Where’s the outrage? Why are so few exercised about the lack of ethics in Scottish public life?

Where’s the outrage? Why are so few exercised about the lack of ethics in Scottish public life?

by Dean M Thomson
article from Monday 22, March, 2021

THE SLEW OF ALLEGATIONS affecting Scottish public life is disturbing, to put it mildly. But what is more alarming has been the lowering of the bar on what constitutes conventionally accepted standards of behaviour and morals. To put it bluntly, not only has impropriety and unethical behaviour become widespread in Scottish political and public life; it has now become normalised. 

Let us take the example of a young SNP staff member who accused two SNP MPs of sexual harassment. He was not treated sensitively while the allegations were investigated. Instead, the young man alleges he was called to a meeting with SNP Westminster leader Ian Blackford to discuss the issue – only to find himself ambushed

Sitting on a couch crying was one of the SNP MPs he had made a complaint against. The politician in question is Patrick Grady MP, who made an apology which the young staffer was asked – on the spot – if he accepted. It is not unreasonable to ask what on earth Mr Blackford thought he was doing? This represents an absence of due process; it shows the governing party of Scotland reflexively seeking to sweep situation like this under the carpet. This is a concise example of a total breakdown of the proper ethical standards in public life; and a mentality inside the governing party which normalises improper and unethical behaviour.  

But this example pales next to the antics of serving Scottish Government ministers. We know from Dave Penman, civil service union rep, of several outstanding bullying complaints against Scot Gov ministers. A story where several civil servants now do not wish to make official complaints after witnessing the incompetent handling of the Salmond case.  

For fourteen years the SNP has blurred the lines between separation of powers and civil service independence, demonstrating a shocking disregard for the Holyrood parliament along the way. It is when political norms are disregarded, and a governing party feels unaccountable, that the bar on accepted standards and behaviour gets lowered. 

And where is the outrage? We have been able to witness the unfolding spectacle of Justice Secretary Humza Yousaf regularly tweeting on an ongoing inquiry into how the government failed female complainants. In the apparent hope he can discredit it and some of its members, he has tweeted that the “opposition have undermined this committee from the very beginning”. But barely an eyebrow was raised as Mr Yousaf tweeted that inquiry committee member Jackie Baillie’s questions amounted to her engaging in “desperate insinuations”. Mr Yousaf referred to a “conspiracy she is trying to stack up”; while even tweeting about “fake polls” and “conspiracies” against ScotGov. This is beyond a question of Mr Yousaf having an opinion, it travels into the realm of Donald Trump. This is not normal behaviour; it is bordering on the unhinged. It is improper and constitutes clear political interference. 

The Justice Secretary even went so far as to live tweet his ‘takes’ as the First Minister testified live. Tweeting to Murdo Fraser MSP – another member of the inquiry – that he had not heard what he had heard during the First Minister’s testimony. None of this is normal behaviour from a Justice Secretary and represents grade A political interference.  

Mr Yousaf has for months now been trying to erode public trust in the outcome of an inquiry attempting to discover how his government failed two female complainants. This is improper. Apparently, we are being told to never mind that the ScotGov procedure was deemed by the highest civil court as ‘unlawful’, ‘procedurally unfair’ and ‘tainted by apparent bias’. Never mind that one female complainant reportedly felt pressurised, not supported. Mr Yousaf is engaged in political manoeuvres to discredit the legislature from being able to proper scrutinise the executive. How on earth could any of his behaviour have become seen as holding any propriety? I ask again, where is the outrage?  

As if that were not enough, there is also the behaviour of Deputy First Minister John Swinney. He defied two parliamentary votes demanding he hand over legal advice to the Holyrood Inquiry – concerning the government’s Judicial Review defeat. He only coughed-up this evidence after his own job was threatened. But even then, he rigged things, so the Inquiry did not get to see all the legal advice until after Nicola Sturgeon had testified. He held back the most seriously damaging materials; thus, obstructing the ability of the inquiry to do its job. And where was the outrage at this chicanery? All too muted across many quarters of Scottish society. 

But the canker has spilt well beyond unethical conduct by ScotGov ministers and ruling party politicians. The Crown Office has been forced to admit and apologise for wrongful and malicious prosecutions. The victims there are still being counted, but so far two men have been given £24m of taxpayer’s money. Nobody has been held responsible for seeking to prosecute innocent people without reasonable cause. Now that is not just deeply unethical, it is chilling.  

Yet when the Lord Advocate the Right Honourable James Wolffe QC was in front of the Holyrood Inquiry, he could barely contain his indignance. Here was not a public servant feeling a need to demonstrate humility. Quite the opposite, he risibly claimed “the Crown would not be party to any improper conduct”. I guess malicious and wrongful prosecutions are now filed under ‘conventionally accepted behaviour’ in Scotland. 

In politics there has always been attempts to ‘frame’ the public debate. There is nothing wrong with this per se. But when we witness SNP members of the Holyrood Inquiry into the Handling of Harassment Complaints breaking their own Code of Conduct, things have gone too far. Over the last weekend we had the spectacle of MSPs Alistair Allan, Maureen Watt and Stuart McMillan publishing what was in effect their dissent to a report conclusion not even published yet – brazenly defying Section 7, Subsection ‘Confidentiality Rules’ paragraph 16 of her own Code of Conduct.  

But this arrogant defiance of norms, rules, codes of acceptable behaviour has collapsed across the board in Scotland. And all too few of us seem angry. Let me ask you this: did you even hear about the resignations of three members of the SNP’s Finance and Audit Committee? No? I do not blame you, but I do blame a jaded, lifeless, and tired Scottish media landscape. Here we have Frank Ross (qualified chartered accountant and Edinburgh’s Lord Provost), Cynthia Guthrie (Livingston company director) and Allison Graham (SNP NEC member for Mid-Scotland & Fife) all resign after Peter Murrell (SNP Chief Executive) refused to grant them full access to the party accounts. I only found one column in a national newspaper about this. Nobody seems to even notice the haemorrhaging of acceptable standards anymore, not even the news media. 

Of course, why would anyone notice or even care?  

A fish always rots from the head down, and the mud-slinging defiance of Nicola Sturgeon towards facing the consequences of her own actions sets the bar all too many others will merrily follow. "I will lead by example in following the letter and spirit of this Code, and I expect that Ministers and civil servants will do likewise" said the Rt. Hon. Nicola Sturgeon in her foreword to the Ministerial Code. Now we see that was just a macabre piece of dark humour.  

In the classic 1976 black-satire film ‘Network’, the main character anchorman Howard Beale famously screams into the camera, “I am as mad as hell, and I am not going to take this anymore”. Well I for one am as mad as hell, and I am not going to take this corruption of Scottish public and political life any longer. 

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Dean M Thomson graduated with a MSc in Development Studies from the University of Glasgow, going on to lecture 'Anglo-American Society and Culture' at Shangdong Agricultural University, Peoples Republic of China. Being fully TESOL qualified Dean has taught English for Academic Purposes and modules in critical thinking in Wuhan and Xian Ning, Hubei.

Photo of Peter Finch as Howard Beale in Network, courtesy of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. 

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