Strengthen the Scottish Parliament to stop the SNP

9 Mar 2021

On the 1st of July 1999, at the first state opening of the reconvened Scottish Parliament, Donald Dewar said “This is about more than our politics and our laws. This is about who we are, how we carry ourselves.”[1]

That quote for me embodies the tone that was set for the Scottish Parliament from that day forward.

The belief that it would not just deliver on the devolution promises made by the Constitutional Conventions of the 1980s and 90s.

But also, that it would carry itself in a different manner to the Westminster Parliament.

That Scottish politics would be more consensual, more open and transparent and closer to the people that it served than the perceived adversarial, closed and distant politics in London.

Now with many of the first MSPs also being MPs, retaining old political loyalties, you could be forgiven for thinking that this dream was hopelessly naïve.

But those were the ideals that underpinned the establishment of the Scottish Parliament more than twenty years ago.

And they are the principles that have endured in the perceptions of the Scottish people towards the Scottish Parliament.

It is part of the reason why it has gained such widespread support across our nation, in a relatively short period of time.

But those perceptions have also stifled legitimate debate around the issues that are present in the Scottish Parliament.

At its worst, they have come from two, at times, arrogant assumptions,

Firstly, that Scottish politics will always be superior to Westminster and therefore has nothing to learn from it.

As Professor James Mitchell, of the University of Edinburgh, wrote recently, Holyrood defines itself against a “caricature of the Westminster model”.[2]

Not informed by the actual operation of the UK Parliament and the significant advances that have been made in recent years, but instead by a perception of Westminster politics.

A perception informed more by PMQs than anything else.

Secondly, that any of its failings are not as a result of its processes but instead because it is incomplete.

And so the Nationalists goal of separation must be achieved before any consideration can be made of how to improve the operation of the Scottish Parliament.

There has been a continual focus on debating what powers the Scottish Parliament ought to have, rather than on how we better deploy and scrutinise the use of its existing powers.

As a result, the Scottish Parliament has become frozen in time, increasingly dated in its 1999 model of operating, despite its expanding remit.

Seemingly oblivious to parliamentary innovations elsewhere.

And, as such, wholly inadequate to respond to the scandal that has engulfed Scottish politics.

What would Donald Dewar say, if he could see the current sorry state of the Scottish Parliament he first led?

The Sturgeon- Salmond scandal has riven the very heart of Scottish politics and undermined confidence in the ability of parliament to hold the government to account.

The First Minister stands accused from different angles

of breaching the ministerial code,

of lying to the Scottish Parliament,

of ignoring her own legal advice to the cost of over half a million pounds of taxpayer’s money

and of presiding over the introduction of a sexual harassment complaints procedure, which let down the two women who attempted to have their complaints heard through it.

Those are serious charges against any politician, let alone the leader of the governing party.

And do real reputational harm to the government that she leads, during a global pandemic

When public trust in government and compliance with their decisions is the most valuable tool in our fight against coronavirus.

Any minister, any politician, any person who was accused on those accounts would do anything, anything to clear their name, if they believed their innocence.

Yet SNP Government has obstructed and evaded scrutiny in every possible way.

The committee inquiry into the handling of the harassment complaints has had to drag each shred of evidence from the government.

To the extent that the SNP chair said at one stage that the inquiry was “completely frustrated with the lack of evidence and, quite frankly, obstruction it is experiencing” and that it was in danger of being unable to proceed.[3]

Even a police search warrant could not secure the SNP Government’s compliance.

And two votes of the Scottish Parliament for the publication of the legal advice, on the decision to fight Salmond’s judicial review, were flatly ignored.

It took putting the Deputy First Minister’s job on the line, with the threat of a no confidence vote, for some, but again not all of the advice to be released four months after it was first requested.

And that is still being released on a piecemeal basis, with what we have seen predictably showing that the concerns of government lawyers were ignored.

Yet still no guarantee that we will ever see the entirety, with just three weeks to go until purdah.

And as such, we have no choice but to continue with our plans for a confidence vote in the Deputy First Minister this week.

