​Sturgeon fails to salvage her legacy - Alex Cole-Hamilton

Former first minister Nicola Sturgeon giving evidence to the UK Covid-19 Inquiry hearing at the Edinburgh International Conference CentreFormer first minister Nicola Sturgeon giving evidence to the UK Covid-19 Inquiry hearing at the Edinburgh International Conference Centre
Former first minister Nicola Sturgeon giving evidence to the UK Covid-19 Inquiry hearing at the Edinburgh International Conference Centre
Thursday next week will mark a year to the day since Nicola Sturgeon told a stunned press conference in the drawing room of Bute House of her intention to resign the office of First Minister of Scotland.

I did my best to be generous about her departure. I told TV channels and radio stations, gathering political reaction that day, that, for all the differences we had, for all that she had thankfully failed in her overriding aim to the break-up the United Kingdom, she was respected by allies and opponents alike for offering a voice of calm to people stuck at home at the height of the pandemic. How wrong I was.

The more we hear about what was really going on, the more that respect falls away. To the point where Nicola’s testimony before the UK Covid inquiry last Wednesday represented perhaps her last opportunity to salvage what was left of her legacy, to explain herself to the grieving families of the pandemic.

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Judging by their reaction, and the excoriating editorials in the national press that dissected her performance over the weekend, she failed in that regard.

The inquiry's lawyer, Jamie Dawson KC dismantled her attempts to dissemble and deflect from the pledge she had made both to Channel 4 News and to the Parliament, that she would retain and submit in full, all private messages pertaining to the pandemic, to any future inquiry.

Initially she claimed that she did not conduct government business via WhatsApp. Then that she did, but key decisions would be recorded elsewhere.

It’s clear now that she never had any intention of allowing grieving families an insight into how life and death decisions were taken as she had been deleting her conversations all along.

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Instead, she implied that she had simply misspoken when promising to keep hold of these vital communications. She claims that on entering government in 2007, she’d been strongly advised by civil servants to delete all messages off mobile devices lest they get lost or stolen and compromised.

Here's where I get stuck. In 2020 I served on the Salmond inquiry in the Scottish Parliament. Nicola Sturgeon submitted pages and pages of WhatsApps to our inquiry. These were sent in 2017 between herself and Alex Salmond yet they were retrieved from her only phone – the personal one she told Dawson she routinely deleted her messages from. These messages were of an intensely personal and sensitive nature. I don’t understand how she kept hold of those but deleted everything to do with Covid.The other startling revelation to come out of the inquiry was the existence of Gold Command. A secret central committee made up of Sturgeon’s closest allies, in charge it seems, of almost everything but about which the Finance Secretary knew nothing and of which there are no minutes.

This was a government within a government.

We can never allow a First Minister to evade accountability in this way again. It’s why I’ve insisted that Humza Yousaf instruct a ministerial code inquiry into record keeping by Gold Command.

It’s also why my party are calling on Nicola Sturgeon to come to parliament to give a personal statement and answer questions from MSPs. And it’s why the Information Commissioner is right to launch a formal investigation into the Scottish Government’s use of WhatsApp – something my party first called for six months ago.

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But we need to go much further. We need a legal mechanism to ensure that the decisions of government and the culture and the calculation that underpin them are always open and transparent so that grieving families are never again denied the answers they seek.

Alex Cole-Hamilton MSP is leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats

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