I almost didn’t blog about this. Search for some key words around the subject and you’ll find little else in the Scottish media about politics today.
But in case you’ve just woken up from a long sleep, this is what it’s about.
Yesterday, in the last Scottish political leaders’ TV debate before the election, Nicola Sturgeon said this about the Labour leader:
Kezia Dugdale told her in private following the Brexit vote that she thought Scottish Labour should drop its opposition to a second independence referendum
(STV’s summary. There’s a clip here with the actual words)
Dugdale immediately refuted the claim and part of the fallout today has been media trawling over who said what in the immediate aftermath of the Brexit referendum and since.
The details of claim and counter-claim don’t concern me here. If readers think that’s less than diligent, doubtless they’ll tell me.
The reaction of part of the media did surprise me. The Spectator’s immediate response (but behind a paywall) was:
Nicola Sturgeon has just kebabed Kezia Dugdale in the STV debate.
This seems to me profoundly wrong and I can only think The Speccie was in more anti-Labour than pro-GB mood at the time.
The real significance of the exchange lies in the words ‘told her in private.’ In private.
Here we have our first minister who has a private conversation with a parliamentary colleague, the leader of another party, and who chooses to reveal a year later what she claims the other participant in the exchange said – two days before an election in which the SNP is forecast to lose seats, a few of them even to Labour.
Do you think this was a spontaneous revelation made in anger or frustration? Sturgeon’s demeanour and the fact that like the other leaders she had copious prompts and notes she referred to throughout the debate (I don’t blame any of them for that by the way) suggest not. Journalists who follow these things said that the SNP almost immediately had background and briefing on the revelation. This was a tactic planned in advance.
The interesting question is, what does this tell us about the SNP and the first minister?
Maybe it tells us that they’re feeling under pressure from Labour in more constituencies than you might think. I’m sure the supposedly flush-with-money SNP (Nicolopter anyone?) has been carrying out plenty of private polling. One that’s public had Labour the other day marginally ahead of the SNP amongst young voters aged 18-24. Ouch.
The bigger thing it tells us is that no politician can have a private conversation with the first minister and expect it to remain private if it suits her immediate political gain. This is pretty disastrous in a democracy and with an electoral system (I mean Holyrood) that forces parties to co-operate and in which the SNP, not for the first time, are a minority government. Even the basic work of making parliament function needs private discussions between parties. Who’s going to risk any honest exchange of views with a member of the SNP government if it’s going to re-appear in future, spun to suit their advantage?
Back in January I set out my hope for Holyrood in 2017. I was sceptical of those many occasions when the party leaders appear in a smiling line-up to promote a good cause. It’s not a love-in, I said, and urged a little less bonhomie, a lot more government from the SNP, and a lot, lot more opposition from other party leaders. I think my plea is still valid. But somehow I think Kezia, Ruth and Willie will have less difficulty now in turning down a photo-opp with the woman who’s happy to report their private conversations on TV.
Oh, and that Spectator headline. I don’t think Sturgeon so much kebabed Kezia Dugdale as thrust the skewer into her own giblets and jumped on the BBQ.
Have a good election.
Footnote. In case ‘Nicolopter’ is too obscure for you, it’s the name given to the helicopter the first minister has been criss-crossing the country in to visit constituencies, presumably those the SNP feel most vulnerable in.