Water Boarding with Margaret

Geoffrey Howe’s resignation speech in 1990  – widely held to leading to Margaret Thatcher’s downfall – was famously described as being “being savaged by a dead sheep”. Margaret Mitchell’s contribution to the Holyrood committee led to no such downfall and made Howe look like a rousing orator. At times her stream-of-consciousness seemed to reflect the era we’re in, a sort of mesmerising tirade of delirium. There’s a few things that need clarified after Nicola Sturgeon’s survival after what seemed like eight hours being water-boarded by Mitchell. Watching the Fabiani sessions after a year  of mania seemed an appropriate ‘gift’ to a nation, low-grade politicians uniting in grubby opportunism grinding on for hours in pursuit of a scalp to mask their own painful political inadequacy. But in a world that seems to operate around simplistic binaries the following are all simultaneously true:

  1. The First Minister leaves the process both greatly strengthened yet also precarious. She remains precarious less because of the accusations that have been slung at her but more because she has been unable to develop a coherent new vision for independence, particularly around currency. The Growth Commission case is incoherent. While she emerges vindicated it also remains true that there were ‘catastrophic’ errors made in Salmond inquiry. While now emboldened she and her colleagues need to confront the other political problems at hand.
  2. None of Alex Salmond’s wild conspiracy landed at all. There was no plot. Despite the spume and fury of the odd pick-and-mix of Tories Unionists and Enragé Zoomers it all just petered out into nothingness. No credible evidence was presented and no smoking gun appeared. Despite the ragefest it’s all over. I’m not sure where they go from here, they have no credible vehicle to carry them forward and no prospects within their own party or movement. Hard decisions will need to be made by some of them for the coming election and the coming campaign.
  3. As Kenny Farquharson points out: “Salmond’s key accusation was that civil service harassment policy was extended to apply to former ministers just to ensnare him. A retrospective approach was, he said, inherently unfair, and had been conjured up only to nail him. This fails the credibility test when you recall the context of the #MeToo movement at that time. An important element of the debate was that women should feel empowered to talk about their experiences at the hands of their bosses, even if the incidents had occurred some years in the past. In fact, since then, retrospectivity in harassment cases has been built into legislation covering the behaviour of MSPs, and similar measures are coming into force at Westminster and the Welsh Senedd. Retrospectivity is not a weird idea cooked up for the purpose of pursuing Alex Salmond. On the contrary, it is a rational, commonsense reform that has become the norm.”None of this is controversial.
  4. As First Minister Nicola Sturgeon’s said in her opening statement to the committee: “Finally and briefly – though I hope to say more as we get into questions – I feel I must rebut the absurd suggestion that anyone acted with malice or as part of a plot against Alex Salmond. That claim is not based in any fact. What happened is this and it is simple. A number of women made serious complaints about Alex Salmond’s behaviour. The government – despite the mistake it undoubtedly made – tried to do the right thing. As First Minister, I refused to follow the age old pattern of allowing a powerful man to use his status and connections to get what he wants. The police conducted an independent criminal investigation. The Crown Office as it does in prosecutions every single day of the week, considered the evidence and decided that there was a case to answer.”

