While the weekly back-and-forth between the First Minister and her questioners took place, as usual, in the debating chamber in Holyrood this week; it was events occurring outside the Scottish Parliament’s imposing grey walls that were at the forefront of the debate. As could have been anticipated from the recent media coverage and general tenor of Scottish politics, the investigation into accusations of sexual abuse by former First Minister, Alex Salmond, very much dominated the first FMQs of 2019.
Scottish Conservative interim leader, Jackson Carlaw, still standing-in for Ruth Davidson, opened proceedings by quizzing Nicola Sturgeon on the extent to which she had been involved in the investigation into her predecessor. The FM remained adamant, even a little indignant, in saying that she had not acted inappropriately and went to great lengths to demonstrate exactly how clean her hands were in the whole affair.
Undaunted, Mr Carlaw continued with this topic throughout his questioning – suggesting that owing to the circumstances surrounding meetings held between Ms Sturgeon, Mr Salmond, and some senior officials that there should be a Holyrood inquiry to the issue. Seeming slightly backed into a corner, Ms Sturgeon attempted to reassure the Eastwood MSP that she would cooperate with whatever Parliament decided was to be done on the issue. The First Minister appeared to rest much of her case on the distinction between her role as the head of the Scottish Government and as leader of the Scottish National Party – a distinction which drew some of Mr Carlaw’s most derisory replies to date.
During her answers to Jackson Carlaw, the First Minster expressed her dismay at feeling as if she were being simultaneously accused of collaborating with and conspiring against the former FM – a sentiment that must have continued throughout her answers to Labour leader, Richard Leonard, who picked up the topic pretty much where his Tory opposite number left it.
Mr Leonard stressed, to much agreement, that it was the women involved in this case who ought to be treated with utmost compassion and dignity and who deserved to see justice done. The Labour boss was also emphatic in his call for an independent inquiry into how the matter has been handled by the Scottish Government as well as stating bluntly that he believed that the First Minister had made a significant “error of judgement” and calling on her to refer herself to the independent scrutinising body at Holyrood which deals with issues relating to the Ministerial Code. Again, Ms Sturgeon reiterated that she would cooperate fully with whatever happens next in this sorry saga.
Away from the issue of Mr Salmond’s on-going court case, questions touched on issues including council funding, ant-Semitism, and employment rights. Also, as part of an emerging pattern, Scottish Liberal Democrat leader, Willie Rennie, was reprimanded by Presiding Officer, Ken Mcintosh, for his almost insulting Education Secretary, John Swinney, via an out of context quote used during one of his questions.
However, these other questions could not distract from the sober and sombre atmosphere that blanketed the usually lively sparring session at Holryood. The amount of attention paid to the Salmond case demonstrates that although the powers of the Scottish Parliament are clearly defined, sometimes it is events outside the EH99 postcode that dictate the political mood and tone in Scotland. If today’s FMQs is anything to go by, it must surely be hoped that the ex-First Minister’s case is handled efficiently and diligently from this point on, the Scottish political mood music of the immediate future may very well depend on it.