Michael Matheson's iPad expenses claim reveals how SNP ministers' expect not to be held to account – Brian Wilson
Allow me to surprise readers by not calling on Michael Matheson to resign. This is purely on the grounds that if he can’t work it out for himself, he is unlikely to accept advice from me. There is really only one question to answer. Could the Health Secretary conceivably have believed it was legitimate to claim £10,935.74 for his iPad expenses in Morocco, however accrued?
If the answer is in the negative, then all the rest – children, football matches, outdated SIM cards etc – is irrelevant. I find it baffling that Mr Matheson ever thought otherwise or doubted that the public would reach the same conclusion. Stumping up 11 grand when the bill came in would doubtless have been inconvenient, but the matter would have been done and dusted in private. The alternative he opted for was to have this hanging over him for ten months, in the certainty it would become public. Baffling, indeed.
The only explanation should be filed under “we can get away with anything” – the prevailing mantra through the years Mr Matheson has held office. He failed to recognise the possibility that the political climate has now changed, at Holyrood as at Westminster.
Nobody has benefited more from the conceit of entitled untouchability than Humza Yousaf and this was reflected in his responses to the Matheson episode. “For me, the matter is now closed,” he declared loftily. A “line has been drawn”, further questions would be a “distraction” and other tired clichés.
All straight out of the Sturgeon playbook but it doesn’t work for Mr Yousaf. He has no unilateral right to declare when matters are closed or lines have been drawn. And frankly, given the available evidence, it was foolish and doomed to pretend otherwise. He is further diminished as a result.
The Matheson affair is disproportionately damaging because everyone can understand it. By comparison, another piece of deception which was confirmed this week is dryer stuff but actually more telling as a guide to how government from Edinburgh has operated.
For more than a decade, the SNP has knowingly persisted in a straightforward lie about our share of the UK’s and Europe’s renewable energy resources, emboldened by the assumption that nobody would ever take the trouble to call it out. The repeated claim that Scotland has 25 per cent of Europe’s windpower resources was maintained for purely political purposes, to build a false narrative of energy self-sufficiency as part of the wider economic case for independence.
It started as political bluster from Alex Salmond, which was harmless enough, but was gradually incorporated into official publications, including the 2014 independence White Paper and right up to recent months. The politicised Scottish civil service allowed it to happen although the authors of this fiction knew it was wildly untrue.
For years, the claim appeared in every piece of SNP literature and cascaded down through their myriad letter-writers and social media posters. In March 2022, the then Cabinet Secretary for Finance, Kate Forbes, published a National Strategy for Economic Transformation which blithely asserted that Scotland possessed “a quarter of Europe’s wind potential”.
Finally, this week, reality emerged despite the Scottish Government’s best efforts to prevent it. Resistant to the last, the Cabinet Secretary, Neil Gray, according to an internal email on his behalf, protested that “the narrative works well and the stats are both useful and impressive”. The fact they were also untrue did not apparently present a problem.
Mr Gray was “not sure we need to draw further attention to the issue with a letter to the committee unless we are committed to publicise our update”. He was advised that such a commitment had indeed been given (by Michael Matheson in a previous incarnation, as it happens).
The information was then buried in an annexe to a letter from Mr Gray to the chairman of a Holyrood committee. Instead of 25 per cent, the bogus figure used in official publications and repeated over and over again in Parliament, as well as in SNP propaganda, for at least 14 years, the “updated” one is 6.8 per cent.
All this has come out through the dogged persistence of a pro-Union research organisation, These Islands, over a period of years, after it cottoned onto the false claim. Every minister who used it thereafter was misleading the Scottish public and, in many specific cases, the Scottish Parliament. Why? Because they could.
To date, Scotland has failed lamentably to create a substantial renewables industry based on our undoubted potential and the actual delivery of thousands of onshore turbines. It remains to be seen whether the far larger opportunity of offshore wind produces commensurate results.
At least part of the problem has been that boasts about potential have been used as a substitute for the delivery of outcomes. The false narrative of energy self-sufficiency has become a political tool while the actual need was for maximum cooperation with the rest of the UK, which is the essential market for most of what our renewables will generate (just as it has been for our nuclear power).
The alternative approach would have been to start from the truthful proposition: “Scotland is well endowed with renewable energy resources, particularly offshore wind, and we must put every shoulder to the wheel in order to maximise economic and industrial benefit for our people."
Instead, they persisted in stupid, false claims because “the narrative works well” for political purposes and formed the basis for conflict with the rest of the UK, while all common sense pointed to the maximisation of cooperation. When Mr Matheson and his iPad bill are long forgotten, Scotland will still be recovering from a form of government which brazenly relied on never being held to account. These days are past now and, hopefully, in the past they must remain.
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