We are now aproaching the final end of the Salmond saga which for over a year has obsessed the anti-independence media and that part of the ostensibly pro-independence blogosphere with a pathological hatred of Nicola Sturgeon. About which those of us who want to concentrate on making the case for Scottish independence can only say, “Thank all the gods.” This is a tale which has already consumed far too much oxygen. Although there is still one final report to reach its conclusion, that of James Hamilton QC, which is investigating whether the First Minister broke the ministerial code, most observers now believe that it is unlikely that the First Minister will be forced to resign just weeks before the most crucial Holyrood election since the establishment of the devolution settlement.
The committee report which was leaked to Sky news apparently fails to include the killer line that Nicola Sturgeon “knowingly” misled the Scottish Parliament, It is acting in the conscious knowledge that one is misleading parliament which makes misleading the Scottish Parliament a breach of the ministerial code and a resignation offence. Misleading Parliament per se is not a breach of the ministerial code and is not a resignation matter. We already knew that Nicola Sturgeon misled Parliament when she admitted to and apologised for forgetting what she described as a rushed encounter in a corridor.
Despite the best efforts of a committee whose opposition members had already convicted, hanged, drawn, and quartered the First Minister before she had uttered a word of her evidence, it is highly significant that the killer blow, “knowingly mislead” does not seem to feature in the Committee’s report. Rather the First minister’s political foes seek to damage her by other means, by leaking the draft of the report to sympathetic media outlets and generating headlines that scream that she misled Parliament, and by getting an, ahem, “whistleblower”, to provide Alex Salmond’s friend, the arch-brexiter Tory David Davis with documentation he could reveal in the House of Commons using Parliamentary privilege to avoid prosecution. Yet as the journalist Murray Foote has pointed out, it’s difficult for opposition members of the committee to be convincingly outraged at claims that Nicola Sturgeon broke the ministerial code when it seems that one or more of their number breached the code by leaking the report to the press before it was presented to Parliament. It exposes the naked political opportunism in which this entire saga is mired.
We have been witnessing the most sustained and desperate barrage against the SNP since that last final frantic week of the independence referendum campaign in 2014 when a single opinion poll gave the narrowest of leads to the yes camp. We have now had a long run of polls which put Yes in the lead, and the demographics of No support with only the oldest age cohort showing majority support against independence point to a future where support for an independent Scotland is only going to increase over time. While sections of the independence movement fixate on attacking other independence supporters, the Conservatives and their allies have not forgotten that this is probably their last chance to prevent independence. Scotland faces two doors, one leads to an SNP led pro-independence majority in the May election,keeping alive the dream of independence, the other leads to Conservative rule in Westminster and the effective neutering of a Scottish Parliament that we campaigned for for decades in the teeth of Conservative opposition. That’s it, that’s the choice, there are no other options available.
The Conservatives represent a very real danger to Scotland. Their corrupt authoritarian cronyism is the future that awaits us if we don’t keep alive the dream of independence. We ignore them at our peril. As Joanna Cherry points out in an article in The National today, the Conservatives’ attempts to curtail civil liberties should serve as a warning to us all. The Conservatives’ draconian Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill has received its second reading in the House of Commonsthis week. This is a bill which has the authoritarian fingers of Home Secretary Priti Patel all over it. Part three of the Bill contains enhanced police powers to deal with public order and wider offences and increases sentences for breaching conditions imposed on assemblies and processions by the police. Although justice is a devolved matter and this bill does not affect police powers in Scotland, the bill could have a significant impact on Scots who travel to England to take part in demonstrations there.
Alarmingly the bill grants hugely expanded powers to the police in England and Wales to stop protests which would cause “serious unease”, and creates criminal penalties for people causing “serious annoyance”. But causing annoyance is part of our freedom of speech. If you can prevent a protest for being annoying, you can potentially prevent any protest at all. Indeed you could argue that the entire point of a protest is to create annoyance. Otherwise you are left to ponder the philosophical question of whether a protest is still a protest when no one knows you’re there. This Conservative bill represents a far greater threat to civil liberties than the much criticised Scottish government’s hate speech bill and entirely lacks that bill’s safeguards and protections.
Although justice is currently devolved, we have already witnessed how the Tories are chipping away at the powers of Holyrood. If they believe that there is no longer the prospect of another independence referendum their attacks on the powers of the Scottish parliament will step up a gear. There is little that the Scottish Tories would like more than to curtail our right to march and rally in support of Scottish independence. Nothing would suit them better than a Scottish Parliament which had been de-fanged and was powerless to resist them, and a Scottish people whose civil liberties and rights of assembly had been reduced to the point where we were powerless to protest against them. That’s the future which awaits us if our neglect and distraction leads to us going through the wrong door in May. The slogan of the Scottish Greens in this election – vote as though your future depends on it – is not mere hyperbole. The whole of Scotland’s future depends on ensuring that we return an SNP led pro-independence majority to Holyrood in May. Let’s choose the right door.
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