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Alex Bell: Writing on wall for Nicola Sturgeon as rot and malaise sweep across the land

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon
First Minister Nicola Sturgeon

The end of Nicola Sturgeon’s time in office is in sight. It is not the allegations made by her predecessor that will topple her, incendiary as they are, but a general state of failure. Under her, Scotland itself seems to have lost its integrity. This is not a land many of us recognise any more.

The chaos over the Holyrood inquiry is becoming emblematic of wider malaise, where the institutions of government appear insecure and corrupted.

Democracy is meant to have checks and balances. Power, as Britons understand it, is something shared across agencies.

Yet it is no longer clear who can hold power to account in Scotland, or where authority lies.

The Holyrood committee into the botched charges against Alex Salmond published the former first minister’s evidence on Monday. Within hours, it was withdrawn as the Crown Office raised concerns about its legal status.

It is incredible that between MSPs, Holyrood lawyers, civil servants and the Crown Office, there was not a discussion about this in advance.

Salmond’s evidence had become infamous in this saga since the criminal trial of last year. No one could be in any doubt about the need to handle it correctly.

Either the committee thought an important principle was at stake, and should have stuck to its guns over publication, asserting the power of parliament. Or legal advice should have been clear, and it should not have been seen. To do both smacks of catastrophic incompetence.

Havering of this kind is rotting trust in the systems of government. It seems that in the face of Salmond’s determined defence, institutional Scotland is crumbling.

Former Scottish first minister Alex Salmond

The parliament appears uncertain of its powers. On the one hand it wants to inquire, on the other to turn no stones.

Apart from the Salmond business, this is a government which gives up when things get tricky. The Hate Crime Bill runs into the sand, the Airbnb Bill gets delayed – this after it cut its workload in half last September, citing Covid.

And 129 MSPs appear incapable of holding government to account, of debating legislation and of investigating the Salmond farrago. This is not just a parliament which can’t run a committee, it is also one incapable of scrutinising the ferry fiasco, the Bifab failure, care home deaths or any number of other scandals.

Meanwhile, the government publishes a draft budget which cuts vital spending to the poor while claiming its moral purpose is to help children and the underprivileged. Our executive do not govern, they spend. The intent is not to lead but to pacify voters. The effect is a decline in the quality of Scotland.

But the personnel never seem to feel responsible. Cabinet ministers last for 13 years, regardless of policy failures. Special advisers hang around for over a decade – their Westminster colleagues are lucky to last 18 months. Such longevity in office is a profoundly non-democratic thing, indicative of weak leadership and an atrophying government.

‘This is why Sturgeon should go’

Alone this would be a crisis. Devolution moving from a means to solve “Scottish problems” in Donald Dewar’s phrase, to becoming a problem itself. However, it is accompanied by a wider failure.

The civil service, still under the control of the UK Parliament, appears inept. Evidence given to the Salmond committee is hesitant, economical and then later corrected. The first rule of officialdom is to protect officialdom but this seems to have been taken to a ludicrous extreme.

Bound up in this is the Crown Office. Quite apart from its role in the Salmond case, it is already charged with misconduct over the Rangers Football Club saga.

This is why Sturgeon should go. Under her watch public services have not improved, while education has declined. Targets set on closing attainment gaps or boosting the economy or cutting carbon emissions have not been met.

In the last seven years, the authority of the parliament, the civil service and other agencies of government have diminished. Some responsibility for this, ironically, lies with her predecessor, who doth protest so much.

Politically, support for Indy has risen, but based on no positive or substantial addition to the argument. If it hadn’t been for Brexit, there’d be nothing to say about Indy which couldn’t have been said a decade ago.

There are many who admire Nicola Sturgeon, myself included. She has been a strong woman, attentive to important questions about children, education and poverty. Her championing of #MeToo was right.

Sturgeon has been one of the few political stars of recent times. Her dedication and sincerity beyond doubt.

In contrast to others, she has been admirably competent. But this has disguised a rot that now seeps across the land.