In 2001, in a last attempt to persuade people that he wasn’t corrupt over a minor paperwork error around his constituency office, Henry McLeish told the Scottish Parliament that the mistake was “a muddle, not a fiddle”. Literally everyone in Scottish politics agreed with him – it really was small error, not corruption. Yet he was forced out of power anyway.
This paperwork error involved a few thousand pounds accidentally double-claimed over office expenses. The scandals surrounding the Scottish Government just now make this error seem even more trivial than it seemed at the time. We need some kind of framework to help us understand the implications of these scandals.
So, to entertain you over a bank holiday weekend, let’s play ‘Fiddle or Muddle’. I’ll provide you with three cases of massive government failure and you get to decide whether it is an honest error or whether something else may be going on.
But before we play, some rules. The first rule is simple; you must accept that different people have different jobs. For example, it is not the job of a politician to take minutes of meetings. That is the job of the civil service – which has not been ‘in power’ for 15 years and so is not just so terribly tired that it is inevitable that enormous mistakes are made.
When it is revealed that the Scottish Government could not provide a single written piece of internal advice about Covid from December 20019 to mid-April, that fault lies with the civil service (though it is inexplicable that the politicians didn’t ask for any). If minutes aren’t taken it’s the diary secretary’s fault for making sure that all relevant meetings have a minute-taker in them.
So rule number one – you are not allowed to provide a defence of ‘oh, they were all really tired and awfully busy so errors were inevitable’. There are 50,000 civil servants in Scotland to make sure that this problem does not arise.
Next, it is very widely known that nothing substantial happens in the Scottish Government without the First Minister’s say-so. The idea a Cabinet Secretary (never mind a Junior Minister) would overrule legal advice without checking with the First Minister is absurd.
So rule number two – ‘plausible deniability’ isn’t plausible here. These are not minor matters, these are big-assed, major decisions with significant ramifications which were not dropped on the desk of some junior politician or mid-level civil servant.
Then there is frequency. Our game today involves only three case studies, but it would have been possible to pick from among many dozens of examples where the Scottish Government (or its agencies) has sought to prevent accurate information appearing or have provided inaccurate information, always when a bad news story is involved.
So the third rule is simple – you’re not allowed to use the defence ‘these things happen occasionally so there’s nothing to see here’ and certainly not ‘this happened two years ago so move along’ when it has taken two years to squeeze the information out of them.
Finally, it is worth being aware of the academic literature around corruption (different authors use different terminology but the idea is the same). You may be aware of ‘transactional corruption’ (breaking the rules in return for some kind of personal benefit), but you should also be aware of ‘legalised corruption’ (where an act that would usually be considered corrupt is legislated for and so institutionalised) and ‘systemic corruption’ (where an action may fall just on one side of the law or the other but the intent is one that would clearly be considered corrupt).
Taking cash in brown paper envelopes is the first kind, the UK’s corporate tax laws are the second and a property developed cutting down a tree with a preservation order because it knows the fine will be significantly less than the extra value unlocked by cutting down the tree is the third.
That’s the last rule – you’re not allowed to claim something isn’t corrupt on the basis that no-one accepted a bribe or necessarily broke the law. It could still be corrupt.
But to help you out you also get three bonus card. You can play one of your bonus cards any time you feel under particularly pressure and it will get you out of your predicament. Card one is known as ‘The Blair Card’ – you can say ‘hey, look, this may look dodgy but I’m a pretty straight sort of guy/gal and so you can trust me’.
The second bonus card is ‘The Hypocrite Card’ – you can get your researchers to find an example of the person who is accusing you having done something wrong in the past, call them a hypocrite and then refuse to answer the question. Bonus card three is ‘The Crocodile Card’ – if in real trouble you can start crying and tell everyone how hard this has been on you and explain that you’re the real victim here.
So, with those rules in place, let’s play. Oh, hold on, you played all your bonus cards back before the end of 2017 and so now you don’t have any left other than throwing your colleagues under a bus (goodbye Derek, oh dear Ivan, look behind you Jeanne).
Round One: I totally forgot I met the complainant
You are running a high-profile inquiry into a political opponent (in the same party as you but nonetheless an opponent). You have access to people who may make a complaint against your opponent so you send your ‘Head of People’ to meet them (this is a real job and not to be mistaken with the ‘Head of Various Animals’, the ‘Head of Lettuce’ or the ‘Head them Off At the Pass’ which are quite different departments).
The Head of People meets the potential complainants more than once which means they cannot be the person appointed to investigate the complaints according to your own rules. But you totally forgot that meeting happened and so accidentally appoint them to investigate the complaints anyway.
Later on your political opponent takes legal action claiming your inquiry was illegal and you are required to provide all appropriate documentation. But not only did you forget that your Head of People had prior contact, now for the life of you you can’t place your hands on the paperwork that reveals this.
In fact months go past and you can’t find the paperwork which proves the inquiry was not legal – despite the person concerned still being closely involved in the whole process and so being easily able to explain that your inquiry was indeed illegal. So you don’t let your opponent have the relevant documentation that would (and eventually does) enable him to win the case.
Your clearly-disgruntled lawyer finds the relevant paperwork and warns you to pull out of the case. You decline. You lose the case. There is a subsequent inquiry into your own inquiry but no-one offers a plausible explanation of how your Head of People managed to forget the initial meetings or how you managed to completely lose the written evidence that this had happened which would condemn you to legal defeat.
It’s decision time. Did the smoking gun simply fall down the back of the sofa where no-one could reasonably be expected to find it and is it reasonable your massively-well-paid HR chief can’t remember what she did in a sensitive and high-profile case six months ago? Or was the smoking gun thrown into the Clyde deliberately where it was hoped it wouldn’t accidentally be dredged up?