Then, we have the Lord Advocate, the SNP Government’s chief legal adviser, who also acts as the head of the government’s prosecution service.

Intervening to retrospectively redact documents that had already been published by the Scottish Parliament.

In not just a display of damning incompetence but also total disrespect for parliamentary scrutiny.

Finally, there is the independent inquiry into whether Nicola Sturgeon has breached the ministerial code with her actions.

An inquiry which the SNP Government has written the remit and set the terms for.

I do not know what the inquiry will conclude, but it is as clear as day to any objective person that she misled parliament and failed to follow legal advice, both of which constitute breaches of the code.

Scottish Parliament votes and committees are being disregarded and ignored by a SNP Scottish Government that is able to set the terms of scrutiny at every turn.

In what world is a process such as that ever going to uncover the truth of what happened.

And so, my party has decided to also put down a vote of no confidence in the First Minister.

The SNP, Sturgeon included, called for the resignation of Labour First Minister Henry McLeish for subletting his office, Conservative Leader David McLetchie for expensing party business and Labour Leader Wendy Alexander for failing to declare party donations in her register of interests.

Each of these transgressions are of a completely different order of magnitude to what Nicola Sturgeon has done, yet all of them lost their jobs.

Indeed, John Swinney previously said that the “conduct of the first minister of Scotland must… be beyond reproach”.

Yet the SNP do not seem to believe that they should be held accountable to that standard, they showed disdain at the very suggestion of a confidence motion.

Even going so far as to shamelessly hide behind the coronavirus pandemic.

The Scottish Conservatives believe that this vote needs to take place, to give parliament the opportunity to have its say on the First Minister’s conduct.

And the other parties need to show that they have the stomach stand up to this SNP Government like we do,

To hold the First Minister to the same standards that she has held others to.

This vote is the only tool opposition parliamentarians have at their disposal to put the spotlight onto the First Minister’s conduct.

The SNP Government has prevented parliament from proper scrutiny and deployed every tactic to frustrate the committee and whitewash the independent inquiry.

The only option we have is a confidence motion, to give this the attention it deserves.

So that less than two months from the Scottish Parliament Election, the public have the chance to make up their own minds on Nicola Sturgeon’s conduct and whether it is fit for the office she holds.

By bringing forward these votes of no confidence, I am also asking that opposition parties unite with us and stand up for the Scottish Parliament and its fundamental principles.

To demand that votes of its chamber are respected every single time, not only when the government feels like it.

To state together that it’s for a parliament inquiry to decide when it gets information, not the government.

To send a clear message that in the Scottish Parliament, we will not tolerate a government trampling over the truth, suppressing evidence and shutting down scrutiny.

The testimony of multiple credible witnesses – and even Nicola Sturgeon’s own evidence – makes it clear that she misled Parliament.

The words of Scotland’s most senior lawyer, Roddy Dunlop QC, makes it plain that the government “discounted” his advice and as a result of that decision, they lost hundreds of thousands of pounds of taxpayers’ money.

We can all plainly see the evidence against the Deputy First Minister too. He ignored two votes of Parliament until his job was on the line. He suppressed information to help Nicola Sturgeon. He still withholds information. His statements have lurched from insincere to inaccurate.

So as the main opposition to the SNP, I have to ask other parties – do you really think any of those actions are acceptable?

Why should we put up with any of that? Why would we let this government – or any government – away with this?

And I say to them – I am not afraid of Nicola Sturgeon’s poll numbers. No other opposition leader should be either.  

We will bring these votes of no confidence forward because it is the right thing to do. The evidence of what they have done wrong is overwhelming.

It is the job of Scotland’s opposition to call that out – not to run and hide from the SNP.

When they abuse their power, cover up the truth, and trample on Parliament – don’t let them away with it. Join with us and stand up to them.

Let’s confront them together. Let’s send a message that we are Scotland’s opposition and what they have done, what they are doing, to the Scottish Parliament will not be tolerated.

Yet it should never have to come to this.

