29 November 2023

Roaming narratives – dissembling and self-defence are the SNP’s first instincts


‘All of us who have worked with him know he is a man of honesty and integrity’. That was the verdict of the first minister of Scotland, Humza Yousaf, on his health secretary, Michael Matheson, on 16 November.

The problem for Matheson, for Yousaf and for the Scottish Government is that it isn’t necessarily true.

We need to track the saga of Matheson and his Scottish Parliament-supplied iPad carefully. On 8 November, it was reported that the cabinet secretary for NHS recovery, health and social care had incurred a bill of £10,935.74 while on a week-long holiday in Morocco over the New Year. These were due to data roaming charges, which supposedly stemmed from the fact that Matheson had not updated the SIM card in his device to switch to the parliament’s new supplier.

The vast size of the bill caused astonishment. Matheson himself, giving a statement to the Scottish Parliament on 16 November, had initially shared the surprise, ‘I had not used the iPad for any purpose other than parliamentary and constituency business and could not understand how the costs could be so high’. With no further details from the network provider, Matheson thought the right thing to do was to contribute £3,000 from his office allowances towards the full cost. That is, he proposed to use one source of public money to offset expenditure from another source of public money. How generous.

Matheson was telling the truth when he said he had not made use of the iPad for anything but official business. However, after a Freedom of Information request precipitated the publication of an itemised bill for the device, another story was forced out of him. On 9 November, Matheson’s wife had told him that their sons had used the iPad to watch football: a Rangers v Celtic match on 2 January had on its own cost £3,000 in data roaming. The following day, without disclosing this, Matheson said he had ‘reflected long and hard’, and decided that he should pay for the whole bill personally.

On 13 November, journalists had asked Matheson if there had been ‘any personal use’ of the device during the holiday. Categorically, he said no. Asked if anyone else could have used the device, he again said no. This was not true. However, he later explained that, when he lied, he ‘was genuinely trying to protect my children from getting involved in something that had significant parliamentary, political, and media interest’.

Eventually Matheson made a personal statement to the Scottish Parliament in which, choking back tears, he explained why he had lied. ‘As a parent, I wanted to protect my family from being part of the political and media scrutiny with this – something I believe any parent would want to do’.

To make amends, Matheson announced that he would refer himself to the Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body (SPCB), the committee responsible for the administration of Holyrood. However, in this unfunny comedy of errors, it turned out that there is no mechanism for MSPs to ‘self-refer’. The SPCB then decided it would investigate Matheson on its own initiative under the Code of Conduct.

Throughout the imbroglio, the first minister has supported his colleague. Yousaf was asked on a BBC appearance if the Health Secretary had misled him. ‘No, I don’t believe Michael did’, he replied. Matheson could, he conceded, have handled the matter better, but had apologised.

The attitude of Matheson, Yousaf and the Scottish Government throughout this affair has been extraordinary. This first instinct has been to lie and shift the blame. When that redoubt has fallen, they have retreated to the next. Each inch of ground has been yielded with reluctance that would have impressed the Spartans at Thermopylae. Over this has been laid a strange attempt at quasi-hypnosis by the first minister: if he says that Matheson is honest and did not mislead him, it must, somehow, be true, despite the established and contradictory record. These really are alternative facts.

It seems likely that Matheson, having clung to office for some weeks, will eventually resign, probably amid minimal grace and a tearful atmosphere of victimhood. Yousaf will probably express sorrow at the minister’s departure. But the impression will be given, strongly, that this is at worst an unfortunate denouement to a generally sad tale.

The absurdity of this is that £11,000 is not a large sum of money. Of course public figures should act with probity in spending taxpayers’ money; but the Scottish Parliament’s budget is £130 million. What Matheson should have done was own up, reimburse the money if necessary – though in truth if he’d been honest from the beginning he might well have been able to avoid that –make a red-faced, good-humoured apology and go about his business.

Any PR professional will attest wearily that the cover-up is often worse than the offence itself. People make mistakes, exercise poor judgement, fail to pay attention. It is an order of magnitude worse to take conscious, dishonest decisions for political advantage. But that instinct of self-preservation is hard-wired in the SNP. As the Roman said, to err is human, but to persist is diabolical.

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Eliot Wilson is co-founder of Pivot Point Group.

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