We need to safeguard accountability and transparency in politics - Alex Cole-Hamilton

Ex-US president Richard Nixon admitted his complicity in the Watergate affair in 1974Ex-US president Richard Nixon admitted his complicity in the Watergate affair in 1974
Ex-US president Richard Nixon admitted his complicity in the Watergate affair in 1974
​In 1973, lawyers investigating audio recordings from Richard Nixon’s White House discovered that 18 minutes of tape had been erased.

That key segment had covered a conversation between the President and his Chief of Staff, HR Haldeman which had taken place three nights after the break in and robbery of the Democratic National Committee at the Watergate Hotel. While the release of further tapes finally put paid to Nixon's political career the missing audio means that there will forever be a hole in the public record.

Politicians have sought to cover their tracks since time immemorial and very seldom is anyone brought to account. That has to change.

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Here in Scotland too the erasure of evidence or the fabrication of things that are blatantly untrue is all too commonplace in the corridors of Government.

For instance, it was only this Monday, that the SNP/Green government was forced to admit that a key statistic regularly wheeled out by ministers was built on a lie. That proposition, which they’d been using for years, had suggested Scotland has 25 per cent of Europe’s potential wind power generation.

After months of work by the tireless Sam Taylor from the think tank These Islands as well as journalists and opposition politicians, Scottish ministers finally admitted in a footnote to a letter, in a sheaf of letters, hidden among the papers to a parliamentary committee in September, they tried to sneak out the fact that the real figure is more like 9 per cent.

Indeed. correspondence obtained through freedom of information laws suggests the Economy Secretary Neil Gray concerned was very keen that they not proactively talk about the change. I wonder why.

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This came in the same week that the Health Secretary got into hot water after asserting that Scottish Parliament IT staff had checked his tablet and confirmed his £11k data download bill had been racked up in Morocco on "legitimate parliamentary and government business" when they had done no such thing. This too came hot on the heels of the revelation last week that key WhatsApp messages sent by Nicola Sturgeon and her advisors at the height of the pandemic have been deliberately deleted.

Secrecy, spin and deception now define the Scottish Government, but it's not limited to the SNP. The Conservative government have had a run of liars and chancers at the helm of some of the highest offices of government too. Think of Partygate, the cover up of sexual misconduct, dodgy contracts to mates that rinse the public purse for defective medical equipment.

What both governments also have in common is the rarity with which anyone ever carries the can and has the decency to resign even when they are caught bang to rights.

This is eating away at the very fabric of our democracy. So what's the solution? That’s why in the early days of the next Scottish Parliament, Lib Dems would bring forward Transparency and Accountability Bill. It would Scottish Liberal Democrats want to see a range of measures adopted to restore public confidence in those who govern us.

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It starts with the power for constituents to recall an MSP who has been found guilty of serious wrongdoing, something which already happens in Westminster. We’d beef up requirements on ministers and civil servants to record and retain vital minutes and messages around discussions of government business. We’d also enhance Freedom of Information Laws particularly around contracts and introduce a new rule that would allow MSPs to find the government in contempt of Parliament.

Trust in politicians is vital in any democracy, that’s as true now as it was in Nixon’s time. There may always be charlatans in government, but we can ensure our democratic structures are built to hold them to account.

Alex Cole-Hamilton is Lib-Dem MSP for Edinburgh Western Constituency

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