Michael Matheson iPad expenses scandal: Health Secretary put to shame by values of late James Douglas-Hamilton and Alistair Darling – Murdo Fraser

In 2007, Alistair Darling fronted up in the Commons about a terrible error on his watch as Chancellor in contrast to the SNP’s attitude towards public scrutiny

Our public realm lost two great public servants last week with the deaths of James Douglas-Hamilton and Alistair Darling. Political opponents they may have been, but their commitment to making this country a better place to live in could not be doubted. And while we will miss them, their spirit – the values they embodied – cannot be allowed to perish with them.

I knew Lord James much better than I did Lord Darling. The stories of his aristocratic politeness are legendary. He is best described as ‘a real gentleman’, with great courtesy and a genuine interest in people. This was demonstrated by his kindness to me when I first joined the Scottish Parliament in 2001 as a young and green MSP, and in his role as Conservative chief whip he took me under his wing.

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On one of my first days, he took me to show me the Chamber Desk where motions and questions are lodged. He remembered that the clerk in charge had been on holiday and asked her where she had been. “Norway” was the response. Ah, said Lord James, did you meet the King? Sadly, no, was the response. That’s a pity, said James, we were at school together.

Of course, he had been at Eton with the Crown Prince of Norway, to him it was just normal to ask after an old school friend. There was always a touch of other-worldliness about him, as if he came from a different age, but no one could ever take offence. This was the man who had been a page at the late Queen’s Coronation, and had been in the crowd in Berlin when John Kennedy made his famous speech.

Lord Darling’s belief in public service – and his respect for the public he served – I think are best described by two things. We all knew he was a reluctant leader of the Better Together campaign to keep Scotland within the United Kingdom, but he rightly saw it as his duty and he fulfilled the task with aplomb.

But I also recall an incident when he was Chancellor of the Exchequer that summed up his belief in candour which we cannot allow to die with him. In 2007, a junior official at HMRC broke all the rules in sending two discs containing the details of 25 million taxpayers by unrecorded internal mail. The discs went missing and could not be found.

While in the end no damage was done, Lord Darling fronted up, and told the House of Commons of their loss taking a huge amount of political opprobrium in the process. In these days of redaction of Scottish Government documents that should be made public, this era where ministers delete messages and seem forgetful, it is worth remembering that politicians were not always so.

Health Secretary Michael Matheson has resisted calls to resign over his £11,000 iPad expenses bill (Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)Health Secretary Michael Matheson has resisted calls to resign over his £11,000 iPad expenses bill (Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)
Health Secretary Michael Matheson has resisted calls to resign over his £11,000 iPad expenses bill (Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

The playbook of Lord James, or Lord Darling, is certainly not one that current Scottish Government ministers would recognise. If either of them had, for example, run up an iPad bill of £11,000 over a football match I doubt they would have claimed it from the taxpayer. It is inconceivable that they would have blamed their children for the error. And I suspect they would both still be able to recall which football team they supported, if they had one at all.

Their lives may have passed but their values cannot be allowed to wither. Their commitment to public service cannot be relegated to the standards of our current Scottish Health Secretary, Michael Matheson. They were men of substance for whom the message was important but secondary. Now we have a well-practiced Scottish Government for whom image is all, and substance is illusory.

Having been caught with his fingers in the taxpayers’ cookie jar, Mr Matheson’s defence appears to be to claim martyrdom. He apparently feared what the media would do to his sons. He can sometimes seem tearful which would surely cool his brass neck.

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In this, he appears to be aping his former boss, Nicola Sturgeon, and the strategy she employed when questioned during Covid. If her judgment was ever doubted, the First Minister would become almost emotional, as she deflected criticism by suggesting she was shouldering a burden on behalf of us all that was perhaps too much for us to ask of her.

Michael Matheson bites his lip on behalf of his children, with his hands firmly on their shoulders if a bus should pass. We deserve better standards, and the passing of Lord James and Lord Darling should remind us of what we can have if we have the collective will.

You may have disagreed with them, but no one ever doubted the candour and character of the two men who passed away last week. Neither Lord James nor Lord Darling would have tried to get the taxpayer to pay for their mistakes if they had made those of Michael Matheson. If they had, they would have resigned. If Matheson was their minister, they would surely have demanded his resignation. Their standards cannot be interred with them.

I do not know what kind of job Michael Matheson thinks he is doing as Health Secretary, but he can do something for standards in Scottish public life by resigning. If not, the First Minister could do something which would suggest he was a leader and not just the ‘first activist’ for the pro-independence movement, by sacking him.

In that he would at least nod in the direction of Lord James and Lord Darling by putting the nation’s interest ahead of his own and that of his party.

Murdo Fraser is a Scottish Conservative MSP for Mid-Scotland and Fife



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