THE old wartime joke about Chinese whispers has it that the order to “send reinforcements, we’re going to advance”, when passed down the line, became “send three and fourpence, we’re going to a dance”.
Is this what happened in the saga about the French ambassador’s conversation with the First Minister, which has come to be known on social media as “Nickileaks”? Somewhere along the line – from the First Minister to the ambassador to the consul-general to the Scotland Office civil servant – did Nicola Sturgeon’s utterances get mangled out of recognition, becoming a false account of what was actually said? Or did Sturgeon actually say what is attributed to her and is now trying to create the contrary impression?
It will take many more days before the full facts of this saga are known and a judgment can be made about whether the British government memo leaked to the press this weekend was an accurate account, or an invention, or a simple misunderstanding. Sturgeon and the French ambassador have both denied the memo’s version of events, and the UK Cabinet Secretary Sir Jeremy Heywood yesterday ordered an investigation into how the memo came into the public domain. Sturgeon is describing the leak as “dirty tricks”, and is determined that the focus now shifts to a molehunt in the British government.
Her problem, however unfairly, is that the damage may be done, regardless of the memo’s accuracy or provenance. Because it has lodged a question in the Scottish public’s mind that Sturgeon would rather was not there.
According to the memo, Nicola Sturgeon would “rather see” David Cameron as prime minister, and in her view Ed Miliband is “not PM material”.
Both of these notions are problematic for the First Minister, and hugely pertinent to a general election campaign that becomes more complex and fascinating by the day.
Sturgeon has pinned her party’s election pitch to the idea that 40 or 50 Nationalist MPs at Westminster can help put Miliband into Downing Street and “keep Labour honest”.
And yet this seems at odds with her party’s ultimate goal of independence. Many SNP members – especially those who joined since the referendum – are equally disparaging about Labour and the Tories and find it hard to understand why the SNP would support either in government in London. Their priority is independence, and they want the general election to produce the outcome that most rapidly allows a second referendum, in circumstances that are most conducive to a Yes win. It is hard to see how independence for Scotland is hastened by helping Labour kick the Tories out of power.
On the other hand, another Tory government, perhaps helped into power by Ukip, planning a referendum on the EU, would be fertile territory indeed.
On Friday night, when this story was breaking, the deputy editor of this newspaper mused on Twitter: “The question now, I suppose, is whether Nicola privately believes a Tory victory would be best for the SNP and the indy cause.” Almost immediately, the First Minister herself tweeted back in response: “No, I don’t.”
This is an idea she knows is dangerous for her and the SNP.
Yesterday Sturgeon struck an outraged tone, saying she had been fighting against the prospect of a Tory government all her adult life and would continue to do so.
And yet a reasonable suspicion remains. Most political analysts agree achieving independence would be much harder – some would say impossible – without a Tory government at Westminster. Sturgeon denies her advantage lies in having Cameron as PM. But a worm of doubt and some awkward questions are now in the heads of many Scottish voters.
McRae conspiracy theories now laid to rest
THE road where Willie McRae died is one of the most scenic drives in the Highlands, affording magnificent views of mountain, loch, sky and hill. A small cairn has been built just off the A87 near the spot where, 30 years ago tomorrow, the lawyer and SNP office-bearer was found fatally injured in his car with what turned out to be a bullet in his head. In the years since, the case of Willie McRae has become something of a cause célèbre – at last year’s Edinburgh Festival Fringe there were two plays about his death, and folk songs have been written about it. The case has also been the inspiration for many conspiracy theories.
In part, these theories stemmed from McRae’s range of political interests and his firebrand personality – he was a charismatic politician who pursued the establishment on a range of issues, including the dumping of nuclear waste.
But the most compelling reason to see something amiss in the official account of McRae’s death was a number of glaring inconsistencies – including the fact that the hand-gun McRae was said to have used to commit suicide was found some distance from the car.
Now, an exemplary piece of journalism for Scotland on Sunday by students from Strathclyde University’s Investigative Journalism post-graduate course, has solved a 30-year mystery.
By examining the gaps in the story, and double checking every assertion and presumed fact, they have uncovered proof that the car was moved when it appeared to be a simple road traffic accident – and then returned when the hospital treating McRae found the bullet.
There are questions about why that initial misjudgment – a foolish mistake, albeit an innocent one – was never owned up to by the authorities. Perhaps the senior police officers and Crown officials were too embarrassed to admit a simple error. And yet all they succeeded in doing was to create an air of suspicion that has lasted for 30 years.
No doubt some conspiracy adherents will continue to insist McRae was murdered by the British state. The grassy knoll is a comfortable spot from which to view a bewildering world.
But for most reasonable people, today’s Scotland on Sunday revelations are the final chapter in a story three decades in the telling.