Covid: Yes or no, Nicola Sturgeon, is there to be a full Scottish inquiry into the pandemic? – Brian Wilson

Those responsible for establishing Holyrood were anxious to make it different from Westminster. This was to be a chamber of non-confrontational reason and hemispheric consensus.

That never seemed likely and it has not evolved in that direction. Holyrood at its worst is the only bit most people ever see, First Minister’s Questions. As an exercise in accountability, it is a joke.

Part of the problem is hopeless chairing. Party leaders ask questions. Nicola Sturgeon’s response to each is interminable, mainly composed of repetitive, self-serving waffle. After the first 100 words, she should be told to answer the question or sit down. The whole place would gasp with astonishment at any such act of lèsé majesté.

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Such concepts as cut and thrust, thinking on one’s feet, far less the use of humour to make a point are utterly alien to the format. This week, I stayed with it long enough to hear Anas Sarwar asking important questions about accountability for the handling of the pandemic in Scotland. Fat chance.

Mr Sarwar referred to “a timeline comparison” between decisions in Scotland and the rest of the UK. He quoted what would now generally be recognised as significant errors, including, but by no means limited to, care homes. “Does the First Minister agree,” he asked, “that these decisions were taken in Scotland by the First Minister and the Scottish government?”

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The reply from Scotland’s First Minister opened: “I am glad for Anas Sarwar that he has the time to do timelines. There is nothing that he has just told me that I do not know.” Well, there never is, is there? She then went on and on about her personal angst, having “done my level best” and so on.

This obsession with herself entirely misses the point. Thank goodness someone has done timelines for if lessons are to be learned, then it is the forensics which will have to be examined – not broad statements about regrets and “the responsibilities of the job”. All that goes without saying for any politician and certainly without constant repetition.

Is Nicola Sturgeon committed to hold “a judge-led, Scotland-specific public inquiry into the decisions that were made in Scotland”? (Picture: Andy Buchanan/PA)

Mr Sarwar was leading up to the demand for “work to begin right now to establish a judge-led, Scotland-specific public inquiry into the decisions that were made in Scotland”. That is a clear-cut proposition which could have been answered very briefly and, one hopes, affirmatively.

Instead, we got 445 words mainly about her own best efforts and burdens. Then the barb: “Perhaps Anas Sarwar is saying that if he had been standing here back then, he would have got everything right.”

Self-evidently, Mr Sarwar was saying no such thing. He was calling for accountability which Ms Sturgeon insists on interpreting as an attack on her intentions, rather than a wholly legitimate demand for a critique of process and outcomes.

Amidst the verbiage, close textual analysis is necessary to find what Ms Sturgeon actually means. “I have given a commitment to a judge-led public inquiry,” might sound categoric.

But then she digressed into “four-nations discussions” about the UK government’s plans for a public inquiry. So is Ms Sturgeon’s commitment to what Anas Sarwar asked for: “A judge-led, Scotland-specific public inquiry into the decisions that were made in Scotland”. I simply don’t know.

Last weekend, the Health Secretary, Humza Yousaf, said there would be a “cross-party” inquiry – a particularly useless vehicle as we recently witnessed – to look at “discharges into care homes”.

Leaving aside format, that would be an extremely limited remit which does not touch on other health-related issues, use of Covid funding, impact of lockdowns and much more besides that was determined in Scotland.

However, even that very limited commitment was promptly shot down by Ms Sturgeon’s official spokesman who said the First Minister was yet to decide whether Scotland needed an inquiry at all and was waiting to see the terms of reference for the UK-wide inquiry. Now you see why close textual analysis is required?

Mr Sarwar should ask the same question next week and the Presiding Officer might burnish her credentials by saying in advance that a one-word answer will suffice.

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