When Nicola Sturgeon failed the UK Covid inquiry, she was accused of shedding crocodile tears. They seemed real enough to me, brought on by her motives being questioned and seeing what was left of her estate drained away under Jamie Dawson KC’s interrogation.
The former prime minister was willing to admit errors of judgment. What she could not accept was that she had ever acted other than what she believed was in the best interests of the people of Scotland.
This may be true. Sturgeon has long had the air of a Sunday school teacher, driven by civic duty and the urge to shoulder the burdens of the world. But what her appearance before the inquiry exposed was the hubris underlying that sense of moral purpose. Sturgeon was convinced that she, and she alone, was capable of effective decision-making. Her sleepless nights were less a testament to her dedication than a testament to her inability to delegate, which was the hallmark of her leadership and the opposite of good governance.
Sturgeon’s control freak manifested itself in organizing ‘gold command’ meetings to which only a select few were invited. This cabal did not include Treasury Secretary Kate Forbes in 2020, even when the economic impact of a potential circuit breaker was in question.
It was also visible in the deletion of her WhatsApp messages. We know that Sturgeon called Boris Johnson ‘a bloody clown’, a sentiment that few north of the border would disagree with. But despite all their differences, she and her English colleague had in common an unwavering confidence in their own judgment. Sturgeon told Dawson it did not matter that the inquiry could not investigate her messages because all “salient” information had been transferred to the “company file”. But the issue of salience is subjective. This also applies to the parameters of the decision-making process. Some WhatsApp messages from other sources have shed light on the power dynamics that formed the backdrop to the decision-making. We’ll never find out what the others revealed.
That the Scottish Government had a problem with transparency is not news to anyone who has struggled to obtain information through a Freedom of Information request; or who followed the parliamentary inquiry into the handling of harassment complaints against Alex Salmond, when documents had to be handed over.
The Covid research suggests the pandemic has consolidated that culture. If the banter between Ken ‘plausible deniability’ Thomson, the Scottish Government’s then director general for strategy and external affairs, and Jason Leitch, Scotland’s national clinical director, was anything, it was a source of amusement indeed. When Thomson wrote in a WhatsApp message seen by the investigation: “The information you request is not held centrally,” he sent the stock phrase used to keep details out of the public domain.
Sturgeon dismissed the conversation as a “light-hearted” discussion. But what about the fact that the “gold command” meetings were not recorded? When questioned by Dawson, Sturgeon denied that these meetings were a way to circumvent the Cabinet. But without a paper trail, who knows?
Sturgeon’s secrecy is doubly shocking when set against the apparent spirit of openness in which her public briefings were held. Day after day she stood on the podium at St. Andrew’s House and set out the thoughts of her government. Her clarity contrasted favorably with Johnson’s incoherence, and her approval ratings skyrocketed. But by the time she promised Channel 4 journalist Ciaran Jenkins that she would hand over all her WhatsApp messages to future investigations, she had already deleted them. No wonder the relatives feel betrayed.
Less convincing were Dawson’s attempts to show that Sturgeon had used the pandemic to advance the cause of independence. When he characterized her departure from British policy as politically grandiose, she pointed out that the British government was often the outlier, with the three devolved countries on the same page. When he accused her of “jumping the gun” by announcing a ban on mass gatherings for Johnson, she insisted her only regret was not doing it sooner.
Related: Nicola Sturgeon at the Covid inquiry: alternately defensive, legal and very raw
Dawson wouldn’t stop. He asked Sturgeon about the minutes in which Cabinet agreed that “consideration should be given to resuming work on independence”. She may have said that, but in fact that work had not yet resumed. He showed her an email in which former Deputy First Minister John Swinney appeared to suggest that failure to relax quarantine rules for those returning from Spain could lead to Spain blocking Scotland’s entry into the EU in the event of independence. This argument was so bizarre that it was hard to believe Swinney would ever have made it. And indeed, the Scottish government later claimed it was written by a civil servant.
Dawson went on and on, until the interrogation itself started to feel politicized. He did not address one of the most pressing issues: the release of untested hospital patients to care homes. That was left to Kevin McCaffrey, representative of the Scottish Covid Bereaved Group. Sturgeon answered as best she could, which is to say inadequately. But how difficult it must have been in those early stages to chart a course through all the conflicting evidence and advice. And how difficult – four years later – to account for your decisions in an adversarial process that at times seemed less interested in learning lessons than in taking down politicians.
There’s no excuse for Sturgeon’s “industrial scale” takedown of WhatsApp, but it was still possible to sympathize with her when she said – through tears – that she sometimes wished she hadn’t been prime minister when Covid struck. Not so long ago, it seemed that her handling of the crisis would be the culmination of a glittering political career. But if this study has shown one thing, it’s that leading the country through the pandemic was an impossible task, with nothing but shame at the end.
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