Over to you – Fiddle or Muddle?
Round Two: who knew Covid was contagious?
A terrible disease breaks out and you’re in charge of not killing people. Six weeks earlier the World Health Organisation has provided unequivocal advice that this new disease appears to be able to spread from people who don’t show symptoms. This advice is also repeated by the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies. So you yourself, your government, also issues that advice.
Meanwhile the evidence that people who do have symptoms or definitely do have the disease can pass it on to others is pretty well known by, like, absolutely everyone. You yourself know this because you covered up a case where one man infected 26 other people in a hotel in Edinburgh.
So now you’ve got a potential hospital bed shortage and you decide to take immediate measures. This involves you sending 3,000 vulnerable people into care homes without checking whether they had the disease or not – but since you’re all-in on this you decide to send another 75 people who actually did have the disease into these closed environments filled with society’s most vulnerable because, you know, what the heck.
But your first step is to destroy traces of the guidance under which this was done. Your second was effectively to suspend Freedom of Information laws. Your third was to refuse to answer FoI questions anyway. Your fourth was to have one of your public agencies issue misleading analysis which implied you hadn’t done anything wrong which it then had to withdraw because it wasn’t true. You’re fifth is to claim you didn’t know about asymptomatic transmission.
Round two is particularly complicated because it was a really confusing and stressful time for everyone and making the right decisions wasn’t always easy – so you get bonus points to mitigate for that. However you also lose all those bonus points again for patently lying about asymptomatic transmission.
It’s decision time again – we can all agree that sending those elderly people into care homes without checking wether they’d kill everyone was a bad mistake and it increasingly looks like that is a criminal action. In that context, what happens next?
Did you need to be the only government in the world suspending Freedom of Information provision? Was withholding data on care homes perfectly reasonable to protect the commercial interest of the private sector care homes involved (the reason given but overturned by the Information Commissioner)? Is issuing inaccurate public health reports which distort the facts to appear to exonerate you ‘just the kind of thing that happens sometimes’? Or did you do everything in your power to hide a criminal act from public view?
Over to you – Fiddle or Muddle?
Round Three: lifejackets are for scaredy-cats
You run the government on part of an island and your bit of the island has lots of its own islands – so you’re going to need boats. Your country used to make boats and making more of them sounds like a good idea, so you become determined to get your boats made here.
This has some problems though because the guy who is going to make your boats for you is setting up the whole show almost from scratch and he can’t provide you with the usual guarantees that if it all goes wrong, he’ll take the hit. But you appear to be in a break-neck rush to get this agreed for some reason or other so want to tank on anyway.
This gives you some problems because at least one of your agencies is telling you it isn’t happy with not getting the guarantee. It is totally happy with commissioning a bespoke, experimental boat against all the advice it got from actual boat experts which is why the boat-making bit goes disastrously wrong. This may even be why they’re so keen on a guarantee – but your mind is made up.
So someone is going to have to provide official go-ahead to sign the contract or it won’t be ready to announce in time for whatever it is that you’re in a break-neck rush to get it signed for. And that means you need official agreement to overrule the concerns of the lead agency – but overrule it you do.
Sadly, it all goes tits-up just like everyone was warning you it would and you’re going to lose all your money because you overruled the advice to make sure you had a financial life-jacket. This means a respected auditor needs to dig his way through the whole damned mess to work out what happened. But hold on, what’s this? There’s paperwork galore but not the bit that shows who did the overruling or why. It is totally missing.
This would very possible end the career of whomever it was that made the final decision to overrule, but the paperwork is only missing because the decision was never recorded in the first place, or possibly because it was accidentally destroyed somehow, or it is possibly just lost somewhere. I mean, who ever really knows these things?
Which brings us to decision-time again. Did this piece of evidence that may well prove fatal were it to turn up never exist by accident, or did it once exist and then it accidentally didn’t, or does it still exist but accidentally it’s in the wrong place and you can’t find it? Or was it perhaps destroyed to save the neck of whomever it was that gave the final decision to overrule?
Over to you – Fiddle or Muddle?
Bonus Quick Fire Round
You accidentally forget to record never mind minute a meeting with a dodgy financier who promises lots of jobs if you underwrite his aluminium business for an eye-watering sum. The financiers involved turn out to be crooks, the aluminium guy doesn’t create the jobs and you then spend two years refusing to hand over the information even though there is documentary evidence that you definitely knew you were required to hand the information over. Fiddle or Muddle?
You give an accounting corporation loadsa money to design a National Care Service despite the fact that this corporation is too corrupt even for the Westminster Government who bans it from such jobs a couple of weeks after you give the contract. When someone tries to find out whether you knew it was going to be banned you try and hide absolutely everything. Fiddle or Muddle.
Someone from a big corporation stays at the hotel owned by another big corporation, is the first person in Scotland to have Covid and then infects another 26 people with this very contagious virus. You personally overrule your own officials and instigate a cover up, refuse to let the public know Covid is in Scotland and a couple of days later permit a full rugby stadium of people who don’t know the virus is here. You claim it wasn’t corporate pressure that lead to the cover up but something to do with patient confidentiality. Fiddle or Muddle.
To the scores…
And so we reach the end of our game. If you scored mostly ‘muddle’ and believe the Scottish Government is always sincere when it says ‘lessons will be learned’, hang around for next week’s quiz ‘Is This Government Fundamentally Incompetent and Have You Ever Seen So Many Mistakes Piled On Top Of Each Other Since Mr Bean’. And buy my secondhand car.
If you scored mostly ‘fiddle’ and incline to think that when the Scottish Government says it will ‘learn the lessons’ it actually means ‘fuck off and don’t waste my time with your piddling accountability plebs’ wait by the door – the Procurator Fiscal will be round shortly.