This was first posted on Facebook on 6th March 2021, with support from my Ko-Fi network.
“…well, imagine a person standing on a block of ice, planning and planning and planning. Planning ways to get about on the ice, ways to decorate it, ways to divide it up, ways to cope with all the possible knowns and givens of a block of ice. That would be a busy person, provident and industrious and independent and admirable, isn’t that so? Except that when the ice melts, none of that is any use at all.” – Native Tongue, Suzette Haden Elgin
This week, the Tories threw their best shot at Nicola Sturgeon – accusing her before, during, and after her giving evidence of having committed resignworthy offences.
While we will know more from polling in the weeks to come (the deadline for candidates going on the ballot is the end of March: after that, Glasgow Southside will likely elect Nicola Sturgeon as their MSP in 2021 as they have since 2007) it seems that this week, the Tories have not managed to convince the group they really needed to convince for the purposes of doing better in the May election – those who intend to vote SNP on Thursday 5th May, that Nicola Sturgeon did anything very blameworthy.
Nonetheless, no doubt the Tories will continue to claim that she did, and in particular (from Ruth Davidson’s questioning at First Minister’s Questions this week) they intend to focus on misuse of public funds, and to bring a vote of no-confidence against Nicola Sturgeon on those grounds.
In Holyrood, the First Minister is elected by the MSPs, not appointed by the Crown: if Nicola Sturgeon loses a vote of no-confidence, another First Minister can be elected, but they will need to pick one who will have the support of 65 MSPs.
To win a vote of no-confidence, the group the Conservatives really have to convince are the Scottish Green MSPs.
The current state of the parties in the Scottish Parliament is – not including the Presiding Officer, who is, like the Speaker of the House, of no party affiliation:
- SNP 61
- Greens 5
- Tories 30
- Labour 23
- LibDems 5
- Also Michelle Ballantyne, who was elected from the Scottish Conservative regional list but, oddly enough, wasn’t made to stand down when she joined Nigel Farage’s new political party, Reform UK. We may assume she still counts as a Tory vote, so for future summed votes, the Tories are 31.
- Also three Independents – Derek Mackay and Mark McDonald, formerly SNP: and Andy Wightman, formerly Scottish Green.
It seems likely that however much Mackay and McDonald resent Nicola Sturgeon for making them quit the party over sexual offences, they’d vote to save her as First Minister (or at least, abstain). Where Andy Wightman would think his duty lay is anyone’s guess.
But so long as the Scottish Greens aren’t convinced Nicola Sturgeon should resign as First Minister, 61 SNP MSPs and 5 Greens outvote the 31 + 23 + 5 = 59 of Conservative, Labour, and LibDem – even if the Greens and all three Independents abstain, the SNP can’t lose unless the Conservatives convince the Greens to vote with them and not against – and if they did, it seems likely that the 61 SNP and 5 Greens would then select a First Minister designate who suited them, not the Tories.
Why then would the Tories try a vote of no confidence they already understand they probably can’t win, and which – even if they won – would not result in their getting a leader any more to their mind?
(The First Minister’s term in office is not tied to Holyrood elections, which happen every 5 years in May, but to having the confidence of a majority of MSPs. As it stands, no Tory, Labour, or LibDem MSP can be elected First Minister, nor is this likely to change after May.)
Ruth Davidson is an effective party mouthpiece. When she speaks in public, I have rarely heard her say a word that isn’t pure party line – and I note, she resigned as leader of the Scottish Tories when she realised she’d have to serve under Boris Johnson and support Brexit, but seems since then to have decided that becoming Baroness Davidson, life peer, is much better than having principles.
Can the Tories make their case?
I don’t think so, and this is why. First, Alex Salmond did pester and harass the women who complained: their complaints have been shown to be legitimate in a criminal court, if not meeting the high bar for conviction. The investigation itself was therefore justified, and cannot be described as a misuse of public funds.
When Alex Salmond crowdfunded his legal costs for a judicial review of the investigation, it would take a Margaret Mitchell to argue that the proper course of action for the Scottish Government was to meekly submit and make no attempt to defend their investigation: the initial course of action, to defend their investigation procedure, was legitimate and cannot be described as a misuse of public funds.
Where the challenge has a point of justification – the period between 31st October and 31st December, when the Scottish Government knew that the case for their defence was flawed and they well might lose – it’s arguable, and the Tories intend to argue it, that continuing with the case after 31st October was a misuse of public funds.
But it is also arguable that it was legitimate for the government to decide to continue, so long as the legal advice said they did have a chance of winning, even if not a good chance: and once legal advice was clear that they could not win, at the end of December, the Scottish Government ceased to fight their case.
Tory MSP Margaret Mitchell’s assertion in the Committee Room on Wednesday that in fact Nicola Sturgeon should just have saved everyone trouble and expense and intervened as Alex Salmond had requested so that there was no judicial review and no criminal case, was so nonsensical that it spoils the arguable case that the Scottish Government should have surrendered the case at some point between 31st October and before 31st December – since Mitchell is correct that letting Salmond get completely away with it would have been much cheaper, yet also spoils the assertion of Murdo Fraser and Ruth Davidson that the Conservatives truly care, not just about the misuse of public funds, but also about the women Salmond pestered.
Of course the spectacle of Conservative ministers misusing public funds at Westminster with not a peep of protest from Douglas Ross or Baroness Davidson or any of the Scottish Tories, would suggest to the general public that as a party, they really don’t care about misusing public funds so long as it’s themselves or their donors who benefit. When Boris Johnson said Brexit would mean £350 million a month for the NHS, he never mentioned he meant for “NHS Track and Trace”, aka Baroness Dido Harding.
