Alex Salmond inquiry: Why a full-scale public inquiry led by a judge, not politicians, may be required – Scotsman comment

The idea of holding a public inquiry into a parliamentary inquiry – or rather the issue it was set up to consider – may seem odd, but it is clear that many people are far from convinced that MSPs are going to get to the bottom of the Scottish government’s mishandling of complaints made by women about Alex Salmond’s behaviour while in office.

Nicola Sturgeon's ratings and support for the SNP have fallen since Alex Salmond gave evidence to MSPs

The former First Minister has thrown enough mud at the current incumbent in Bute House that, for some people at least, much of it has stuck.

The Scottish government has also not done itself any favours, particularly by attempting to withhold its legal advice about the Judicial Review of the complaints process brought by Salmond. When you try to keep damaging information secret, it’s no surprise that people start talking about cover-ups.

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Already, the SNP has seen its poll numbers fall, as have Nicola Sturgeon’s personal approval ratings, although her numbers are still strongly positive, a notable feat for any politician at a time when cynicism is too often used as a substitute for wisdom.

But the tarnish has not just been applied to her and the ruling party but to the Scotland’s government and some of its most important institutions. And that should be a real concern to anyone interested in ensuring the health of our democracy.

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A new SavantaComRes poll for The Scotsman has found that 46 per cent of Scots want to see a judge-led inquiry take over the task given to the MSPs’ committee – an idea backed by a perhaps surprising large minority (37 per cent) of independence supporters.

Forty per cent of respondents said their trust in the Scottish government had fallen, with faith in the Scottish Parliament, the civil service and the Crown Office also down.

Scottish Labour deputy leader Jackie Baillie, who is a member of the Holyrood committee, said a judge-led inquiry may be the “only way to deliver justice for the women involved”. Because the Judicial Review brought by Salmond into the Scottish government’s complaints procedure found it was unlawful and “tainted by apparent bias”, the actual substance of the complaints has not been dealt with, although Salmond was cleared of the criminal charges brought against him.

The Scottish Conservatives argued that there were “strong grounds for a judge-led inquiry” with “people across Scotland... becoming increasingly disgusted at SNP cover-ups and their contempt for transparency and accountability”.

The Holyrood committee itself has not yet published its report, while James Hamilton QC, the former head of public prosecutions in Ireland, is also considering claims that Nicola Sturgeon broke the ministerial code, so calling for a public inquiry right now may be premature.

Once we know what the committee and the QC have found – ideally before May’s Holyrood election – that will be the time to decide if one is necessary.

What is clear is that civil servants need to have confidence when making a complaint that it will be dealt with fairly and effectively. Given how badly confidence must have been dented by this whole affair, restoring it will be a difficult task.

And it is also clear that the damage to public confidence in Scotland’s institutions of democracy must be repaired.

If a public inquiry would help achieve those aims, then it may well be worthwhile.

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