  5. Despite the fact that some of the ‘fandom’ and “#IStandwithNicola” stuff was risible, the fact is that some of this is deeply personal. As the First Minister said in her opening statement to the committee:Alex spoke on Friday about what a nightmare the last couple of years have been for him and I don’t doubt that. I have thought often about the impact on him. He was someone I cared about for a long time. And maybe that’s why, on Friday, I found myself searching for any sign – any sign at all – that he recognised how difficult this has been for others too. First and foremost, for women who believed his behaviour towards them was inappropriate. But also for those of us who have campaigned with him, worked with him, cared for him and considered him a friend, and who now stand unfairly accused of plotting against him. That he was acquitted by a jury of criminal conduct is beyond question. But I know, just from what he told me, that his behaviour was not always appropriate. And yet, across six hours of testimony, there was not a single word of regret, reflection or even simple acknowledgment of that. I can only hope that in private, the reality might be different.“The lack of any humanity or remorse in the entire process is unedifying.
  6. This has a disastrous consequences for a whole series of people, first the Scottish Tories and the peculiar branch of Scottish Labour that Jackie Baillie represents who had pinned their entire Saving Face policy on destroying Nicola Sturgeon, and many of whom face P45s after the Holyrood elections. If polls remain steady we can expect a huge pro-indy cross-party majority in May and decimation for the Tories and Liberals.
  7. The whole process was used by the entire Unionist bloc to discredit not just the FM or the SNP but all of the political institutions of Scotland. Whilst these needed defended the fact of the calibre of the likes of Margaret Mitchell on show makes you shudder at some of the quality of our MSPs. Only Andy Wightman seemed to be taking the process and his role seriously, the others were behaving in an entirely partisan manner. The institutions of devolution need defended but they also need to be replaced by a parliament and a democracy fit for purpose and enlivened to the challenges of our time.
  8. Despite all of this Jonathon Shafi is right in saying: There is a level of sycophancy on display that masks the reality of the record of the SNP, the lack of meaningful reform, and the subordination of the interests of workers and their communities to lobbyists. As an indy supporter, it is vital these issues now come to the fore.”It is quite feasible – even essential – to celebrate the defeat of the wildest revisionism, apologism and fantasy that surrounded Salmond’s case – AND – to be highly critical of the SNP’s inability to develop a strategy and a policy base to bring independence forward. This is not to imagine a Magic Wand or to indulge in wildly romantic and unrealistic ‘strategies’ that make no sense at all – but it IS to demand that progress be made on key proposals and strategies and to act with urgency and innovation, both of which have been direly lacking.
  9. If the case for independence has seen a slowing in the polls in recent weeks it may be in part about the murky and confusing dialogue created by the Salmond case – but it must also be about the inability of the SNP to proceed that case, develop policy and create a vision. Given the overlay of the pandemic and the internal crisis some leeway can be given, but if both of those factors recede then so too does that leeway. Incisive action is now needed in the formation of the manifesto (s) for and the run up to, the Holyrood election. This is the responsibility of not just ‘the leadership’ but the movement.
  10. Moving beyond this circus must be the focus of everyone committed to Scottish independence. But this must be in meaningful not spurious unity and about building a radical vision for change and rupture not corporate capture and vague slogans. The need for strategy and unity in the coming election and the coming referendum will need leadership, but that leadership will need to come from below as it has before.


Comments (35)

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  1. Jim Gallagher says:

    The “dead sheep” line was not about Howe’s resignation speech – which was utterly deadly for Mrs T – but was a Dennis Healey line about Howe many years before.

  2. Michael Burns says:

    Great article. “low-grade politicians uniting in grubby opportunism grinding on for hours in pursuit of a scalp to mask their own painful political inadequacy” is exactly how I think most of the public tuning in would have seen this. We must indeed think in radical terms to move on from this state.
    On another note, I found your piece on birdsong yesterday inspiring, Mike. If anyone else is disillusioned by the goings-on in our parliament as detailed above, I suggest you read it to (briefly) step outside of your discomfort zone.

  3. MacNaughton says:

    So, now Bella Caledonia has a problem with a parliamentary enquiry, which the Scottish gov itself agreed to, after what the FM herself has described as a “catastrophic mistake” in the handling of the Salmond case?

    Why would anyone be opposed to what is an attempt by parliament to clarify what actually happened? I don’t understand it.

    I mean, people have to understand that parliamentary enquiries are regular occurrences in healthy democracies, and it is normal for those summoned as Nicola Sturgeon was the other day to be thoroughly grilled. These things happen all the time, just not in the media spotlight. What is the problem exactly?

    I thought both Salmond and Sturgeon put in highly impressive performances – two first class politicians at the top of their game – and I believe they are both telling the truth in their own minds…

    I really think people on both sides of this Salmond Sturgeon divide should cool their heels a little, take a step back and try to think about the bigger picture: which is independence this year…

    1. Dont have any problem with a parliamentary inquiry at all which was entirely appropriate. I was commenting on the quality of some of the participants.

      1. MacNaughton says:

        As for those grilling Sturgeon the other day, those MSPs are there because the people of Scotland voted for them to be elected to our parliament.

