David Davis MP writes on invoking parliamentary privilege to uncover evidence pertinent to the Holyrood Harassment Inquiry
As published in the Mail on Sunday:
In Scotland this week, we should see the climax of an extraordinary political storm with serious implications for transparency and democracy in these islands. We cannot predict how events will unfold. But we know how they should.
To put an end to her long and destructive row with Alex Salmond, Nicola Sturgeon should tender her resignation as Scottish First Minister.
Mr Salmond and Miss Sturgeon were once the closest of friends, mentor and protege, the architects of the modern Scottish National Party and of its current dominance in Scotland.
Yet today they are at daggers drawn, with members of the SNP and the Scottish Government attempting to destroy his reputation. Miss Sturgeon’s political life hangs by a thread after a Holyrood committee found that she had misled it.
But the significance goes much further. For at the heart of the dispute is the dangerously close relationship between the SNP and the business of government itself, including the independence of the Scottish Parliament.
It was January 2019 when this often bewildering saga began in earnest, and Alex Salmond was charged with 14 counts of sexual misconduct. The following year, he was cleared of every single charge by a predominantly female jury in a court presided over by a woman judge.
Not only was Mr Salmond innocent, however, he believed that he had been the victim of ‘a malicious and concerted attempt to… remove [him] from public life in Scotland by a range of individuals within the Scottish Government and the SNP, who set out to damage [his] reputation, even to the extent of having [him] imprisoned’.
In response, Miss Sturgeon described Mr Salmond as a conspiracy theorist, dismissing him – and others – as ‘members of the Westminster old boys club’.
She might need to do better than that. In a few days there will be another report into her behaviour by James Hamilton, an Irish lawyer and the independent investigator into whether Miss Sturgeon has broken Scotland’s Ministerial Code. If he, too, finds against Miss Sturgeon, it is hard to imagine how she will survive.
Back in 2017-18, her SNP government hastily wrote a new disciplinary code on sexual harassment – one with retrospective powers.
At the time it was viewed with discomfort by the Westminster Cabinet Office, which noted that the code was only retrospective for previous Ministers, not for former civil servants.
It looked to some as though it had been designed with a specific target in mind.
When Mr Salmond challenged this extraordinary procedure in the civil court, he was proved right. In fact, he won a massive victory and substantial costs.
The code was described by the judge as ‘unlawful’, ‘unfair’, and ‘tainted by apparent bias’. It is now being replaced with a fair and independent procedure, one of the few good outcomes of this sorry tale.
Throughout this civil case the Scottish Government was evasive, holding back information time after time.
Within the SNP, meanwhile, there seemed to be a concerted effort to encourage complaints against Mr Salmond, as texts passed to me – which I read out in a House of Commons debate last week – made clear. The Scottish Government, meanwhile, was finding other ways to put pressure on Mr Salmond. It decided, for example, to issue a press release about the complaints against him.
The complainants did not want this and the police did not want it. Mr Salmond’s lawyers did not want it and took legal action to stop it. Before this action could take effect, however, the story was unfortunately leaked.
Then came the cover-up. After Mr Salmond won his 2020 criminal case, a committee of the Scottish Parliament began an inquiry into the debacle.
And so began another disgraceful tale of government misbehaviour. Its conclusions will be published this week, but we now know that this Holyrood inquiry has found that the First Minister misled the Scottish Parliament and the inquiry.
It has come to that conclusion despite the best efforts of the Scottish Government and Crown Office to frustrate them.
A case in point is the attempt to prevent release of the damning legal advice issued to the Scottish Government – which made it clear that the initial attempt to prosecute Mr Salmond had little chance of success.
But it is the behaviour of the Crown Office which has been most worrying of all. This organisation is responsible for prosecuting crimes in Scotland. But, unlike the English Crown Prosecution Service which has a director who is independent of political influence, the Crown Office is run by the Lord Advocate, who sits in the SNP Cabinet.
The Crown Office has prevented Mr Salmond, journalists, and even the Holyrood inquiry itself from holding the Scottish Government fully to account.
It has done this with censorship and threats of prosecution. It effectively barred publication of the evidence provided by Geoff Aberdein, Mr Salmond’s former chief of staff.
It ensured critical elements of Mr Salmond’s evidence were redacted, supposedly to protect the identity of the complainants, but ignoring the fact that the evidence had already been published on the website of The Spectator magazine.
So the inquiry was, absurdly, banned from speaking about evidence freely available to anyone with an internet connection.
The Crown Office even blocked the disclosure of relevant evidence from Mr Salmond’s criminal trial.
It is clear to me what the Scottish Government is trying to do. The acts of censorship and the redactions are not designed to protect the complainants. They are to protect the First Minister from accountability to the inquiry.
This is not acceptable in a mature Western democracy. A parliamentary committee should never be prevented from holding government to account.
The SNP-controlled Crown Office even has me in its sights, saying it will attempt to identify my source for the material I disclosed to the Commons. It clearly wishes to intimidate future whistleblowers from coming forward. But it is overreaching itself and I will not bow to its demands.
If Scottish police officers come down to my Yorkshire constituency, they can expect to receive a cup of tea and biscuit. But that is it. They will leave empty handed.
The Scottish Government, meanwhile, has turned its hand to discrediting the parliamentary committee. Miss Sturgeon has sought to dismiss it as partisan, saying opposition members had ‘made their minds up about me before I uttered a single word of evidence’.
I am in no doubt that the contempt shown to the committee will be extended to its conclusions.
For my part, had Miss Sturgeon simply said, ‘I obviously got this wrong, perhaps my memory was faulty,’ I would have argued against her resigning.
But her response and that of her spokesmen has been savage. And in standing by her story with such force, she is saying that her actions have has been deliberate and intentional. Intentionally misleading Parliament is a resignation offence and she must go.
My own involvement has not been about one politician or one party, however. It is about the imbalance in power between the Scottish Parliament and the executive, between the supposedly independent seat of Scottish democracy and the overweening power of the SNP.
These are failures on the part of Westminster as much as the Scottish Government. It is a matter for all of us in the United Kingdom.
We need to make the Scottish prosecution authorities – the Crown Office – properly independent of government. We must give the Scottish Parliament and its committees real powers to summon witnesses and protection for what they want to discuss or publish.
We must amend the Scotland Act 1998 to ensure the Scottish Parliament can truly hold the Government to account and bring its overweening executive to heel. But above all, we must draw a line once and for all under this sorry affair.