It is a cliché – and a truism – in politics that it is the cover-up that gets you rather than the original offence. To that extent, we could possibly just sit back and enjoy the consequences of Humza Yousaf trying to cover up how he misled Holyrood on Scotland’s energy resources. But the problem is the others he has dragged into the affair – our supposedly impartial civil service.
On June 22, the First Minister told the Scottish Parliament that Scotland has “the majority of the renewables and natural resources” in the UK. That is simply untrue. Beyond hyperbole.
Now he could have been forgiven for just getting a bit carried away as a new First Minister who still could not believe his luck. He could have just apologised when he found out his mistake. But he decided he was not for apologising for patent errors of judgment.
Thanks to the dogged commitment of my colleague Liam Kerr MSP and freedom of information requests from the pro-UK group These Islands, we know what happened next. The First Minister’s officials told him that the figure was inaccurate. The true position is that Scotland has just over a quarter of the UK’s renewable resources.
But, extraordinarily, instead of setting the record straight there and then, it would appear that Scottish civil servants set out to find a calculation they had not previously attempted, to make it appear that the First Minister was telling the truth. They eventually fixed on a term I still cannot quite come to grips with, mainly because it means nothing.
Apparently, Scotland has the majority of renewable resources “per capita”. Wait, what? The official record was then changed not to reflect the truth but to deepen the fiction. Whatever this incident represents, it is clear that the Scottish civil service does not see its role as speaking truth to power. Either voluntarily – or under severe political pressure – they have become party political.
That has appalling implications for all of us. The role of the civil service is to provide free, frank and impartial advice to ministers and then to carry out the policies of the elected government within that context. Mr Yousaf continually tells us that his government has different standards from Westminster. This incident proves it does. They are far lower.
The discomfort of Downing Street civil servants with Boris Johnson during ‘Partygate’ has been obvious for a while. Now Laura Kuenssberg’s BBC documentary series State of Chaos is highlighting the civil service’s fears that their impartial role was being undermined. In Scotland, it would appear – I fear – that our civil service has no such qualms.
In this, Mr Yousaf truly is the continuity candidate following on from Nicola Sturgeon. It was completely untrue, for example, when she said that 100 per cent of Scotland’s electricity comes from renewable sources, but she kept on saying it. And, just like her, he is prepared to dump 986kg of carbon dioxide going to a conference in New York when he has nothing to do with climate negotiations, and Scotland consistently fails to meet the emission targets the Scottish Parliament set out in law. But there will be a chance for selfies.
Now in this country, we have never had an SNP First Minister who has not been interviewed by Police Scotland. But standards seem to sinking even further. Alex Salmond is a man I neither like nor admire, but when he misled Holyrood over college funding figures a decade ago at First Minister’s Questions at noon, he came back at 5pm to apologise to the Scottish Parliament.
Doubtless, his civil servants found the incident more than uncomfortable given the man’s temperament, but as far as I am aware they were not asked to come up with a method of making the wrong figures right. I would suggest to Mr Yousaf that when you find your standards of truth falling below those of Mr Salmond – who told us he had legal advice on joining the EU when he had none, for example – he has a profound problem.
Considering the mess the SNP has made of a series of policies – from named persons to gender recognition to building ferries – a serious First Minister would want serious officials around them prepared to challenge them and tell them the truth.
You would think that someone with a modicum of self-awareness would take on board the criticism of his colleague Kate Forbes that he has failed at every department he has ever been in charge of and want strong-minded officials to guide him to be better. Instead, the evidence suggests the opposite is true. Our First Minister appears to think that a good civil servant is one who can make a falsehood appear to be the truth.
A strong, impartial civil service is a vital part of our democratic system. Ministers have to be challenged not just by parliamentarians but by policy specialists. If that is eroded, if party political issues and national needs are seen as one, then our democracy ceases to function.
This goes way beyond the controversy of public money being spent for civil servants to provide the SNP with campaigning documents in favour of independence for a referendum we all know the country doesn’t want and isn’t going to happen. Now, just months into the First Minister’s tenure, it would appear he believes that the role of the civil service is to justify whatever he says no matter how inaccurate or ignorant it is.
There is nothing wrong with the record being amended when someone makes a mistake. But you cannot manufacture truth. That is not the First Minister’s role – nor should it be the role of his officials.
Murdo Fraser is a Scottish Conservative MSP for Mid-Scotland and Fife