Brian Wilson: Truth will out despite SNP dislike

Scots Labour leader Johann Lamont was censured for saying the SNP 'did not deal in honesty'. Picture: Jane Barlow
Scots Labour leader Johann Lamont was censured for saying the SNP 'did not deal in honesty'. Picture: Jane Barlow
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The SNP way of thinking seems to be that what it doesn’t want to tell us is none of our business, writes Brian Wilson

A permanent feature of the Scottish Nationalists in government at Holyrood has been an ill-disguised disdain for Freedom of Information legislation, which they treat as an irritation to be subverted by means of obstruction and delay.

This is what happens when arrogance sets in and a governing party defines its own interests as those of the governed. On matters large and small, from tartan trews to the nation’s economy, the Nationalist rule of thumb is that what they do not want to tell us is, by definition, none of anyone’s business and they will go to extraordinary and expensive lengths to defend that position.

We now know that £20,000 was spent on protecting themselves from confirmation that the fabled “legal advice on EU membership” never actually existed. Yet this was only one of scores of similar cases in which the straightforward right to information has been denied or delayed for crudely political reasons. The good news is that the strategy is beginning to unravel.

Some of the information that Mr Salmond and his helpers have tried so hard to suppress is now trickling out at an encouraging rate.

To her credit, the Freedom of Information Commissioner, Rosemary Agnew, appears to have cottoned on to the Scottish Government’s modus operandi and has sent a powerful warning shot across their bows.

Last week, after a year of the usual obstructionism, the Scottish Government was forced to release their own chief economic adviser’s commentary on a Scottish oil fund – a dynamite document which blows apart much of the treasured Nationalist mytholygy. Clearly, this is a document in the public interest – yet four requests for its disclosure were refused.

Also last week, a seven-month rearguard action to prevent us knowing how much the Scottish Government is spending on buying-in a defence policy for its hypothetical state, and who the lucky consultants are, also came to grief. In this case, disclosure was attributed to an administrative error within the high command which inadvertently released the information to the Sunday Post. Excellent.

What this story illustrates is just what a cobbled-together, “conclusions on which to base our facts” exercise the forthcoming White Paper is going to be. Not one bit of it can be treated as objective since we know the lengths that are being gone to, not only to dismiss counter-argument from outside the Scottish Government, but to sideline the inconvenient conclusions of their own civil servants.

The function of the civil service is to provide politicians with neutral, balanced advice and what they then do with it is up to them. That distinction is crucial and must be protected.

But paying consultants substantial sums of public money to tell ministers what they want to hear – which is what consultants do – is an entirely different kind of exercise and certainly not one on which any respectable White Paper should be based.

No wonder the Scottish Government went to such lengths to conceal what they were up to and what it was costing – at least £80,000 for our “defence policy” alone. How much more of the White Paper is being written by consultants who know exactly what they are being paid to provide?

The oil fund story is exceptionally revealing on a number of fronts. Obviously, the content is critical since it destroys the claim that Scotland could have existing levels of public expenditure plus an oil fund. It stated with admirable clarity: “If the Scottish Government had wished to establish an oil fund, it would have had to reduce public spending, increase taxation or increase public sector borrowing”. As straightforward as that, so take your pick – cuts or taxes?

One can see why Salmond and his enforcers would have seen publication of this document as a significant inconvenience. Matters were hardly helped when John Swinney went on radio to raise the surreal option of borrowing in order to create an oil fund.

The suppressed paper had actually warned against this on the fairly obvious grounds that the cost of borrowing would exceed the returns from the fund.

But what happened next is also very revealing. A “working group” of Salmond’s council of economic advisers was pressed into urgent service. Lo and behold, they came up with the opposite conclusion but – as Ruth Davidson revealed in a coup de theatre at last week’s First Minister’s Questions – their document was essentially a cut-and-paste job from the chief economic adviser’s report, to which an entirely different and politically-convenient conclusion had been appended.

The council of economic advisers is a curious body, consisting of hand-picked Nationalists and a scatter of distinguished economists based outside Scotland, whose names are then used to give a veneer of credibility to whatever is produced.

I do wonder how often the “working group” met before agreeing to release the cut-and-paste job with the different conclusion added? Perhaps we could find out through an FoI request?

I find it impossible to believe that it is the normal academic practice of either Professor Sir James Mirrlees in Cambridge or Professor Christine Ruane in Dublin to put their names to cut-and-paste jobs of any description.

So it would be interesting to know how much actual input they had to this document before it was rushed out for the purely political purpose of pre-empting the grudging release of the chief economic adviser’s original version?

What the Nationalists may finally wake up to is that a culture of secrecy breeds a response in which a few of those civil servants who have not been cowed into submission recognise that the public right to know is being denied at a critical time and take their own remedial action.

The prerequisite for being refused information by the Scottish Government is to know what to ask for in the first place.

Finally, a word about the ludicrous treatment of Johann Lamont at last week’s First Minister’s Questions by the Presiding Officer, Tricia Marwick, who takes her duties as Alex Salmond’s human shield far too seriously.

Ms Lamont’s offence was to state what might be obvious from the above – “honesty is not something this government deals with”. And she’s not allowed to say that in our Parliament of free speech?

Perhaps Mr Salmond has another job in mind for Ms Marwick. He could always put her in charge of Freedom of Information.