        For that basic reason, if you believe in democracy, they deserve a basic modicum of respect.. as does the institution of the Scottish Parliament…

        You and Campbell and the blog-sphere in general have lost all sense of proportion and propriety over the last few months…

        We need to get a wee bit respect back for those whose opinions we do not share, and that starts with the editorial lines of the main “independent” blogs in Scotland…

  4. MacNaughton says:

    Both Bella and Wings Over Scotland have done their bit to poison the atmosphere of Scottish politics over recent months and years with your highly partisan, vitriolic and hostile tone towards the other “side” in the independence movement… no one seems to care about the truth, that much is clear.

    You keep fanning the flames, Mike, and so does Campbell….

    Maybe you should both shut up for a bit about the Salmond affair? Probably like a lot of people, I am bored of the whole thing by now…

    1. What a spurious and offensive comment.

      1. MacNaughton says:

        Your tone is too shrill and partisan, Mike, sorry if you find it offensive, that is just my opinion.
        Look at the headline of this article!
        Waterboarding? I know, I know, it’s ironic: but that still doesn’t make it appropriate…

        1. You come on here and tell me to “shut up” and compare me to Stuart Campbell and that I have “poisoned the atmosphere of Scottish politics” then lecture me on my tone?

          Have a word with yourself.

          1. MacNaughton says:

            I think you and Campbell should most definitely shut up for a spell about the Salmond affair for a spell, yes… I’m not expecting either of you to do so of course.

            You have a poster the other day who compares the doubts – of all different kinds (from competence to integrity) – about the actions of the Scot Gov in relation to the Salmond affair with QAnon and Trump’s supporters…

            Fortunately, the Scottish public are never going to buy into such a crazy ideas as that… But people visiting your website from other countries might believe it though… I feel that to make a comparison like that is irresponsible and detrimental to our democracy. …

        2. MacNaughton says:

          It is pretty undemocratic and tabloid-like behaviour to turn a parliamentary enquiry into the actions and mistakes of the Scottish govt into a headline about the MSP who were asking the questions…

          It’s just not appropriate, it’s not democratic…. Where are we going in Scotland with this bitter and acrimonious tone of the last few months?

          Parliamentary commissions and enquiries are fundamental to our democracy, as is a free press in which thinking, intelligent and active citizens hold govt to account, and that includes journalists of all stripes..

          This SNP civil war is really disappointing to say the least…

          1. Rich says:

            “We need to get a wee bit respect back for those whose opinions we do not share,”
            “..poison the atmosphere of Scottish politics …with your highly partisan, vitriolic and hostile tone towards the other “side” …”
            “Your tone is too shrill and partisan, Mike, sorry if you find it offensive, that is just my opinion …”
            Coherent ? Accurate ? Fair ? Anybody ? Is it just me whose nose this poster gets up (yes – a preposition – bad form , but…) ?

            I remember some wee while ago , Mike , complaining in Comments to you about this McNaughton after he was getting unwarrantedly vicious at a poster because of his nationality (frightened him away in fact !) . He went on in that ‘comments’ to write multiple screeds spouting more bile and hate quite liberally (did someone say “poison ?”) . I did really wonder if he might have been trying to discredit this site by his outpourings – i.e. not the kind of site you’d recommend to a civilised friend .
            It seems he is actually aspiring to some kind of argument or assume a position here . Not doing things by halves is unfortunate for him yet again because he still seems to have the unerring aim of one who cannot but shoot himself in the same foot he just put in his mouth .
            It is very good of you to give him the screen-space – I’m not so sure he would return the courtesy .

          2. John Learmonth says:

            ‘People visting this website from other countries’………..like Spain for instance?

  5. norm says:

    Sensible as always Mike.

    For me, the vision has to be about democracy. This is the fundamentals that are at stake and everything else leads from.

    One example, EU, EEA or EFTA? It doesn’t necessarily matter unless Scotland is able to make its own decisions. Where we are now, and where we will be as an independent (or soon to be independent) state making a new relationship with Europe are different places. That choice needs to be made then (and with consensus across the parliament).

    This doesn’t mean individuals or parties can articulate more specific visions of the independent Scotland they would like to create, but I think the headline has to be about democracy, and sovereignty. Does it lie with Scotland? Or are we happy to give some sovereignty to UK in exchange for no control on what that means in practice.