The more of a spectacle the Conservative Government at Westminster’s misuse of public funds and breaches of the ministerial code, the less convincing it is for the Scottish Conservatives to claim that these are ethical concerns they care deeply about.
Scottish Labour MSPs don’t have that problem, of course, so how can the Scottish Conservatives ensure Labour doesn’t benefit electorally from being able to both denounce Nicola Sturgeon and Boris Johnson?
Why, get Labour to vote with Conservatives in an effort to unseat Nicola Sturgeon weeks before the Scottish Parliamentary election and while Sturgeon is still a familiar face to the Scottish public briefing them about the pandemic in Scotland and the vaccination roll-out.
This will affect the LibDems too in the same way, but the LibDems have fallen to the bottom – it seems unlikely they will lose any more MSPs of their current five, but Labour could lose MSPs from 23, and it would be a tactical stroke of genius if the Tories could claim Labour as their allies and repeatedly point out that Labour MSPs had voted with the Tories against Nicola Sturgeon. (I fear that the SNP would see the point, and also not resist that point, if Labour gave it to them.)
Of course the Tories very much would like to unseat Nicola Sturgeon and ensure that neither SNP or SNP+Greens have a majority in Holyrood after 5th May. But it seems unlikely they will succeed.
Where they might still win is the misuse of public funds argument, has nothing really to do with the date on which the Scottish Government should have stopped the case between 31st October and 31st December 2019 (a complicated argument to make, when the Tories need a simple soundbite). It has to do with the next independence referendum.
To get independence legally and completely, the long slow process has to be gone through: first, a democratic mandate for holding an independence referendum, achieved by electing a government at Holyrood of MSPs whose parties have indyref2 in their manifesto.
Second, pressure on Boris Johnson to grant a Section 30 order, making the referendum legally binding at Westminster: and to take the Prime Minister to court if necessary, to make the Court of Session and then the UK Supreme Court rule that an elected government has a right to carry out its manifesto commitments.
All of this will not be accomplished cheaply, and I see the Scottish Conservatives leaning in to claim this – LIKE THE SALMOND CASE, they’ll say – is also a misuse of public funds, the SNP has form, look how they did before – The Tories don’t have to win the no-confidence vote to use it as a soundbite.
Finally, of course the referendum itself will be argued to be a misuse of public funds. When Scottish civil servants were preparing for independence after the previous referendum if Yes won, I recall an attempt to make a scandal out of that, and several senior civil servants having to point out that the point of the Civil Service in the UK is that it obeys the instructions of the government – which in Scotland, then as now, was SNP.
“Misuse of public funds” will do a lot of work with the Tories up in Scotland, whether it holds up in court or by majority vote in Parliament: because the main thing the Tories need, and the one thing they do have a hope of achieving, is to convince enough voters to stay home and not vote in the next independence referendum.
A high turnout, as well as a strong majority for Yes, are both essential for the result of the independence referendum to have a clear mandate both in the public eye in the UK, internationally, and – if Section 30 order has been granted – legally binding at Westminster. But even without a Section 30 order, if a majority of the electorate vote Yes to independence, it is clear (even to the likes of Simon Jenkins) that the UK government cannot insist on holding on to Scotland if most Scots want independence. Therefore, the Tory long-term strategy is to quell turn-out.
Scottish independence will be a seismic change to UK politics – not only in Scotland. Unless done much more carefully and thoughtfully than Brexit, the Withdrawal Agreement and Deal will be seismic to intra-UK trade. Everything will change.
But there is one group of people – campaigners and politicians – for whom independence for Scotland means their block of ice, on which they have been busy and provident and industrious and independent and admirable, is just – gone, melted, disappeared, leaving them with nothing –
And that is, people whose life has been the independence movement. People who have never really thought of living in an independent Scotland, but who have been busily industrious in campaigning for one. For them, if the block of ice melts and Scotland becomes independent, their entire occupation is gone.
I’ve said the main support for Alex Salmond comes from three overlapping sets of people – the rape apologists, the transphobes, and the unionists. All of them have reason to cry up Alex Salmond as an innocent man and accuse Nicola Sturgeon of dastardly machinations.
But there is a fourth set, and it’s this: the people who enjoy being independence campaigners, and who can’t really imagine the end-goal. I think Joanna Cherry, with her easy/romantic references of the civil war in Ireland, is such a person – I genuinely don’t think she actually does want civil war for Scottish independence, she just enjoys being a bit Mel Gibson thinking of it, the blue-painted faces and the cries of “FREEDOM!” The twisted man in Bath whose career is now entirely in crowdfunding to support his endlessly angry blog W*I*N*G*S, he would lose his career as absolutely as Farage has, if Scotland became independent – but he can stretch it out as long as he likes so long as there is a Scottish independence movement.
I don’t venture to suggest Alex Salmond is looking back wistfully to the days when half a dozen SNP MPs at Westminster were very big fish in a very small pond for independence. I think spite and anger at Nicola Sturgeon has more to do with it in any case. But I’m not the only person who thinks that the SNP as a party will fracture shortly after independence – and anyone who has enjoyed being part of the SNP as a loyal unity fighting towards independence, may genuinely feel they’ll miss that.
For this kind of person, the thought that the First Minister of Scotland could just unilaterally declare Scotland independent, without all the tedious process of going through a referendum, or that she could just announce there will be a referendum, and not bother about whether it’s considered legal or not or how many people vote in it: the point is not to achieve independence, but to “own the yoons”.
“We had lit a flame upon the ice”, Suzette Haden Elgin has her central character say, at the end of Native Tongue. We have, and it’s not only those who want to put it out that are frightened of what happens when the ice melts: there are any number who are celebrating the fire, who can’t imagine the world after the block of ice.