Alex Salmond, the Holyrood Enquiry and the Scottish left – a Republican Response


Alex Salmond’s statement and evidence to the Holyrood enquiry on February 26th has led to much fevered comment from a salivating London-based unionist media (including its Scottish unionist members) and from Scottish nationalist supporters of either ‘St. Nicola’ or ‘Oor Eck’. But the majority of SNP voters probably hope that Lesley Riddoch is right and that a new rapprochement can be reached before the May Holyrood election. [i]

However, the response of sections of the Scottish Left has underplayed the wider political significance of these events and divisions. Thus, Kevin McKenna, a former Scottish Labour supporter, but now someone committed to Scottish independence as the best way to bring about social democratic reform, has dismissed the “Alex Salmond affair”. It as “a Tartan Noir production for the titillation of the political and media elite”.[ii] He has attacked both Salmond for pursuing “the purest approximation of a vendetta that we’ll ever see” and “Mrs Sturgeon’s chief lickspittles” for simultaneously exploiting and undermining “the female complainants at the centre of this”.[iii] McKenna is concerned that the media focus takes us away from “the real world… where real people are suffering the economic effects of crippling inequality made worse by the pandemic”.[iv]

In the so-called ‘culture wars’ in Scotland Mike Small of Bella Caledonia has recently been on the other side to McKenna. The real issue underlying this divide is whether the inclusive rainbow alliance of would be Scottish citizens, including those from LBGT+ and BAME backgrounds, mobilised during the IndyRef1 campaign, will be sustained; or whether a future Scotland will be based on a narrower, more exclusive notion of Scottishness. This is one that adapts to and is sometimes funded by Right populists particularly from the USA.

Mike has clearly identified with the first approach. McKenna, however, has made regular attacks on those he characterised as “woke”- a favourite Right populist term. But to his credit, McKenna has recently begun to back pedal on some of this. Perhaps he can see where it would take us. A Scotland based on the politics of the Stuart Campbell’s ‘Wings Over Scotland’ [v]would be little better than a tartan version of an England based on the politics of Katie Hopkins.

Nevertheless, Mike agrees with McKenna that “most people outwith the media cliques and Twittersphere seem remarkably bored by the whole affair” and ”that the mass of people are focused on our own lockdown hell (rather) than the shenanigans and manoeuvring of desperate political groupings and players.”[vi] McKenna has put it more pithily. “I simply cannot envision the following conversation unfolding in Scottish households in the run-up to the Scottish election. ‘I’d normally vote SNP, but I’m absolutely appalled at how Scotland’s chief prosecutor gets to sit in the Cabinet.’”[vii] 

The Salmond case raises issues which should concern the Left

But Salmond has raised some fundamental issues. Whether he has done this for entirely selfish reasons or in an attempt to uphold “the principles of openness, accountability and transparency – which are the core principles on which the Scottish Parliament was founded” [viii]– is secondary. Salmond has argued that,

“The competence and professionalism of the civil service matters. The independence of the crown office – as acting in the public interest – matters. Acting in accordance with legal advice matters; concealing evidence from the courts matters.

“The duty of candour of public authorities matters. Democratic accountability through Parliament matters. Suppressing evidence from parliamentary committees matters. And yes, ministers telling the truth to Parliament matters.”[ix]

The reason why this should be important for the Left, is that under the current or any alternative SNP government, the inherited Scottish institutional set-up is seen by many as the means to address the “suffering {and} the economic effects of crippling inequality made worse by the pandemic”.

Dismissing the Holyrood enquiry as a mere “Tartan Noir” psychodrama diverts attention away from the necessary connection between economic and social issues on one hand and political or constitutional issues on the other. In the run-up to the Westminster general election on December 12th 2019 Jeremy Corbyn believed he could make such a separation and avoid any challenge to the UK’s constitutional order. He highlighted the socio-economic need for a ‘Green New Deal’ and the defence of the NHS. But Corbyn and his very British Left unionist supporters left it to Johnson’s Tories to dictate the political and constitutional framework for Labour’s Its Time for Real Change – a new Brexitland. The result was Labour’s ”historic defeat”.[x] In a crisis-ridden system any attempts at economic and social reform very soon come up against the limits of the UK’s constitutional order.

