distrust in the system is not a good thing.”

Any serious political party should think very carefully about the damage these sweeping allegations of bias are doing

Yousaf, whose own WhatsApps turned up on an old phone, has commissioned an externally-led review into the use of mobile messaging apps and non-corporate tech in the Scottish Government, which will take account of the requirements of statutory public inquiries. And as well as the findings of the UK-wide coronavirus inquiry, we have the Scottish probe still to go. But that’s not enough for Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar, who says “the SNP has created a culture of secrecy and cover-up”, or for Tory shadow constitution secretary Donald Cameron, who has written to permanent secretary John-Paul Marks calling for an investigation into what he says is the “alarming politicisation” of the 7,000-plus workforce that Marks leads.

For the Tories, there has been “unacceptable” shift away from the civil service’s traditional, and protected, impartiality. For Labour, as reported in the Sunday Herald, the civil service has been “captured wholesale and the lines between political interest and public service have not just become blurred, they have disappeared”.

But claims like this have provoked a reaction from civil servants’ trade unions, which say the principle of impartiality in the active service of government remains alive and well. “It’s so disappointing to hear politicians from any party question the integrity of civil servants in this way, when they know they are unable to publicly defend themselves,” Allan Sampson of the FDA union says. “Whether in government or opposition, politicians have a responsibility to protect the impartiality of the civil service.

“Since devolution, the civil service has served ministers from a number of different political parties. Advice to ministers does not equate to support for their political agenda. Future governments in Holyrood,” he goes on, “will rely on the civil service to deliver their priorities, so any serious political party should think very carefully about the damage these sweeping allegations of bias are doing to such a vital institution.”

Richard Hardy of Prospect union has also hit back against the commentary, which follows debate last year over the role of civil servants developing the Scottish Government’s constitutional agenda. A promised review from Simon Case, the head of the UK civil service, on what Scottish Secretary Alister Jack called the “irresponsible” use of civil service resources on an independence prospectus has yet to be published. In an interview with Holyrood in August, independence minister Jamie Hepburn said he would “never seek to influence” officials, adding that their “operational independence” is “important”. 

“The civil service exists to advise on and implement government policy, it’s not ‘capture’ when they do this,” Hardy stated. “It’s very disappointing to find politicians attacking the civil service for doing their job. We are seeing this behaviour far [too] often recently.”

But behind the scenes, there is some agreement in the service that some of the actions by officials has put them in a difficult position, and one source told Holyrood that Ken Thomson’s “plausible deniability” remarks were “ridiculous”. Thomson, who became regulatory chief of the Institute of Chartered Accounts of Scotland (ICAS) in January, has left that post since his messages emerged, citing “personal reasons” but following complaints made to ICAS about his role.

There’s a desire to frame as many things as just SNP failings

There exists concern in some parts of the civil service about the extent to which individual staff retain their political distance from government, Holyrood has been told, but there is also frustration that message deletions by Alister Jack have not been met with the same degree of outrage as those by the Scottish Government. Jack told the inquiry he had scrubbed every WhatsApp from his phone, government-related or not, because he was running out of storage space. “There’s no media focus on that,” one source said. “There’s a desire to frame as many things as just SNP failings and it follows that the civil service is going to get caught up in that as well. Is there going to be a constant media focus on the civil service?”

Part of that focus has fallen squarely on national clinical director Jason Leitch, who is seen to have made personal criticisms about Labour and Tory MSPs to Yousaf while he was still health secretary. Sarwar – who Leitch taught at dentistry school – had apparently confided that he was “struggling” with new MSPs Paul Sweeney and Mercedes Villalba, the records stated. Edward Mountain MSP was “rude” and had been “harrumphing... like a child” in a meeting, Leitch disclosed. 

That disclosure came in messages provided by Yousaf, as Leitch himself had deleted his. He had been “flippant” in some exchanges, he told the inquiry. Scottish Conservative chair Craig Hoy said Leitch should “resign or be sacked as national clinical director”, describing him as “not fit for the role”. Scottish Labour depute leader Jackie Baillie said he seemed to have found the pandemic “all quite funny judging from the messages we have seen” and added that “if the Scottish Government agrees that his behaviour was inappropriate then it is time Mr Leitch was sacked”.

There’s been much said, too, about the email sent from John Swinney’s email address, authored by director of external affairs Scott Wightman, warning that restrictions on Spanish travel restrictions could have “political” ramifications and mean leaders in Madrid “will never approve EU membership for an independent Scotland”.

But comments about overall politicisation and “capture” of the service by government have raised hackles at a time when polling suggests political change is in the air. Labour was found to have a three-point lead over the SNP for the general election in Norstat polling revealed by the Sunday Times late last month.

Analysis suggested that could mean Labour secures 10 more MPs than the SNP in the hotly anticipated contest. And levels of trust in Nicola Sturgeon, once as high as +18, were seen to have shifted to -19. Labour, feeling buoyant, dares to dream of winning big at Holyrood in 2026. And so, with clear unhappiness from that party about the attitude it feels has taken hold in the civil service, and with a need for the SNP to prove its trustworthiness and prevent potential losses, some have asked if officials could face wider changes. 

Open warfare

“If we get to the point of them trying to replace civil servants then we’d be in exactly the same territory as with the UK Government, which is open warfare,” one insider said.

The Norstat polling was superseded by new work from Ipsos last week. Reversing the position, it gave the SNP a seven-point lead over its Labour rival and put support for Scottish independence at 53 per cent. The SNP, it found, “remains the party most trusted by the Scottish public”, but the gap is narrowing. Emily Gray, managing director of Ipsos in Scotland, said the direction of travel “will worry the SNP, as Labour has been gaining ground across a range of policy issues while trust in the SNP has been on the wane”. 

But the polling did not cover trust in officials. Diffley points to research conducted by Savanta in March 2021, when respondents were asked if they had “more or less trust in the civil service as a result of the ongoing Salmond Inquiry” on the Scottish Government’s handling of its investigation into the conduct of the former first minister, who was accused of sexual assault and harassment. A criminal trial cleared him of all charges and then-permanent secretary Lesley Evans was found to have overseen foreseeable and repeated failures in the government’s internal process.

Just over half of respondents had either not changed their opinion of the civil service as a result of the probe or not formed one. Of the remaining 47 per cent, 30 per cent had less trust and 16 per cent had more. The point is, Diffley says, that “just under half of people did have an opinion”, and if the same is true of the UK Covid-19 Inquiry, that could be significant. Today’s circumstances are “completely different”, he cautions, but it should not be assumed that the public is not paying attention to the officials. “It does point to the fact that for most people it probably won’t register, but there will be some who will have noticed, and I suspect may not be feeling very favourably towards the civil service,” he says.

There has been no response yet from Marks to the letter from the Conservatives calling for an investigation into politicisation claims. For its part, the Scottish Government has said that the “prime focus and intention of ministers, clinicians and officials” across its departments “was to protect the people of Scotland from the harms of Covid-19”.

In its recent report on ‘The Benefits of Transparency’, the IfG highlighted the conducting of government business through WhatsApp and similar channels as an example of “active poor practice”, with the use of “disappearing” settings that auto-wipe content “at the level of both ministers and senior officials” called a “particularly egregious example”.

The report is focused on Westminster, not Holyrood, and highlights the publication of public appointments data in Scotland as an example of good practice. However, one of its conclusions could apply to both administrations: releasing information about the way the wheels turn “can attract uncomfortable scrutiny”, it said, but transparency “is a vital tool in re-establishing trust where perceptions of government propriety have been undermined”.

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