Sturgeon on horse

How regimes end: Ridicule

THE END of a regime can occur in different ways. There is, of course, violent insurrection. Or the democratic process can unseat an incumbent. Relentless criticism of ill-conceived policy and incompetent government can lead to the toppling of a regime, but, as we can see in SNP Scotland, it may not be enough. There is one more cause: when a regime becomes ridiculous and is regarded with derision.

Some of us are old enough to remember Christmas Day 1989, when Nicolae Ceausescu was booed and whistled at as he stood on a balcony to deliver one of his interminable self-congratulatory speeches. The look of complete incomprehension on his face was one to treasure. He could not imagine that the vice-like grip in which he had held Romania for decades would ever slacken, yet within a few hours he and his wife has been captured and brutally executed by Romanians who had had enough of dictatorship, communism, shortages, lies, deprivation and humiliation. He had long been hated, but by late 1989 Romanians, emboldened by the recent breaking free of Poles, Czechoslovaks and east Germans from communist thrall, regarded him also with a derision that sealed his downfall.

Now, in Scotland, we have reached a stage where the ruling party has become a bad joke. Nationalism in Scotland has always had its risible elements. The indefatigable Wendy Wood – born in England and brought up in South Africa – was one such from the 1930s to the 1970s. More recently, we have had the Scottish Resistance, which has demonstrated pompously in London at the alleged location of William Wallace’s execution. In Scotland, its more memorable efforts have included Sean Clerkin’s hamfisted attempt to set fire to a Union Jack in 2016, which led him to cry in frustration: “I can’t do it! Will somebody help me?” Somebody duly did.

Then again, Clerkin and his Scottish Resistance friends engaged in a hilarious stunt which involved Clerkin first phoning the police and, when that met an unreceptive interlocutor, Clerkin and his chums marched into Rutherglen police station declaiming ‘We’re here to report a crime – an international war crime’. The bemused duty constable could only respond ‘Oh yes?’ The alleged crime was the violation, by bombing Syria in 2015, by David Cameron of the Kellogg-Briand Pact of 1928, outlawing war. Perhaps the Scottish Resistance didn’t know that Hitler had beaten him to it.

But joke as one might, Clerkin has perhaps had the last laugh, for it was he who reported to the police the missing £660,000 of SNP funds, collected from the faithful to pay for a referendum and now apparently untraceable. This has led to various hitherto unconscionable spectacles, including the pitching of a crime scene tent outside the house of Nicola Sturgeon and Peter Murrell and the removal from there, and from SNP headquarters in Edinburgh, of various boxes of what one must presume is considered as possible evidence. It now turns out that, among the items the police were searching for chez Murrell were a lady’s razor and a wheelbarrow. They say that the truth is stranger than fiction, but surely this is stretching it beyond even farce.

The Murrells have become figures of fun. It is difficult for their reputations to recover from that. Adding to the conditions that have turned a potential criminal investigation into farce was the luxury motorhome, retrieved by the police from its long and lonely vigil outside Peter Murrell’s mother’s home in Dunfermline. This comedy is perhaps not the final act in the story of the fall of the house of Murrell, but it is one that has buried ignominiously the last remains of the Sturgeon era in the SNP. As a pendant to that, the SNP’s treasurer, Colin Beattie, gave a categorical assurance in April 2023 that he had not known about the party’s purchase of an expensive camper van, only to ‘clarify’ himself a few hours later by saying: “I was unaware of the transaction at the time of purchase. I became aware of the transaction via the 2021 annual accounts”. The camper van is not specifically mentioned in the annual accounts. Mr Beattie, like Mr Murrell, was arrested and questioned by police, and then released without charge.

That we are not quite finished has been shown by the ineptitude of the new Yousaf regime, with the first minister starting his tenure by lauding Peter Murrell just before Murrell was arrested, and then saying, “I’m surprised when one of my colleagues is arrested” and, when Colin Beattie was arrested, confiding that he “didn’t believe” that the party was operating in a criminal manner. Poor Yousaf was lumbered with the most botched of hospital passes, and we should perhaps not be surprised at his inept responses to journalists. He did, after all, think that he was the man for the job of first minister when the most obvious candidates would not touch it with an implement as short as a bargepole. ‘Poisoned chalice’ barely describes it. The delighted relief on Kate Forbes’s face when he was announced as victor said it all.

He wasn’t the only one. To his patent displeasure, the newish SNP leader at Westminster, Stephen Flynn, was not informed at the time of his election in December that the SNP’s auditors had left both the national party and the Westminster parliamentary party in the lurch in the preceding September. Since both bodies have official accounts to present around the end of May, this was a potential disaster, caused entirely by neglect and/or incompetence. I have suggested elsewhere that, as far as the Westminster SNP was concerned, it was possibly some revenge on Ian Blackford’s part: he had not vouchsafed this information to his successor as SNP Westminster leader, Flynn, who had very publicly defenestrated him.