Both wings of the current the SNP divide are upholders of the sovereignty of the Crown-in-Westminster devolved to Holyrood

Today the SNP is better placed electorally, than Labour, and has fewer illusions in Westminster as such. Yet the leadership still draws its claim to a mandate from its domination of Westminster’s devolved offspring – Holyrood and having the majority of Scottish MPs in the House of Commons. The importance of the control of Holyrood is that this provides the SNP leadership with the patronage needed to build up a future Scottish ruling class. This is one which knows its place in a corporate dominated world. The SNP leadership are waiting for the opportunity to exercise their saltire-flagged, junior managerial buy-out of the UK state machinery in Scotland. They are ready to take their place alongside the rUK. Under this reformed constitutional set-up, the City of London would still direct the Scottish economy, Scottish armed forces would still be at the beck and call of the British High Command, and many of the UK state’s Crown Powers and clandestine activities would become hard wired into a new ‘Scottish Free State.’

Both of the two current contending SNP factions share this ‘Indylite’ vision for Scotland, even if they differ over how to put pressure on the UK state to get there. Sturgeon wants to force Johnson’s hand through an increase in the number of SNP MSPs after May. Joanna Cherry, Salmond backer and hopeful heir apparent, wants to challenge the British government in the UK Supreme Court. Not being the current SNP leadership incumbents, Salmond and Cherry have managed to position themselves as the keenest advocates of IndyRef2. In order to build support, Cherry has tried to woo a section of SNP supporting Independistas by flirting with social prejudice. This means dividing the 2012-14 IndyRef1 rainbow alliance.

But how does Salmond see the UK state in the light of his recent experiences? There is no doubt that the initial enquiry into Salmond’s behaviour was conducted in an incompetent and illegal manner. This cost the public purse a minimum of £633,773[xi]. Following this, Salmond has recommended that the government’s top civil servant, Leslie Evans, and the head of the Crown Office, Lord Advocate James Wolffe QC, should lose their jobs.

The UK state’s Crown Powers underpin the current inegalitarian British order today and Salmond’s planned new Scottish order tomorrow

But Salmond’s conclusions are revealing. “The Scottish civil service hasn’t failed; its leadership has failed. The crown office hasn’t failed; its leadership has failed.” Thus, Salmond wants to retain the current civil service structure and believes in the neutrality of the Crown Office. Yet no senior civil servant or judge believe they have to follow the same rules of conduct as we lesser mortals. They all belong to an establishment that lives by a completely different set of rules. Salmond’s lawyer, Gordon Jackson QC is a case in point. Elected to Holyrood in 1999 and collecting his pay as MSP for Govan, he continued to work and get even more highly paid as a QC during Holyrood working hours. No worker would ever be allowed to do this and the penalty for such moonlighting would be severe. Yet similar behaviour is commonplace in the state’s elevated circles.

Those on the Left might not show much sympathy for Alex Salmond. During the feverish days of neo-liberal hegemony, before the Great Crash in 2008, he competed with Gordon Brown in trying to remove the major Scottish headquartered banks from any public scrutiny. He tried to win support from Rupert Murdoch and Donald Trump. In May 2008, Salmond took a special flight to Westminster to try and limit women’s timing for an abortion from 24 to 20 weeks.[xii]

And in another case, Lord Advocate Wolffe has only provided “an apology”, following the Crown Office’s malicious prosecution of David Whitehouse and Paul Clark of Rangers FC. This time the minimum cost to the public purse is £21M![xiii]And neither is Rangers FC, with its longstanding Scottish establishment support and sectarian record, likely to gain much sympathy from the Left.

But Alex Salmond, is the one-time Scottish First Minister, uber-royalist friend of the queen, and of Sir George Matthewson former boss of the Royal Bank of Scotland. The owners of the once specially favoured Rangers FC now face the political consequences of ‘parity of esteem’ with the major corporate owners of Celtic FC. They can no longer expect preferential treatment. They have been targeted by the Crown Office.

