Alex Salmond's appearance at the Holyrood harassment complaints committee on Friday was a breath of fresh air. It was a bravura performance, and a marathon one, from a man with a serious health condition putting him at particular risk in these coronavirus times. Political pundits, and not a few others, now await what First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has to say to the committee this week.
The drama may seem to lie in the personalities involved but that is not what really matters. Mr Salmond said it was leadership rather than our institutions themselves that had manifestly failed. I would, however, contest this. That the role of lord advocate combines being both head of the prosecution service and chief legal advisor to the Scottish Government is indisputably an anachronism, embodying as it does a fundamental conflict of interest that cannot be acceptable in a functioning democracy. Who cares how old the post is?
The Civil Service in Scotland appears at best grossly incompetent at its most senior level, and that can hardly come down to the performance of just one person. The blocking of evidence to a parliamentary committee simply should not be happening, but it has happened, even to the extent of the government refusing to publish legal advice that is at the heart of what this inquiry was set up to examine. The tabling of a vote of no confidence now in prospect is remedy to that, and quite remarkable in being required due to ministerial intransigence in light of previous assurances.
In such a diverse country as Scotland, the SNP's centralisation of the police into a single force, with one chief constable, removed a whole layer of regional accountability to boards consisting of councillors rather than government appointees. Councils controlled half the police budget, so had to be taken heed of. The many NHS Scotland boards are dominated by salaried appointees with no democratic mandate, and the whole organisation looks cumbersome and bureaucratic. Education secretary, John Swinney, sought to remove control of that from councils and give it to similarly unelected bodies but was forced to withdraw the proposal.
In terms of their stated performance targets, neither the NHS nor state schools are performing satisfactorily in Scotland. Although Ms Sturgeon asked to be judged specifically on her government's handling of educational achievement, I doubt this failure can solely be the fault of the ministers, but is symptomatic of structural institutional failure. While poor leadership may be a factor, the structure of any organisation plays a large part in creating its culture and ability to perform. De-democratising control and accountability at local level is a strange way for a supposedly 'progressive' government to seek to act, and is entirely at odds with the EU's ethos of subsidiarity.
Mr Salmond referred to powers the parliamentary inquiry committee held and indicated routes for these to be applied, including a very straightforward procedure that should allow his solicitors to provide essential evidence. Likewise, as a former First Minister who led groundbreaking administrations, he is doubtless much more aware than many seem to be as to what reforming powers the Scottish Parliament has, and the mechanisms available to it to implement fundamental change within institutional Scotland. These could be used to enhance effective democratic accountability and potentially turbo-charge frontline service delivery.
I look forward to reading the detailed manifesto proposals of the contending candidates and parties in the forthcoming Holyrood election, particularly on this topic. The election is surely all about the kind of Scotland we seek to live in; the rights, privileges and responsibilities we may hold as citizens, and also the accountability of our public institutions and the people who lead them.
If you would like to contribute to the Cafe, please email your comments to firstname.lastname@example.org