  6. Alistair Tuach says:

    Having watched both performances, I agree completely. I’m a labour voter who supports independence and will vote yes again. I regard the snp government as a failure pretty much across the board. What I see is a political system run by managers. I worked in education for many years and watched as the changes happened which were detrimental to students. I am not a traditionalist but in adult education, courses largely became neat packages surrounded by jargon. In housing, the target now rarely gets mentioned and the virus emergency was dealt with badly, initially. The quality of msps is low caused by selection systems that picks conformists and structured so that removing someone is difficult. As I said to my msp, it’s like a slow lottery win. Complacency runs through the system. In any investigation, the investigators must have no prior involvement (absolutely basic) and nobody apparently had the wit to say wait a minute. They have no clear strategy for a referendum other than to ask can we get one please. So we will stagger along with no serious attack on the poverty that blights this country.

    1. MBC says:

      What would be your strategy for tackling the poverty that blights the country? I would start by proposing rent controls and raising the minimum wage.

      1. Alistair Tuach says:

        Yes and reintroduce the support systems in place around 1987 when a long serving dhss manager told me that for the first time in his career he was actually helping people. Also free local government from centralised control and for the Edinburgh government start spending its budget properly instead of massive underspend every year. I would also expand the local hospital system rather than the centralised giant hospitals we have.

  7. Drew Morrison says:

    “but it must also be about the inability of the SNP to proceed that case, develop policy and create a vision.”

    It could be argued that being in perpetual battle mode against the British Establishment and the Unionist parties does partly cloud the horizon and the destination somewhat. But agreed decisive action on policies and said creation of a vision for the future should be forthcoming and it should be at the top of the SNP agenda for Indy Ref2.

  8. Niemand says:

    Vindicated? You must be in dream land. She barely gave a straight answer to any of the serious questions in the entire eight hours. She wasn’t telling the truth on several of the important issues – here testimony contradicted evidence presented, though technically she is so good at adding just the right amount of weasel words that she always enables an escape route. That is what people are applauding which is deeply depressing and embarrassing. I concede she may have now have got to the point where she really believes she is telling the truth ‘as she sees it’, or ‘to the very best of her knowledge’, or ‘how she recalls it’, or indeed, ‘doesn’t recall’, or some such other nonsense but highly transparent caveat, as she has really convinced herself she did everything ‘with the very best of intentions’.

  9. J Galt says:

    I suppose to know the truth you would have to have been in the rooms when the various meetings and phone calls took place, otherwise you have to go on your gut feeling, and my gut feeling is that Nicola Sturgeon and her circle most definitely have a case to answer to say the least.

    I’m sure I’m not alone in being unimpressed with Wednesday’s theatrics.

    The problem with conspiracies is that, if they succeed, then they officially don’t exist, except for a minority interested in such things who are easily shouted down with the usual “tinfoil hat” shite.

  10. Alan Caldwell says:

    Hi Mike. What is your view on Robin McAlpine’s article ‘Integrity of a Nation’ posted in January before his ‘departure’ as Director of Common Weal in light of the evidence to date at the enquiry?

      1. Alan Caldwell says:

        Was hoping for a little more reasoning.

        1. Hi Alan

          well I’ve written about it many many times. I don’t find the case for a plot in any way convincing, as I said “None of Alex Salmond’s wild conspiracy landed at all. There was no plot … No credible evidence was presented and no smoking gun appeared.”

          Given the person Robin ‘met in the cafe’ I don’t feel any of the people compelling or credible. I don’t believe that Salmond was a threat at all, indeed Alex Neil told Radio Four recently that he had no plans to return to politics. I don’t accept the premise that all of the women involved would either manufacture complaints or that they could be compelled to press charges or that the police would not accept a case that didn’t have merit.

          1. Alan Caldwell says:


  11. Graham says:

    Don’t you think that if the documents demanded were provided and confirmed what AS says they say, then that would ‘land’?

    “I have a plan where we can stay anonymous and still have serious consequences” (paraphrased) or “we will sit on this and hope we never have to deploy it” etc etc etc ….

    You really think the refusal to provide all the evidence means AS claims don’t land? They can land if you hide the runway.

    I lost confidence in you with the ‘gaels are like African slaves’ article, which really didn’t indicate a rational mind. This article doubles down on the irrationality. He gets an idea, picks a side, and runs with it to the exclusion of all else.

  12. florian albert says:

    Mike Small ends his article, ‘the need for strategy and unity in the coming election and coming referendum will need leadership but that leadership will need to come from below.’

