Why the SNP is never held to account

OPINION: The Scottish Government won't get better without genuine scrutiny.

Is it possible to be shocked and not at all surprised?

I can’t think of a better way to sum up my reaction to the news that Scotland’s health watchdog has been busy watching ministers’ backs. It turns out Public Health Scotland has a ‘communications framework’ with the Scottish Government and local authorities committing it ‘to reducing the potential impact of the risk on the reputation and credibility of the organisations’. 

Yet this is the same body that is supposed to run the rule over ministerial actions and government policy, such as the decision to transfer untested and even Covid-positive patients into care homes at the outset of the pandemic. Ultimately, a third of the 10,000 lives lost to the virus in Scotland died in a care home. 

Yet when Public Health Scotland was tasked with investigating last year, it could not establish a causal link, a finding cited by Nicola Sturgeon to fend off opposition criticism. The report was criticised by the UK Office for Statistics Regulation, which said the data on different types of hospital discharge was ‘consistent with a causal relationship between positivity and outbreak’. Public Health Scotland later published a revised report. 

Had this happened in England, it would have prompted resignations and inquiries. By now, though, we are used to Scotland being governed in this fashion. Only last week, health secretary Humza Yousaf was rapped on the knuckles by UK statistics chiefs for his ‘inaccurate’ claim about children hospitalised by Covid, just as the First Minister personally and her government’s press office were both censured by the watchdog in 2020 over the dubious use of statistics in relation to the virus. London-based statisticians are doing more to hold the Scottish Government to account than most of Scottish civil society put together.

This is of a piece with a government where special advisers have far too much involvement in the process of responding to freedom of information requests — indeed, the first government in the world to use Covid-19 as a pretext for delaying freedom of information requests. This is the same government which repeatedly obstructed an inquiry into what the First Minister knew about the Alex Salmond affair, even though the inquiry was being chaired by one of their own MSPs. A government that went to the Court of Session rather than disclose its taxpayer-funded legal advice about a separate Scotland’s chances of EU membership — or even whether such advice existed. 

It is becoming increasingly difficult to shake the suspicion that the primary function of the organs of the state in Scotland is to shield the Scottish Government from scrutiny.

It’s not just the state either, but wider civil society that is failing to hold SNP ministers to account. The Scottish establishment spent decades bemoaning a supposed ‘democratic deficit’ because a majority of constituencies across the UK kept voting for the ‘wrong’ party. Yet from them there is nary a peep on today’s very real democratic deficit: a powerful government in Edinburgh that faces a level of scrutiny just slightly above that of a community council. 

Much of the blame can be laid at the door of the constitution. By keeping independence a live matter, kindling the fiction that it’s coming yet for all that, the Nationalists are able to command the loyalty of ‘Civic Scotland’. ‘Wheesht for indy’ is a potent spell worked on otherwise inquisitive, sceptical minds. 

In the pilot episode of Yes, Minister, the civil servants sip brandy while discussing their new minister’s enthusiasm for ‘open government’. Bernard Woolley, the slightly green principal private secretary, enquires: ‘What’s wrong with open government? Why shouldn’t the public know more about what’s going on?’ ‘My dear boy,’ chides cabinet secretary Sir Arnold Robinson. ‘It’s a contradiction in terms. You can be open or you can have government.’ Taken aback, Woolley sputters: ‘But surely the citizens of a democracy have a right to know?’ 

At this point, Sir Humphrey Appleby, the permanent secretary, interjects: ‘No, they have a right to be ignorant. Knowledge only means complicity and guilt. Ignorance has a certain dignity.’ The young idealist is still nonplussed, so Sir Arnold has one last go. Reclining sagely in his leather-bound chair, nursing his mid-afternoon snifter, he explains: ‘If people don’t know what you’re doing, they don’t know what you’re doing wrong.’

Yes, Minister was a hit with the public because they enjoyed it as a comedy and with politicians because they knew it was closer to a documentary. 

Accountability is not an abstract point. It goes to the heart of what government does and how it does it. A government held to account is a government that must have results to show. A government unchecked by scrutiny need not concern itself with outcomes, only rhetoric. 

If we want things to start getting better in Scotland — better in schools and in hospitals, better in pandemic management and recovery — we have to restore accountability to its rightful place. Ministers cannot mark their own work. Executive agencies tasked with investigating ministerial decisions cannot be duty-bound to safeguard ministerial reputations.

There must be the same degree of independence from government in the bureaucracy and civil society as there is south of the border. Bluntly, Scotland’s governing class has to grow up, stop being pals with one another, and begin acting like the rigorous system of checks and balances that are a standard feature of even the most underdeveloped democracies. 

A good start would be calling in the UK Health Security Agency, the successor body to Public Health England, to conduct an independent investigation into the care home transfers policy. Thereafter, the Scottish agency’s public relations obligations to ministers should be scrapped and replaced with an unambiguous statement that its primary duty is to public health and that it should pursue this duty without fear or favour. 

Open government is not a contradiction in terms. Secrecy is inimical to good government and the public consent it rests upon. The more that is kept from the voters, the more those in power protect their own, the more fulsome the public disgust and cynicism when a sliver of truth slips out.

Truth is all the public has in its encounter with government. Government has the power, the laws, the purse strings and the institutions of the state. Outside of an election, the public has only the facts; without them, it has no leverage to make the government serve the nation’s interests rather than that of party or personal ambition. 

We must have the facts and we must have faith in them. Absent either, we will know government is doing wrong, we just won’t know how much. There is no dignity in that sort of ignorance, only anger and disillusionment.

Badly behaved woman makes history

Maya Forstater is a mother of two teenage sons, so in hindsight it was probably a mistake to think she would be a pushover. The 47-year-old lost her job as a researcher in 2019 for tweeting that 'men cannot change into women'. Forstater is a gender-critical feminist, meaning she believes that being a woman is a matter of physical reality and feeling 'female' does not make you one. This is what used to be known as 'biology'. 

Yet, when she went to an employment tribunal, she lost the case. Determined to stand up for her rights, and with support from Harry Potter author JK Rowling, Forstater appealed to the High Court and won a landmark victory last week. The judge ruled that her philosophical belief was protected under law. 

Laurel Thatcher Ulrich says ‘well-behaved women seldom make history’. Forstater has made history and because of her the rest of us will have measurably more freedom of expression. Everyone should be free to live their lives as they choose but that must include the right to speak your mind.

Edinburgh loses its drive

Edinburgh City Council's war on motorists continues. The local authority is set to ban pre-2015 cars from the city centre to cut down on emissions. Not that anyone is bothered around here in the leafy New Town, where 'creatives' cycle to pop-up workspaces and the only vehicle that's welcome is a 'Stockbridge ambulance' — the Waitrose delivery van. 

Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail on June 14, 2021.