This sorry episode has undermined trust in the First Minister and in her government, but it has also shaken confidence in the Scottish Parliament.

Parliament has been tested to its limit in its ability to hold the government to account and it has been found wanting.

That is not the fault of parliamentarians but of a structure which has given the SNP all of the cards it needs to frustrate the opposition.

By deliberately breaking the accountability of government to parliament, the SNP are damaging our devolved institutions,

institutions that give them the authority to govern Scotland’s public services.

This should concern all of Scotland’s parties.

Proper scrutiny of government is the backbone of any democracy.

And is essential whatever our constitutional future.

Indeed, the former First Minister in his evidence session to the committee inquiry stated that the “move to independence…. must be accompanied by institutions whose leadership is strong, robust and capable of protecting each and every citizen from arbitrary authority”.[4]

It is time to shatter the comfortable illusion that Scottish democracy is superior and accept that it can and should be improved.

That we look at practice elsewhere, and that includes even at Westminster, for inspiration.

That we reassess after more than twenty years, the effectiveness of the Scottish Parliament and empower it with the tools that it needs to properly scrutinise government.

This should be a cross-party commission, I do not pretend that the Scottish Conservatives have all of the answers.

However, as a start I am making these suggestions.

Firstly, I believe that this scandal has shown where the Scottish Government is accountable to only itself.

It is left to the First Minister to uphold the ministerial code and take decisions on the scrutiny of ministerial behaviour.

So to make this process independent, we would propose that responsibility for the scrutiny of ministerial behaviour be given to the Standards Committee, just as they report on the behaviour of opposition and backbench MSPs.

There should not be a separate process for government ministers.

Likewise, the conflict in the dual role of the Lord Advocate, being both public prosecutor and the government’s chief legal adviser has been raised again in this scandal.

This has been an issue of concern for my party since the opening of the Scottish Parliament, with David McLetchie in 1999 noting “the importance of preserving the independence of the two offices”.[5]

And more than two decades later we will again make the case for the roles to be separated, to remove concerns of political interference in prosecution decisions.

Then there is the lack of protection for MSPs to speak freely in parliament and avoid committing contempt of court.

Holyrood does not have full parliamentary privilege, constraining what members can say and issues they can raise for debate.

So to give parliamentary debate proper protection, we will put forward measures to strengthen the legal protections afforded to MSPs when in parliament.

We also need to look at the role of Scottish Parliament committees, which far from offering cross-party apolitical scrutiny as intended, have been driven by the same agendas as exist in the wider chamber.

The introduction of elected select committee chairs at Westminster a decade ago has encouraged greater independence for the committee system to challenge the government.

I believe, having served in both parliaments and looking to do so again, that Holyrood would also benefit from that innovation.

Finally, and not explicitly tied to the relationship between the government and parliament, but important for ensuring continued belief in our democracy, is the ability of voters to recall representatives who break the law or grossly undermine trust.

This is another change made years ago at Westminster and contemplated in Holyrood but not taken forward.

Just this past year, we have seen the scandal of a disgraced former minister, remaining an MSP, earning over £100,000 and failing to represent his constituents.

So, we will bring forward proposals to allow voters to recall MSPs in exceptional circumstances.

These are just a few examples of what we could do,

but it is important that we start a discussion with all parties, on how we strengthen the ability of the Scottish Parliament to hold the Scottish Government to account.

Ensuring that we never again have to endure the scandal of our democracy being obstructed, like we have seen over the past six months.

And that Scottish politics in 2021 can carry itself to that higher standard envisioned in 1999.

However, the roots of this crisis run deeper than the Scottish Parliament’s relationship with the Scottish Government and even deeper than Nicola Sturgeon’s relationship with Alex Salmond.

They are the result of a contradiction,

a nationalist party intent on securing independence, running a devolved government which is part of the UK.

Unlike my party, which aspires as its highest ambition to one day be the government of Scotland, to have the honour to serve our country and deliver on our manifesto promises and aspirations for the Scottish people,

The SNP do not see the running of a devolved institution within the UK as an end in itself but as a means to further their political campaign for independence.