Recognising the nature of the state we are up against and the need for a republican challenge today

Therefore, imagine what a Scottish government, backed by the Crown Office would be capable of doing to any campaign or party trying to end “suffering {and}the economic effects of crippling inequality made worse by the pandemic.”. In such cases, the UK state’s devolved Scottish police and security agencies would soon act to suppress any challenges. In another inquiry over which he presided, Lord Advocate James Wolffe provided the Kirkcaldy police with his protection from any criminal action following the death of Sheku Bayoh at their hands.[xiv]

But long before this, senior civil servants and managers of health, education (including universities) land and housing would be able to draw on a wide range of privileges. These include the right to keep the terms of public contracts secret and to withhold or selectively release information. Many senior civil servants and managers enjoy incomes and lifestyles closer to those of corporate managers and lobbyists they often mix with. They show no real commitment to the users of the services they run, e.g. sending their own children to private schools.

Their actions are based on trying to emulate the profit based criteria of corporate business, with very little regard for social costs which they displace on to others. ‘Best value’ contracts can ignore workers’ needs for decent wages and conditions. The costs of welfare top-ups, physical sickness, deteriorating mental health and environmental degradation can just be passed on to the public to allow maximum private profits.

A neo-liberal minister, such as John Swinney accepts such a set-up unconditionally. He hasn’t challenged those senior civil servants and managers responsible for education. They have continued with the old managerial regime in Scotland inherited from New Labour. Swinney did not take any action against these officials’ mishandling of the 2020 secondary school exams. But education officials have a much longer record of ignoring educational practitioners. i.e. teachers and lecturers. Their warnings go back to the SQA’s role in the Higher Still exam debacle of 2000. College principals attempted to undermine a Scottish government backed national agreement with FE lecturers in 2015. They were assisted by the Charlotte Street Partners lobbyist Andrew Wilson, later chair of the SNP’s Sustainable Growth Commission.

But the problem becomes accentuated when a would-be mild reformer, such as Jeane Freeman OBE (ex CPGB, ex-Scottish Labour), takes ministerial office. As SNP health minister, she got into hot water in 2019 over the late delivery of the Sick Children’s Hospital in Edinburgh. This has been another product of New Labour initiated PFI and SNP rebranded PPP contracts for new hospitals and schools. These contracts have allowed scandalous private corporate profiteering at public expense, perhaps most notoriously the aptly named Royal Edinburgh Infirmary.[1] To divert attention away from the role of Lothian NHS, Chief Executive, Tim Davidson, used his powers to hide some and to selectively release other information in an attempt to undermine Freeman.

Senior civil servants’ and managers’ power, and that of government ministers who go along with it, are underpinned by the Crown Powers whether exercised in London or its devolved outlier in Edinburgh. These powers, both public and secret are central to the UK’s constitutional order. This is based on the sovereignty of the Crown-in-Westminster. If we want to bring about an end to “suffering {and the economic effects of crippling inequality made worse by the pandemic” and indeed far more, we will need to lay-off not only individual office holders.

We need to abolish those highly privileged, protected state institutions and their hierarchies, which act as a permanent barrier to meaningful reform. This means struggling for a new Scotland based on the republican principle of the sovereignty of the people. But this republicanism is not just something for an ideal Scottish constitutional future. To arrive at a Scottish Republic, we have to take a leaf from the other side. The British and would-be Scottish ruling class just ignore or get round any limitations they come up against in the political order which they have constructed to meet their own narrow needs. Therefore, there is little reason for us to be beholden to their constitutional set-up. We must act now, not as passive British (or Scottish-British) subjects, but as active Scottish citizens.






[i]    choice-sturgeon-either-escalate-battle-compromise

[ii]     salmond-sturgeon-sideshow-betrays-poorest-children-long-shadow-        pandemic/

[iii]   ditto

[iv]    ditto

[v]         that-has-soiled-our-movement/


[vii]      benefit-salmond-sturgeons-uncivil-war/

[ix]    ditto


[xiv] investigation

Comments (2)

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  1. Tom says:

    great article Allan. I don’t agree with all of it, but it is thoughtful and well argued (except for the Katie Hopkins/Wings reference, which is just silly ..).

    As for this: ” We must act now, not as passive British (or Scottish-British) subjects, but as active Scottish citizens”.

    But act now to do what? That’s where everything comes to a grinding halt.

  2. Jim Ferguson says:

    A thoughtful and interesting piece, the real story of the British State and its undemocratic structures needs to be told more openly, frequently and with more depth. Only by doing so is there any chance of democratising the economy and future Scottish institutions. I mean, what’s the point of Scottish independence if we merely shift in a new class of parasites?

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