The antics of sitting Scottish Parliament committee members, basking in the limelight and blabbing to all and sundry during an investigation into how our government handled sexual misconduct claims against former First Minister Alex Salmond have been an utter embarrassment to Scottish politics.
For anyone looking on, remembering this inquiry was meant to be about improving a procedure to support complainers as they come forward, the rampant politicking and endless meta commentary has been downright sickening.
Drawing more public attention than the average committee, it was eye-opening to realise sitting committee members such as Murdo Fraser or Alex Cole-Hamilton, who seemed never off the evening news for the inquiry’s duration, were able to blatantly point-score off the back of their service. The Times reported some members were keen to wrap up committee proceedings so they could watch themselves on Panorama at 7.50pm, which featured Fraser, Cole-Hamilton, and Jackie Baillie.
As this shambles has shown, MSPs didn’t have the dignity or scruples to stay schtum of their own accord. Committee rules should be changed to require it of them.
The independent Hamilton report concluded Nicola Sturgeon did not wilfully mislead Parliament. The Holyrood inquiry, whose members have so publicly got on their hands and knees to snuffle for crumbs of political leverage in the gutter, have shown less interest in their remit of scrutinising procedure for the benefit of future complainers than in attacking Nicola Sturgeon.
Who can understand what tinfoil hat conspiracy theorists, raging at the women complainers yet subtly coddled by too many parliamentarians who want in with the troll army, believe on any given day.
But one thing is for certain: leaking evidence from a private hearing is a clear breach of the Code of Conduct for MSPs. A lurid exclusive revealing complainer testimony from a closed session was, astonishingly, published in the Sunday Times. The early leak of the inquiry verdict undermined the committee. But betraying sexual misconduct complainers really is the lowest of the low.
Shamefully, Rape Crisis Scotland had to release yet another statement on behalf of the Salmond case complainers last week. They described it as a violation of trust, adding: “The reporting of our evidence has included inaccuracies and distortions, which appear to be intended to serve a political agenda.”
The statement continued: “Complainers in this case have been subject to regular attacks and misrepresentations on social media and have found their experiences repeatedly exploited for political purposes during the inquiry. For a committee member to perpetuate this is indefensible, and an abuse of their position. We will be making a formal complaint.”
The committee has not only let these women down, but made things worse for them; increasing pressure rather than, as they were tasked to do, seeking better ways forward. It is reprehensible, the dirtiest of dirty tricks, that evidence from a sexual misconduct case could be leaked by our Parliament.
Among all the noisy politicking there have always been various motivations at play. A lesser faction is the bloated and bitter old boys’ club who wants to avenge Salmond, the kind of reactionary who thinks #MeToo went too far.
Only a few days prior, Tory MP David Davis stood up in Westminster to meddle in the Holyrood process by stirring up claims of conspiracy, the same claims rabid bloggers see as justification to harass and threaten the anonymity of complainers online.
But a greater number of Sturgeon’s political foes are united in a streamlined will to undermine her, a bigger threat to the Union than any of her predecessors, not least because Salmond’s grievances have become the unionists’ biggest unexpected gift.
Labour’s Sir Keir Starmer last week was also at it, gunning for Sturgeon’s resignation, despite being chronically unwilling to stand up to repeated Tory breaches of conduct in the parliament he actually sits in.
He even went as far as to defend Matt Hancock, saying he didn’t think the public wanted a resignation, when the Health Secretary’s department was caught not publishing details of billions of pounds worth of Covid contracts in time. I beg to differ.
But while the opportunism is deeply distasteful, leaking private testimony should be one of the biggest scandals of this whole mess. Will it be? Or will cavalier attitudes to sexual misconduct, and lack of care for damage done to complainers in the process persist? Will the whole thing wash over, because our politicians are too excitable about their walk-on parts in political theatre and not principles?
The Hamilton report should be read carefully; failures it points to taken seriously. And why? As Sturgeon said in her response to its release on Monday, “Today I want, once again, to remind people that at the heart of this case were women who had the courage to come forward and complain.” The committee seems to have forgotten this is what it was always meant to be about.
None of the mudslinging has had the best interests of complainers in mind, nor those coming after them. Neither the parliament nor the Scottish public has been best-served by this committee. For too long, in too many political movements, damage done to women has been brushed off as irrelevant, as collateral damage, in the wake of man’s ambition. We are watching this play out now in the very inquiry set up to make the process better as its members have courted the press and campaigned.
At the end of a bleak chapter in Scottish politics, as survivors of sexual assault watch on, has come this final betrayal of confidence. And it is a big one. The inquiry has grotesquely abused its power. We can not stand for MSPs using sexual misconduct as self-serving political fodder. Whoever is behind this leak of complainer testimony to the Sunday Times is unfit for purpose. They need to be booted off the candidacy list for May’s election.