Last Friday a new tortuous drama began to unfold inside a Holyrood committee room writes Thomas Parkhill.
A room where Alex Salmond meticulously eviscerated his one-time protégé, Nicola Sturgeon over a mammoth evidence session of over six hours at an enquiry into the Scottish Government’s handling of allegations of sexual harassment allegedly perpetrated by Salmond. Perhaps the most telling moment was in Salmond’s opening statement:
“The failures of leadership are many and obvious but not a single person has taken responsibility, not a single resignation or sacking, not even admonition. The Scottish civil service has not failed, its leadership has. The Crown Office has not failed, its leadership has failed. Scotland hasn’t failed, its leadership has failed. The move to independence, which I have sought all my political life… must be accompanied by institutions whose leadership is strong and robust and capable of protecting each and every citizen from arbitrary authority.”
Salmond highlighted how the separation of powers between the civil service, the SNP run executive and, most worryingly, the Crown office (which he accused of politically motivated prosecution) have been compromised. This was truly astonishing stuff that challenges the client state the SNP has built around its campaign for separation, not that the SNP seem bothered, with their poll ratings still soaring and on course to secure a majority in Holyrood. They will be hoping this brouhaha will blow over, whilst the Unionist contingent will be working hard to expose any wrong-doing, but the wider question of how the UK government, indeed if the UK government should step in has been largely unanswered. In a federal system like in the USA, the feds would be intervening if a state governorship was embroiled in a similar affair, but with the UK’s famously unwritten constitution this is a difficult proposition.
The particular difficulty for the UK Government is that it is politically expedient to do nothing in the short-term. To step in now would give Nicola Sturgeon a line of attack that the UK Government is interfering in devolved matters, which could prove to be just the distraction the SNP need to shore up support in time for the Holyrood elections. However, it is without doubt critically important that the UK government ensures civil servant impartiality and prevent a repeat of this scandal in Scotland. In particular the UK government needs the necessary structures and mechanisms in place for that to be possible, something equivalent to a Section 114 notice, which can be issued to Local authorities when they are effectively bankrupt. However, it is not just the UK Government that needs these mechanisms, the devolved institutions’ powers have never been fixed: they shift continuously like sand dunes.
The “settlements” are anything but settled. In fact in the last week, the Welsh Labour leader, Mark Drakeford has called for “Home Rule” in a speech that requested more powers, whilst setting out no reasoning for why this is necessary or indeed what powers are required. Place this in the context that in just over two months the Senedd will have more powers, including tax raising powers. Instead of this aggravation, Drakeford should concentrate on using the powers that the Welsh Government has at its disposal. This constant twist and turn in the constitution provides the perfect environment for grievance based nationalism we currently see in Scotland and to a lesser extent in Cardiff Bay. It is often said the UK government has been guilty of a culture of devolve and forget, and there has been noises coming from Downing Street for some time that there is an attempt to change this, either with a Union Unit or Cabinet sub-committee for the Union. I worry greatly that this will only look to short-term tactics to see off the SNP rather than a long-term strategy to fix devolution when the case for both is overwhelming.
In my opinion it is time for a conservative (with a small c) approach. A period of at least one Senedd term, preferably two terms for the current powers to be appreciated by the public and for the UK government to integrate devolution more effectively into its working. Frankly, there needs to be a step change in the way the UK government and Civil service work collaboratively with devolved parliaments, the city deals have been the most positive change in recent years, but the issue of driving change outside of a devolved administrations priorities still remains a discussion. The Internal Market Bill could prove to be one such mechanism, however it isn’t yet clear how this Bill would practically be able to deliver a project like the M4 relief road, but it could provide a different lever to pull when a collaborative approach is not appropriate.
This approach is not without its risks, as Sturgeon has already denounced the internal market bill as an attack on devolution and ultimately an attack on Scotland. However, currently this will be further down her agenda as she battles for political survival. The most recent revelations seem to suggest cover up. This would see the end of most political careers, but the Sturgeon is no ordinary politician and the SNP is no ordinary party. They are still odds on favourites to return to lead the Scottish government in May. Over the course of the next two months, Scottish politics will define the politics of the UK for the next ten years. If Sturgeon survives then politics will be increasingly defined between Unionism and separatism. If not then maybe there will be an opportunity to define devolution and the UK for the next 50 years.