Euan McColm Euan McColm

The SNP’s strange relationship with ‘full transparency’

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The SNP makes quite the fuss of its dedication to openness and transparency from political leaders. Voters deserve to know the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth about those in power. And woe betide anyone who dares not to adhere to this principle.

Take former prime minister, Boris Johnson, for example. During his time in office, the Scottish nationalists rarely stopped demanding he publish all manner of information.

The SNP’s commitment to ‘full transparency’ and the public’s right to know is not, it turns out, absolute

It was essential, claimed the SNP, that details of Johnson’s responses to a police questionnaire about lockdown-breaking parties be made public because voters had a right to ‘full transparency’. It was also necessary, insisted the Nats, for Johnson to publish bank statements and correspondence relating to the refurbishment of the flat in 10 Downing Street. Again, this was required in the name of ‘full transparency’.

Johnson was also urged by the SNP to publish the findings of a parliamentary standards watchdog’s investigation into a holiday he and his wife Carrie enjoyed in 2019. The public had a right to know who paid and how much it cost, said the Nats.

But the SNP’s commitment to ‘full transparency’ and the public’s right to know is not, it turns out, absolute. When the politician from whom information is being requested is a Scottish nationalist, cover-up and obfuscation appears to be the default response.

In a move that would have sent the SNP into apoplexy had it been tried by any other party, the Scottish government went to court on Wednesday to try to prevent publication of details of an inquiry into whether former first minister Nicola Sturgeon broke Holyrood’s ministerial code. The inquiry relates to Sturgeon’s handling of allegations of improper behaviour levelled against her predecessor Alex Salmond by a number of women. Those allegations led to a criminal trial at the end of which Salmond was cleared of a number of sexual assault charges.

Ministers had insisted they did not hold the information relating to the inquiry after receiving a freedom of information (FOI) request. The Court of Session in Edinburgh was having none of it. Judges preferred the Information Commissioner’s view that the position posited by ministers was ‘wholly unrealistic’.

The Scottish government must now reconsider its response to the FOI request. In 2021, Irish lawyer James Hamilton – the independent advisor on the ministerial code – was asked to consider whether Sturgeon misled MSPs about when she met Salmond’s chief of staff in the aftermath of allegations against him. Hamilton cleared Sturgeon of breaching the ministerial code, but expressed frustration that his report had been heavily redacted.

Following Hamilton’s comments, a member of the public submitted a freedom of information request, asking the Scottish government to publish all evidence gathered by the lawyer. The rejection of that request triggered an appeal to the Information Commissioner, who found ministers were in the wrong and told them to think again.

But rather than complying, the Scottish government appealed the commissioner’s ruling at Scotland’s highest court.The decision of the court came just days after Salmond announced he was launching legal action against the Scottish government over its handling of the allegations against him. Salmond accuses civil servants of misfeasance – the abuse of lawful authority – in their actions.

The former first minister’s legal action is likely to prove painful for Sturgeon and her successor as first minister, Humza Yousaf, as details of the breakdown of long-standing allegiances are made public. The desperate attempt to avoid publishing details of the standards probe into Sturgeon means the Scottish government begins its defence of Alex Salmond’s claim under a cloud of suspicion. After all, were any other party to fight so hard to reject a freedom of information request, the SNP would – quite rightly – suggest it had something to hide.