    How realistic is this hope ? I would say not at all. The SNP is riding high at present. It will certainly win most votes in the May election – by some distance. Why should it change from the present, successful – Nicola decides everything – way of doing things ?
    Who below the SNP is pressing for change ? Nobody on the left. The Greens, perhaps. However, they have just nudged the only original thinker at Holyrood out of their party, essentially for not following Nicola’s line on trans issues.
    What little pressure there is, on the SNP, is being exerted by the likes of ‘Wings’ and from ‘Scot Goes Pop’; individuals rather than organized groups. They are both (rightly) angry at the arrogant and anti-democratic stitch-up in the voting for SNP list candidates.

    Going back to my own question, why should the SNP change ? Because it has developed a sense of entitlement beyond Labour in its ‘glory’ days. I am sure it never occurred to Jack McConnell that he was leading SLAB over a cliff. Yet, that is what happened. Hubris followed by nemesis. Don’t think the SNP is exempt.

  13. Tom says:


    As a Sturgeon loyalist (that’s OK, it’s allowed ..) it must have been such a relief that she emerged from this week’s evidence session ‘vindicated’, as you put it. But I note you had nothing to say following Alex Salmond’s testimony last week. Was that perhaps because, like a lot of people (Paul Kavanagh, for example) you thought there was at least a possibility it could all be over for the FM following Salmond’s evidence? Or, if you didn’t think that, why didn’t we hear your reasons for discounting at least some of his evidence after last week’s session?

    So this week’s ‘impressive performance’ (Murdo Fraser) by the FM must have come as a great relief to you.

    As it happens, I agree with Murdo Fraser’s assessment of the FM’s performance, not just this week, but throughout her period of leadership. She is an absolutely star performer, but only in the sense that a great actor can take any old script and turn it into performance gold. And that’s what our FM does, all the time. It’s a great skill, and no-one comes near her for it.

    I don’t think it’s sexist to suggest that it’s a bit like listening to a comforting nanny. By the end of one of her drawn-out spiels, it’s natural to feel comforted, reassured, and with a sense that nanny will always be there, in control, protecting, and keeping foes (mainly, perhaps, ‘powerful’ men) at bay. Until, that is, you switch on your adult brain, and realise that you can’t remember all that much of what she actually said, greatly reassuring though it was at the time.

    You say that the Salmond allegations petered out into nothingness. Well, we’ll see, time will tell. But to come to that conclusion right now, sounds to me like wishful thinking.

    Sturgeon keeps saying, as you do in her wake, that Salmond, whatever the outcome of the criminal trial, really is a dreadful man for failing to apologise for being, well, a dreadful man. But as you well know, the harassment enquiry isn’t about Salmond, it’s about Sturgeon and her government’s behaviour, although as a diversionary tactic, and repeated endlessly as it is by Sturgeon, you and others, it undoubtedly impresses those with closed minds.

    I have never once heard Sturgeon offer apologies to Salmond for his illegal treatment at the hands of her government, and for having to risk everything to take her government (his too, ffs!) to court to prove its illegal and biased behaviour. I have heard countless apologies to the two anonymous women (and rightly so) but never, not even once, to Salmond.

    Now, whatever you think of Alex Salmond as a man, and in your case that’s clearly not a lot, you’ll surely agree that an apology for his illegal treatment at the hands of the government would be in order.

    Finally, there’s another ‘jigsaw’ that everyone forgets, and it’s this one. Without the Scottish Government’s illegal investigation into the harassment claims, there would have been no criminal investigation. Without the criminal investigation, there would have been no criminal charges. Without the criminal charges there would have been no criminal trial. And without the trial, there would have been no risk of an innocent man going to jail, possibly for the rest of his natural life, if he had been found guilty of rape.

    Think on that, and if it doesn’t bring on a sense of deep foreboding at the current direction of our country, then I suspect nothing will.

    1. Graham says:

      Eloquently put Tom, I agree except I’d follow the last part with;

      Without the judicial review that negated the unlawful, unfair, and biased SG investigation into the fabricated allegations, AS would have been tarnished without an opportunity to clear his name.
      The “plan” referred to in text messages the SG refuses to release would have been successful. They’d have “deployed” what they had been “sitting on” and produced “hard hitting consequences” while “remaining anonymous”.
      I don’t even need to put it in my own words!