They originally opposed the formation of a devolved Scottish Parliament because they believed that it would hinder the campaign for independence.

The gradualist argument that eventually persuaded the party to shift its position, was that the parliament could actually be used to secure independence.

And that is why Sturgeon will not be forced out by internal pressure, regardless of the damage she is doing to the government and parliament.

Because she is too important to the overall nationalist project, their overriding and only real priority.

The SNP are willing to overlook any concerns, any failings, to further their goal towards securing independence.

Any issue can be seen as mere collateral, whether it is the reputation of the Scottish Parliament

or the falling standards in our schools

or even record drug deaths.

So long as the current leadership is seen as the best chance of achieving independence, their record in government can be ignored by the SNP at large.

This scandal is just the latest example of how the SNP’s ever willingness to put their political project ahead of the governance of Scotland has damaged our country.

After fourteen years of failure from the SNP we can see the deep scars left by that approach across every part of Scotland and now they have been revealed in our parliament.

Nationalist government has thrown Scotland into a permanent political crisis.

On every front they have adopted a timid and disinterested attitude towards governing.

Unwilling to innovate, to revolutionise, to reform in any direction, to take bold or tough choices.

It is not just our parliament that has been left behind without leadership but our NHS, our education system, our economy.

The SNP look to accumulate ever more powers but do little with them.

Their real goal being control for its own sake not the improvement of our public services through running devolved government.

If we allow the SNP to have five more years of unchecked government, then that does not just mean that our parliament will continue to stagnate, but Scotland will too.

It will be a parliament working not in the national interest towards our coronavirus recovery but their own nationalist interest towards another divisive independence referendum.

So, in less than two months’ time we need to stop that from happening, to stop an SNP majority.

Yes, it is essential that we strengthen the powers of the parliament to hold the government properly to account.

But the SNP will ride roughshod over the Scottish Parliament, even worse than they are doing now, if they are left in absolute control of it.

The parliament was not designed with majority government in mind, yet in 2011 the SNP broke the system to do just that.

And it led to years of division and uncertainty with the Independence Referendum and all the bile and anger that preceded and followed that vote.

If we want to fully utilise the powers of the Scottish Parliament we cannot allow that to happen again.

The Sturgeon- Salmond scandal has undermined the Scottish Parliament and dismantled the facade of superiority it maintained.

Our parliamentary processes have been exposed to be stagnant and feeble, unable to provide a check on an SNP Government that will do anything to protect the First Minister and prevent proper scrutiny.

And it is clear that, if they are given free reign, the SNP will continue to undermine our parliament by putting their obsession with separation before the national interest of our recovery from coronavirus.

We can transform the Scottish Parliament,

So that rather than being used as a tool of the nationalists for separation, it can be a bulwark against the SNP and their plans for a second divisive referendum.

We can achieve that in part by enhancing its powers, but we also need to deprive the SNP of political control, so that there is a block on their obsession.

In the 2016 election, it was the Scottish Conservatives who were able to stop an SNP majority.

And in just two months’ time we can do that again and take the threat of another referendum on separation off the table.

So that we can use the Scottish Parliament for what it was intended for, improving public services and driving economic growth

And spend the next five years focused on rebuilding Scotland, not just from the devastating impact of coronavirus but the last fourteen years of SNP Government as well.

We need to heal and recover not just from the pandemic but also from years of division and stagnation.

We need to pull together now and work with rather than against the UK Government.

If we strengthen the Scottish Parliament, with more power but more importantly a political block on the SNP’s referendum plans, then we can deliver that.

And build a stronger, more effective Scottish Parliament working in our national interest.

[1] Donald Dewar, Speech at the opening of the Scottish Parliament, 1 July 1999, link.

[2] Holyrood, 27 February 2021, link.

[3] BBC, 29 September 2020, link.

[4] Committee on the Scottish Government Handling of Harassment Complaints, Official Report, 26 February 2021, link.

[5] Scottish Parliament, Official Report, 18 May 1999, link.