The furore over the UK Supreme Court’s role in Scots legal decisions shows no sign of abating. Thanks to an ill-tempered interview with Holyrood magazine, the First Minister fanned the flames of disquiet, and turned a small conflagration into a bonfire. He now has one of Scotland’s leading QCs threatening legal action against him, has managed the rare feat of uniting the Law Society of Scotland and the Faculty of Advocates into releasing a joint statement advising against interfering with judicial independence, and even more remarkably, united the depleted ranks of the Opposition into comparative eloquence at First Minister Questions. Despite his supposed untouchable status, he got a doing in that arena, his discomfiture made plain by the quite astonishing series of photographs published by the Scotsman on Friday.
Not bad for a week’s work.
A number of commentators have been picking over the bones of this week and pondering how we got here. How has a First Minister, renowned for his tactical wiles, supposedly still basking in the glory of leading his party to an unprecedented parliamentary majority little over a month ago, managed to get himself in this mess? The possible reasons for how are fascinating.
Kenneth Roy, at the very wonderful online news magazine, Scottish Review, suggests that the First Minister is in need of a holiday. The burd is inclined to agree.
But the episode does hint at deeper flaws, suggested by David Torrance in his recent biography of Alex Salmond. The First Minister is more than capable of flying off the handle, and of dogmatic adherence to his view being the right one. At times like these, he consults few, trusting his own instincts or – wishing not to be deviated from his chosen path – avoids opinion that might seek to change his mind. Many thought he had managed to bury these excesses, learning from past mistakes (the unpardonable folly utterance being one such), keeping them out of the public arena. That Holyrood interview suggests there are chinks in his armour again, perhaps caused by the high of a second term government and riding the crest of a political and popular wave.
But could this episode with our learned friends actually be part of a broader SNP strategy, for it is not just the legal establishment that the SNP is heading into battle with? Colleges are in the sights of the Cabinet Secretary for Education, as are university principals; teachers’ terms, conditions and role are currently being challenged by COSLA in its contribution to the McCormac review. The reform of police forces threatens to put the Justice Secretary on a collision course with local authorities as well as police rank and file. On one level, the rush to outlaw sectarianism can be seen as an attack on the dominant face of aggressive maledom and its manifestation in support for Scotland’s two biggest football clubs.
Are we at last seeing signs of the SNP taking on the bastions of institutional and establishment Scotland? If we are, there’s some work to be done yet on the tactics of engagement if such battles are to be won.
While the burd would be mildly ecstatic if this was the case, my anti-establishment feathers suitably preened, I doubt if last week’s events can be put down to anything quite so calculated. There are hints that some in the SNP ranks are less than happy with all that has happened. Some will be as bemused as the rest of us; others with important policy agendas of their own to pursue might even be silently seething.
The last ten days have actually been very good for the Scottish Government. Unemployment fell by 10,000 between February and April 2011, the seventh such recorded decrease in a row. Youth employment is growing at a faster rate than elsewhere in the UK, and employment in construction rocketed by nearly 12% over the past year, while falling in the UK as a whole. Our population is growing – births were down slightly in the first quarter of this year, but the equivalent fall in the number of deaths was much bigger. In particular deaths from heart disease were 10% fewer.
The Scottish Government also announced that renewable heating will now be cheaper from the autumn thanks to a new scheme , proposals to take forward the Scottish Digital Network – a key plank in the SNP’s strategy of increasing Holyrood’s powers – were debated in Parliament and the manifesto commitment of 1000 additional police officers was maintained for the month of March.
It all adds up to a great big bag of good news, with the SNP Government displaying the comptence on the day to day issues that people so clearly voted for on 5 May. But it was all largely obscured by the political drama engulfing the First Minister. I doubt people – voters – will be overly impressed. Perhaps, more importantly for the First Minister, his Cabinet team might also be miffed, having their dogged dedication to the longterm game plan of creating the right environment for a yes vote in the referendum, totally blown out of the water.
Nor are they ego-less. Four years as stars in their own right – it’s about the team remember? – will have bolstered their belief in their own abilities. There is no doubt that Alex Salmond is that team’s greatest asset, but the events of the last week must have caused a few to start thinking in terms of liability too. Not enough to embolden any of them to stand up publicly (or at least on the record) and criticise, nor even for tones of sorrow rather than anger to be expressed round the Cabinet table. But sufficient to at least start a few of them muttering under their breath or in whispers to trusted colleagues.
Of course, a by-election victory in Inverclyde, a major jobs investment, a suitably big piece of positive political theatre and our focus will switch elsewhere. The First Minister will again be able to demonstrate his acumen and leadership qualities. But the legal establishment is unlikely to want to forgive and forget, especially as the matter is far from closed. The drama over the independence of Scots law still has more episodes to run, and no one seems inclined to back down yet.
The establishment always look after their own and the legal world is no exception: his card will have been well truly marked and key figures will simply bide their time. The First Minister must hope his Cabinet colleagues are not doing the same.