Tricky Nicky makes smoke by blaming ‘Old Boys Club’ – but is fooling no one

Tricky Nicky makes smoke by blaming ‘Old Boys Club’ – but is fooling no one

by Linda Holt
article from Saturday 20, March, 2021

THE SCOTTISH MEDIA has struggled to give due weight to the unfolding scandals of the Scottish government’s role in harassment investigations and proceedings against Alex Salmond. So the unanimity of Friday morning’s front pages was rare and pleasing. All lead with the story that Nicola Sturgeon misled the Scottish Parliament according to a leak from the Salmond inquiry, which is due to report next Tuesday. Misleading parliament constitutes a breach of the ministerial code of conduct, an offence usually requiring resignation. 

The First Minister’s response to last night’s news was predictable. She accused her opponents of leaking a “partisan and selective” draft report that had been prejudged and was politically motivated to damage her. She counselled waiting for the publication of the full report, and more importantly, of the report from James Hamilton’s inquiry into possible ministerial code breaches. 

These are holding manoeuvres. Behind them lies not so much an argument, but a strategy, which was on plain view when the First Minister parried Ruth Davidson’s questions at Holyrood about David Davis’s explosive speech in the House of Commons on Tuesday night, by saying:

“…having David Davis, a Tory MP, reading out in the House of Commons, under the protection of parliamentary privilege, his old pal Alex Salmond’s conspiracy theories about the sexual harassment allegations against him must be the very epitome of the old boys’ club. Holding this Government to account is vital, but anyone who chooses to cheer that on should not pretend to have the interests of the women concerned at heart…

“In the world of the old boys’ club, that mistake would never have been made, because the allegations would never have been investigated, and would have been swept under the carpet instead. Ruth Davidson will see that old boys’ club a lot more closely when she joins the House of Lords, in just a few weeks’ time.”

In the same exchange Sturgeon referred to “Alex Salmond’s conspiracy theories” and “Alex Salmond and his cronies”, seemingly oblivious to the fact that she is also alleging a conspiracy.

By invoking the “old boys’ club”, Sturgeon isn’t just – characteristically – playing the man instead of the ball; she’s reducing the issue to one of gender, where men are ganging up on her because she is a woman. Such a defence aligns her implicitly with the woman who accused Alex Salmond of harassment and, of course, with the broader #MeToo movement. It is no coincidence that the First Minister tweeted a picture of the candle she lit in memory of Sarah Everard and victims of male violence.

The message is very simple: anyone who promulgates arguments and views expressed by Alex Salmond, David Davis and doubtless a host of other “old boys” does not have the “interests of women at heart”. The merits of these arguments are irrelevant: anyone who attacks Nicola Sturgeon is a traitor to women and the feminist cause. Another prominent motif trotted out by Sturgeon’s defenders is that she submitted to questioning for eight hours, “eight solid hours” as Kirsten Oswald emphasized on BBC Question Time last night. Looming on the rhetorical horizon is an image of the First Minister as a Christ-like figure sacrificed on the altar of male egos and patriarchal oppression. As she told the Salmond inquiry, “As First Minister, I refused to follow the age-old pattern of allowing a powerful man to use his status and his connections to get what he wants.”

There is something grotesque about the First Minister aligning herself with oppressed women when she is the most powerful person – let alone woman – in Scotland. Similarly repellent is her opportunistic deployment of feminism for her own political survival. But it is also an impressively deft populist move. Sturgeon never misses an opportunity to capitalise on her support in Scotland by manoeuvring public opinion against the “Westmonster” establishment. Since that charge does not apply to Salmond, invocations of an “old boys” network appear in its place. Sturgeon was able to conflate these two tropes in her comments on David Davies’ Commons speech and Ruth Davidson’s departure for the Lords. 

All this is not surprising; we live in an era of culture wars, which the First Minister has adeptly tuned into when it suits her purposes, for instance over trans rights. But the risk of cleaving to populist strategies is demagoguery, and in my view Nicola Sturgeon is fast approaching a demagogic moment.

In politics, as in war, timing is all. The election has not been delayed, despite Sturgeon’s extreme caution in lifting Covid restrictions in every other field of human activity. It’s difficult not to suspect that the Government deliberately strung out the Salmond inquiry by withholding evidence so as to minimise the opportunity for bad PR before the election. By the same token, the First Minister clung to her role as Britain’s Covid queen, continuing unwarranted levels of fear-mongering and restriction, because it maximised the opportunity for good PR in the run-up to the election. But the election clock is running down now, and the prospects for deferring the bad and cashing in the good are rapidly diminishing. 

Should James Hamilton find that Nicola Sturgeon broke the ministerial code of conduct, many people believe it will be impossible for her to withstand the imperative to resign. Nevertheless, it is striking that when questioned if she would resign under such circumstances, she has repeatedly refused to answer. The nationalist blogger Stuart Campbell put this question in a Freedom of Information request to the Scottish Government and was told “it is a matter for the First Minister to decide how to respond to the findings of the independent adviser”.

The closer we are to an election, the less meaningful a resignation becomes. Parliament goes into recess for the election on 25 March, with the possibility of recall in exceptional circumstances. In non-Covid times it would have been dissolved, but legislative and parliamentary business will cease in the same way as had dissolution taken place at that point. So while Sturgeon could technically still resign for the recess, she can use the impending election and the need for continuing leadership during a health emergency as reasons to stay in office.

Fundamentally, however, the First Minister will argue that the election allows for voters to decide: this has recently become the go-to response crowed by her and her ministers whenever they are seriously challenged at Holyrood. Although this may seem like the “ultimate democratic test” – if Sturgeon hasn’t already said this, I am sure she will – in reality it will be a supremely demagogic moment. A foretaste can be had on Twitter, where this morning #IStandWithNicola was trending.

Few dictators fully eschew elections. An election on its own does not guarantee legitimacy: 

the rule of law, the separation of powers, the upholding of constitutional convention and the probity of leaders are also essential, and the Salmond affair has highlighted failings in all these areas. In a properly functioning democracy, such failings cannot be cancelled by a popularity contest. As David Davies observed, the Scotland Act which set up devolution is deficient in several key ways; these shortcomings will allow Tricky Nicky to appeal directly to the voters for a verdict on her guilt. The suggestion that Sturgeon’s Scotland looks like a banana republic without the bananas looks less and less overblown.

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Linda Holt is a councillor for East Neuk & Landward in Fife and a prospective candidate for All for Unity in the coming Holyrood elections. 

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