There may not even
be time for pudding
in the New Club
The new democracy: part 1
The shortest editorial contribution we have received in the 16 years of the Scottish Review arrived at the weekend. It read:
‘Only a sincere apology can clear the first minister’s feet now’.
Ian Begg, Plockton
Whenever I think of patriotism in Scotland, I have a vision of two faces: those of my old friend Ian Hamilton QC and of the architect Ian Begg. Mr Begg lists his recreation in ‘Who’s Who in Scotland’ as ‘supporting Scotland’s identity’, and few have worked harder in the cause. His practical devotion to his native country has been expressed though his work in the preservation of historic buildings, the sensitive creation of new ones (the beautiful Museum of Religious Life at Glasgow Cathedral will be part of his legacy), and his tireless defence of the physical integrity of Edinburgh Old Town. I cannot be sure of his political leanings, but it would not surprise me if Ian Begg was – is – an ardent supporter of Scottish home rule.
I hope that Mr Begg is spared the offensive mail which follows even the mildest challenge to the new political order. It is his frank opinion that the first minister should apologise for his comments about an eminent Scottish judge, and the more extreme insults hurled by his justice secretary. For rather less – the articulation of a few dull facts about the relative composition of appeal court benches – I have been accused by Mr Salmond's supporters of being 'dishonest' and of 'spinning for unionism' and warned that in future I 'should be careful' about the views I express. What if I choose to be less than careful? What happens to me then? It seems I must wait to find out.
Meanwhile, Ian Begg will be disappointed to learn that his wish is not to be granted. Mr Salmond was given an opportunity, or a series of opportunities, to apologise or retract by the BBC's Isabel Fraser in an 11-minute television interview on Sunday. Ms Fraser was the one who, last week on Newsnight Scotland, was cut off before she had an opportunity to question the first minister on his closing statement that there is a difference between Scots law and Lord Hope's law, the implication being that Lord Hope had invented his own. On Sunday, she picked up where Mr Salmond had left off.
Her cool tenacity did not get her very far on either occasion. When she suggested that Mr Salmond had attacked Lord Hope's reputation, Mr Salmond indicated that he was unaware of having done any such thing.
‘You spoke of Lord Hope’s law,’ she responded sharply.
To this, Mr Salmond replied that it was unfair that seven judges in the Court of Session in Edinburgh could be over-ruled by one judge in the UK Supreme Court. At the risk of incurring further accusations of dishonesty and spinning for unionism, I will repeat the facts: in the case to which Mr Salmond has taken such exception, the appeal in Edinburgh was heard and rejected by three judges, not seven, while the appeal in London was heard and approved by five judges, not one. Two were Scottish, two English, and one was from Northern Ireland.
Why does the first minister insist on repeating such gross inaccuracies in support of his case? It’s not the hardest thing to get right.
What, however, if the expert panel, after a couple of meetings and a pleasant lunch in the New Club – there may not be time for pudding – decides that there is nothing wrong with the present set-up?
Three times Isabel Fraser asked Alex Salmond if he supported the view of his justice secretary that Scottish funding of the Supreme Court should be withdrawn. Three times he failed to answer the question. He complained that the Herald newspaper had kept a saying of Mr MacAskill's for a week before publishing it, and had then misrepresented the minister.
'A simple yes or no answer would do,' she persisted.
But Mr Salmond would not be drawn into a view of whether Scottish funding of the Supreme Court should be withdrawn. He adopted instead the default position of politicians who find themselves in a tight spot. He said it was time to move forward.
Very well: let's move forward as far as the first minister's expert panel. Its chairman, Lord McCluskey, aged 81, last sat on the bench 11 years ago. He told the press last week that the justice secretary's comments had been 'shameful'. At least that is the quote attributed to him. More to the point, perhaps, he is said to be less than keen on human rights appeals.
And there is Sir Gerald Warner, the noted right-wing journalist. My fellow Falkirk bairn – we were born in the same nursing home within days of each other – has not only been knighted but is now sitting on Alex Salmond's expert panel, a living testament to Mr Salmond’s inclusive approach to government. Alas, this delightful illusion lasted only seconds before Mr Salmond corrected himself. It is not Sir Gerald Warner who is on the team, but Sir Gerald somebody else. He might even be called Gerard, not Gerald, and there must be some doubt that he was born in Falkirk.
This 'stellar' group – Mr Salmond kept using the phrase – will report, there will be a 'debate' in the Scottish Parliament (given the state of the opposition that should not prove too arduous a hurdle), and legislation will be enacted, apparently all before the start of the football season.
What, however, if the expert panel, after a couple of meetings and a pleasant lunch in the New Club – there may not be time for pudding – decides that there is nothing wrong with the present set-up? Such an outcome, though unlikely, is just about possible. Could we then look forward to a second expert panel, and possibly a third and fourth, each reporting with more haste than the last, until there is a recommendation fit to be legislated upon?
There is a road-sign at the far end of Girvan which amuses some and irritates others. 'Whit's yer hurry?', it asks. The source of the first minister's hurry remains a mystery. He has four years to sort out the relationship between Scotland and the UK Supreme Court. Neither is about to disappear. Yet he wants to do it in weeks, bypassing the normal civilised processes of consultation and intelligent dialogue.
Is this how democracy is to be conducted in Scotland from now on? How utterly bizarre.
Tomorrow: part II of The New Democracy
Kenneth Roy is editor of the Scottish Review