I try to post around once a week if I have something to say which might be of interest to others, but having posted earlier today I was driving along under a lovely London sky and heard Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon’s interview on BBC Radio 4’s PM programme (package starts at 33.26, interview at 36.03).
As the interview progressed, it became clear that Sturgeon was turning in one of the best political performances on one of the best radio programmes ever. I say that as a Labour supporter, albeit one who’s belatedly grasping just how good she and her party folk are. It’s for you, then the pundits, to reflect on her words and style. But what I heard moved me across a line of argument in a way I can’t remember being moved by anyone on the radio or telly before (Tony Blair’s every bit as good but I’d have started out on his side in each case anyway).
To anyone who understands a bit about Whitehall, then-Scotland Secretary of State Alistair Carmichael MP was always the obvious source of an election-period government ‘leak’ which set out to damage the SNP, and I tweeted as much – and blogposted – at the time. But then, like everyone else, I turned to other stuff and largely forgot about the incident.
Now, the cabinet secretary – the UK’s most senior civil servant whatever you read to the contrary – has produced a report making it clear what we (at Westminster/Whitehall) knew already. Cue groans of boredom.
Except it isn’t boring at all. And it was the Sturgeon interview on PM which crystallised it all.
I’ve worked with, and still work with, super civil servants who keep their political opinions to themselves while providing properly high-grade advice to their political leaders. Ministers mainly do unheralded good work devoid of base party politics, but sometimes not, and in general their civil servants get to know when the latter applies. That’s all fair game. What clearly happened with Carmichael, though, is that his ‘special’ party-political adviser was briefed in good faith shortly before the purdah period before the election (when civil servants avoid party-politically contentious issues) then told him immediately. That adviser was quite right to do that as he’s party-political and the clue’s in the name. Such advisers work alongside regular civil servants on the basis that the minister will deal with any inappropriate political calls. But Carmichael decided to use what turned out to be an unfair interpretation of a meeting for election advantage anyway.
So what we have is that Carmichael decided to save up a marginally pre-purdah bit of info for purdah – that’s shit to start with since the civil servant who wrote the brief (and accurately questioned whether something hadn’t been ‘lost in translation’) would obviously be personally sullied and professionally grubbied on a technicality. Then Carmichael used the brief during the election in a way which makes it clear that he’s the one who’s leaked it. That’s inept, but he’s a Liberal Democrat, so that’s sort of allowed. But then, and this is what I’d missed, he nakely lied about it.
At a time when the cabinet secretary was convening an inquiry into the whole affair, Carmichael said the first he knew about the memo was when a journalist rang him about it. That was a UK cabinet minister lying to the public. He’s a lawyer – he knows where that leads. As he accepted today, had it been known then it would have been a resigning offence because it was simply dishonest. But it was known then – but only by him because he was lying to everyone else.
Often, the media like to say some politician has resigned from some office or other but this can be meaningless unless it’s contextualised. What matters is that s/he is still a member of the House of Commons (or Lords, but that’s another mental story). Carmichael’s majority at the general election which took place between his lie and the discovery of his lie went from 10000 to 800. If the lie had been known about he’d probably have lost the seat. It really is as simple as that. For my money, and most folk’s I think, his election was wrong. Maybe the Orcadians and Shetlanders feel different, maybe they don’t, but at least they should be given the choice. Carmichael’s culpability is far greater than his terrible letter of today accepting ‘responsibility’ suggests (see link). He’s a lawyer and – I’m sorry to say because he’s otherwise a good man – a liar and that just won’t do. He should call a by-election and throw himself at the feet of his constituents. If he doesn’t, he’ll be remembered as The Great Liar and nothing more. And that would be a shame for a man who could at least recover his name from all of this.
The Sturgeon interview moves from polite acceptance of the apology to fairly pointing out that there is much more to it all. Without a single, even momentary, wobble, she stays on the right line of insistnce without straying into nastiness or, worse, boring ‘superiority’. She puts all the components of a killer argument together at a speed every listener can follow and she concludes by sounding human and decent while crushing the bones of a recent Secretary of State, and fellow-lawyer, beneath her feet. It’s an amazing interview and really worth a listen.
More important, Sturgeon’s performance portrays Scotland as a sovereign state-in-waiting. For now, from the unionist parties so horribly self-satisfied with referendum 2014 there is no reply.
Here’s Heraclea, the original pyrhric victory.