3 March 2021

Nicola Sturgeon offers a masterclass in dodging direct questions

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Given that the crisis engulfing the SNP was entirely unexpected, we need to remind ourselves that the consequences of Nicola Sturgeon’s appearance before a committee of MSPs today are precisely the opposite.

To an extent – and this is to Scotland’s shame – the actual substance of the answers she gave to the committee investigating the shambolic and illegal internal Scottish Government inquiry into allegations against former first minister Alex Salmond was irrelevant. She knew from long experience in politics that so long as she projected her preferred image as a caring, empathetic figure, she would be forgiven much.

Her mission was not to answer the relevant questions (and in this she was successful) but to give enough political cover to the SNP members of the committee who will shortly vote on the conclusions of their final report. Just to clarify: Holyrood is not like Westminster or any other parliament in the democratic world; the nationalist majority (including a single former Green MSP) were never going to vote any other way than along party lines. The importance of today’s evidence session was whether Sturgeon’s performance would allow them to do so while retaining some respectability.

She has probably succeeded in this. On the most important issues – allegations that someone on her staff gave the name of one of the complainants against Salmond to one of his own team, that Sturgeon offered to “intervene” in the legal case against Salmond on his behalf further down the line if necessary, and that she ignored legal advice to abandon a legal defence of her internal inquiry in the face of Salmond’s (ultimately successful) legal challenge – she offered no defence other than that she disagreed with the recollections of others. Her recall of just about every event was hazy but she was able definitively to insist that others’ recall was even worse.

When confronted over the fact that Salmond showed her a letter from the Scottish Government’s Permanent Secretary detailing complaints against him, Sturgeon’s response was straight out of a Richard Curtis comedy: “My head was spinning. I was dealing with complicated emotions… You say these things. It’s a human situation.” To which might have been added: “I’m just a girl, standing in front of a boy, telling him to get the hell out of my house…”

In response to questioning by the Labour MSP Jackie Baillie, the First Minister offered this odd defence: “Did I deal with all of this perfectly? Did I deal with it in a clinical way that, with hindsight, everybody can get absolutely? Maybe not, but I dealt with it the best I could and people will draw their own conclusions and make their own judgments about that.”

Isn’t that the point of the inquiry? No one doubts that Sturgeon dealt with events “the best she could”. That’s how everyone deals with everything, the best they can. What we need to know is whether her own judgments and abilities were adequate to the task. It’s not acceptable to say you did your best if your best – as in this case – is so obviously falling behind the desired standard of professionalism and transparency.

But her audience today will buy it, nonetheless. As one prominent Scottish columnist pointed out, the main difference between Sturgeon’s performance and that of her nemesis and former mentor, Alex Salmond, last week was that Sturgeon can “emote”. This should not matter, but unfortunately it does. Politicians get points for being able to discuss every aspect of any policy or event in relation to their own personal experience. If they can crowbar into their answers references to how hard they’ve personally found the experience, so much the better.

The First Minister is second to none at this skill. She has spent the last 12 months of Covid pandemic making constant references to herself and her own feelings as regards the crisis, and the tactic has done her no end of good in the polls. It would be surprising if today’s performance didn’t have the same effect.

Not that her critics will be convinced. Again, that was not the point of today’s appearance. Everyone in this sorry tale made their minds up long ago about her guilt or innocence as regards her actions, motives and – most importantly – whether or not she broke the ministerial code. Today was simply a milestone from which Sturgeon was either going to emerge bruised or unscathed. Either way, her destination, her vindication by the committee and by parliament was never in doubt.

But as she returns to her official residence of Bute House, her ears ringing with congratulations from the media trainers who no doubt applauded every soundbite and powerful phrase they had instructed her to repeat, she will still have to contend with a new political reality.

She can hardly deny that her party is seriously split. And just because no one will be asking publicly about her unexpected inability to answer a direct question, her strangely vague grasp of detail of quite recent events, that does not mean they will not be considering them in private. Why, for example, would Duncan Hamilton, a respected advocate and former SNP MSP and a former friend and colleague of Sturgeon’s, not to mention a supporter of independence, choose to invent a false allegation that Sturgeon had offered to intervene in the legal case on Salmond’s behalf?

All of this is too nuanced and complex for most Scots to bother getting their head around, and this side of the Scottish Parliament election they will not make the effort. After that, it won’t matter.

Perhaps Sturgeon provides a genuine lesson for other senior politicians: if you can’t answer a direct question or if you fear that doing so will incriminate you, simply repeat the mantra, “I feel your pain.” On current evidence, that’ll be more than enough.

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Tom Harris is a former Labour MP and author of 'Ten Years in the Death of the Labour Party'.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.