The icing on the cake is that having tried various avenues in order to secure an auditor, the SNP has now found one – of possibly questionable repute – in England. The UK single market is a wonderful thing.

However risible the SNP and its leadership has become, there has been another casualty in recent months, and perhaps years. The sorry spectacle conducted at Holyrood, month after month, has led an increasing number of people to question its value, and even its existence. Nicola Sturgeon thought she was securing her majority and her tenure by bringing the Green Party into government. Yet the most obvious result of that has been the introduction of ill thought-out policies that might have some merit in principle but have turned into political car crashes. The Gender Recognition Reform Bill is one of these, and it now resides in limbo, in a legal tussle between Holyrood and Westminster. The Deposit Return Scheme is another, piloted – if that isn’t too generous a term – through Holyrood by the hapless Lorna Slater of the Greens, who has been convincingly described by Alex Massie as ‘a bona fide simpleton’. Her performances in the chamber have been dismal, rivalling only the SNP’s embarrassing Joe Fitzpatrick’s incompetence in presentation and utility. She rattles off prepared text at speed and fails to answer questions put to her about it.

This is one reason for the Holyrood chamber being an embarrassing place to be or to view. That is partly because the Presiding Officer, the Greens’ Alison Johnstone, does not keep the kind of order that one would expect in a parliamentary system that aspired to dignified effectiveness. She had no comment to make – other than that it wasn’t up to her to do anything about it – when on 14 September 2021 Nicola Sturgeon gave the wrong prepared answer to a question from one of her own backbenchers.

Similarly, when last week Rona Mackay MSP asked a clear and succinct question, the response of the £95 grand a year minister, Jenny Minto was: “Oh, I’m sorry. I apologise. I didn’t… I wasn’t… I didn’t hear that question”.

The question was in any case written on the order paper. The Presiding Officer’s sole response was: “Ms Mackay, could I ask you to repeat question 5?” I doubt that Sir Lindsay Hoyle would have been as supine.

Ms Johnstone had already had a masterclass on 2 Dec 2020 from her predecessor, Ken Macintosh, in dealing with ministers who did not know how to answer a question in the chamber. After an ‘urgent question’ from Donald Cameron (Conservative), minister Joe Fitzpatrick tried, in flustered disarray, to give background detail instead of answering the question. Macintosh interrupted him: “Mr Fitzpatrick, before you go on, you are here to answer an urgent question from Mr Cameron…. Just answer the question from Mr Cameron, please”. But the bold Fitzpatrick knew better and tried to justify his faltering account of the context. Ken Macintosh was not impressed: “It sounds to me, Mr Fitzpatrick, as if you are questioning my ruling. I would rather you answered the question from Mr Cameron, thank you”.

Alas, Mr Macintosh did not maintain this robust convenership with all SNP ministers, and especially not with Nicola Sturgeon, whom he allowed to launch a barrage of insults at anyone who dared to question her, in lieu of giving an answer.

Holyrood’s stock has only declined. No wonder, when Lorna Slater responds to a recent serious question from Liam Kerr (Conservative) in this manner:

Liam Kerr – “Ten years ago, the government promised to deliver 28,000 jobs in offshore wind. By 2021, it had delivered just over 3,000. So what action has the government taken to examine the reasons it has failed so badly and ensure that the promise of 28,000 can be delivered?”

You would not know what the question had been had you merely listened to Ms Slater’s response:

“Obviously, we’re all very keen for the offshore energy sectors to have a just transition away from oil and gas to renewable energy, of which Scotland has so much potential. The creation of the Offshore Skills Passport is a key part of this process because it removes those barriers from [sic] work for workers to make that transfer process between the sectors more simple and efficient, to allow that just transition because it reduces the time and cost required for training. It also has the added benefit that the passport tool in use will be giving good visibility of the potential career pathways and training needs for desired roles in that sector to help those businesses plan their workforce and help the workforce plan for the roles that they want”. To which my reaction is ‘Eh?’ Mr Kerr had not asked about the Offshore Skills Passport, whatever that may be.

There are plenty additional examples of SNP and Green ministers, and indeed MPs, too, being unable to stick to the point at issue – see Naomi Cunningham KC’s exquisite and impeccably courteous dismantling of the ‘whataboutery’ of hapless SNP MP Anum Qaisar over the GRR. These examples are often a source of contemptuous mirth, but the serious point is that they bring the persons involved, the Holyrood chamber, and indeed democracy itself into disrepute. Still, it looks as if there will be yet more risible performances at Holyrood, and if their outcome is the fall of the SNP/Green regime, then at least they will have provided a useful service.

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