    2. The idea that anyone who disagrees with your analysis is a “Sturgeon loyalist” – and thanks for giving me permission for having a different view from you.

      I’m glad you agree with Murdo Fraser.

      Your final paragraph is hilarious: “Without the Scottish Government’s illegal investigation into the harassment claims, there would have been no criminal investigation. Without the criminal investigation, there would have been no criminal charges. Without the criminal charges there would have been no criminal trial. And without the trial, there would have been no risk of an innocent man going to jail…”

      So everything was someone elses fault and none of it was Salmonds (!) Brilliant.

  14. Brian McGrail says:

    “Retrospectivity is not a weird idea cooked up for the purpose of pursuing Alex Salmond. On the contrary, it is a rational, commonsense reform that has become the norm.”

    But that wasn’t Salmond’s point. It was the context in which retrospectivity was applied. Salmond said as much – by all means try me but you have to do it fairly. The retrospective nature of the investigation was only 1 of 13 grounds on which Salmond’s counsel was preparing to argue the judicial review. His lawyers were well aware that retrospection was an established point in law; the issue was changes in procedure. You can try someone retrospectively if there is no statute of limitation. What authorities cannot do is concoct a procedure to suit their own purposes.

    Initially James Hynd (Cabinet Secretary) generated several drafts to fill ‘a gap’ (the existing policy not covering former ministers). But every draft left the current First Minister in charge of cases involving former ministers, and as adjudicator (the person to produce the Decision Report). Under this system, Sturgeon would have been informed immediately by her Permanent Secretary (Leslie Evans) as soon as any formal complaints were made, which they were in January 2018. It would not have been a case of Sturgeon ‘informing’ Evans of what she knew (via Salmond) in July 2018.

    But in early November 2017, in one day, the Hynd drafts were dispensed with and the FM was written out of the procedure for former ministers (but not current ones). Thus, the new policy was no longer ‘filling a gap’. It was an entirely new procedure. Only one person could have made such a decision – Sturgeon had abdicated. But why? She had already dealt with McDonald as a current minister, so if complaints came in retrospectively why would she not be able to deal with these when McDonald had become a former minister? Why the ‘arms length’ approach all of a sudden?

    Evans then ran the show, appointing Judy from HR as the Investigating Officer, someone who was ‘tainted with bias’. At any point in that process Sturgeon had the power to step back in (change the procedure) to prevent her government from acting illegally. But by this point Sturgeon was trapped – her actions could now be construed as ‘intervention’ favourable to Salmond. Like a Barings Bank trader she decided to ‘double down’, deny there was anything amiss, and plough on. Sturgeon was now playing politics – image, brand, bandwagon. The complainants? Now a footnote.

    Yep, blame the committee and the second rate politicians. But there is actually something wrong with our society when people start to congratulate the master politician for a good performance.

    Hopefully the Salmond-Sturgeon era is coming to an end – the death of the personality cult should be a sign of maturity. Folks may well vote for independence anyway. I don’t see the Irish nor the Finns defining themselves by their ‘leaders’.

    1. J Galt says:

      Yes the devil is very much in the detail isn’t it?

      And you are right, the sooner we move on from the Salmond/Sturgeon era the better.

      Salmond appears not to wish to stage a comeback apart from vigorously defending his name, however moving Sturgeon and her circle on may not be as straight forward.

    2. James Scott says:

      How unfortunate that what seems a most original and compelling piece of evidence to help clarify this massive jigsaw should be slightly diminished, though in no way negated, by the peroration.

      I know nothing of Finland and of Finnish politics. But I know enough of Ireland to balk at the assertion that it is not defined by its leaders.

      Eamon deValera?
      Michael Collins?
      T E Smith?
      Ian Paisley?
      Gerry Adams?
      John Hume?

      And how could one possibly omit Charles J?

  15. Graeme Purves says:

    Anent Point 8: Wales’s new ‘The National’ has hit the ground running on Welsh public policy issues. Scotland’s ‘The National’ seems much more concerned with promoting independence movement ‘personalities’. In Scotland, public policy appears to have been sub-contracted to lobbyists. Scotland’s policy stasis needs to be addressed as matter of urgency.

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