When the Scottish Parliament’s Presiding Officer indicates that a general election or a by-election is to take place, strict rules apply as to what the government of the day can do. It is pretty simple. Ministers should not use the government machine for party political purposes. These rules are open to interpretation. But in the hands of a politician with only one objective and a subservient civil service frightened to say boo to a goose, there will be trouble.
And so it has come to pass. On 20 June, there was a by-election in Aberdeen following the sad passing of SNP MSP Brian Adam. Guidance was issued across the Scottish Government, its agencies and quangos for the three weeks leading up to polling day. That guidance says civil servants should be aware of specific local announcements or activities that could have a bearing on the by-election campaign. The civil service code requires objectivity and impartiality. Civil servants were reminded that publicity for ministers in Aberdeen would be best deferred until after the by-election.
So far, so sensible. That was the guidance issued to Liberal Democrat and Labour ministers for by-elections between 1999 and 2007. Now consider the record of what happened during the recent Donside by-election. The SNP was defending the seat, but nothing was left to chance and the kitchen sink was thrown at the good people of Aberdeen. Except, it turns out, that the kitchen sink contained more than just euro millions won on the lottery; the sink had taxpayer-funded sweeties inside.
During the by-election, Alex Salmond announced cash for the Piper Alpha memorial garden. In any other three-week period, that would be fine. Why this welcome announcement needed to be made at that time was solely down to the by-election. Salmond then announced money for synthetic football and rugby pitches. He could have done that anywhere in Scotland. Lerwick in my constituency, perhaps, where we need one. But no, during the by-election he chose Aberdeen with full coverage in the local press. Then he made an ill-considered and notably political visit to an Aberdeen school. This was contrary to all the guidance and local authority conventions that exist to protect children from publicity-obsessed politicians during elections.
Three examples therefore of purdah rules being rubbished by the leader of the Scottish Government. That is the precedent set by Salmond in a by-election. It would be a brave Permanent Secretary at the Scottish Government – the senior civil servant in St Andrew’s House – who told him to stop being just another politician and remember he is the First Minister. Now a Holyrood parliamentary committee has said the purdah rules should be enforced during next year’s referendum. Will he and his ministers stick to them? If not then, they must be vigorously called to account. The machinery of government must not be abused.
• Tavish Scott is the Liberal Democrat MSP for Shetland