Orcadian Column, 2 November 2023

2 Nov 2023

Full disclosure: as President of East United FC, I struggle to manage the torrent of messages flooding in on the club’s various WhatsApp group chats. As so often, technology that promises to save time and make life easier succeeds in doing neither.

I suspect the First Minister harbours a similarly dim view of WhatsApp given the controversy now engulfing his government over its use of the messaging app during the recent pandemic. This latest ‘crisis’ was ignited by comments from Jamie Dawson KC, legal counsel to the UK Covid Inquiry, who criticised the Scottish Government’s failure to provide WhatsApp exchanges involving key figures, such as Nicola Sturgeon, John Swinney, Humza Yousaf and Jeane Freeman.

The Deputy First Minister, Shona Robison will make a statement to parliament this week in the hope of clearing up the government’s position, but with new questions emerging by the hour, she has her work cut out.

It already seems clear Nicola Sturgeon has deleted much of her WhatsApp ‘history’, despite assuring parliament back in 2020 that a public inquiry would follow in the aftermath of the pandemic. Her unequivocal response at a press conference in 2021 to a question about whether she’d make available all relevant information to such an inquiry provides an awkward contrast with recent events and has gone viral.

Her successor now appears ready to throw her under the bus. In an interview on Monday, Mr Yousaf undertook to make available all his WhatsApp messages but that it would be up to the former First Minister to do likewise or explain why not. Ouch!

Mr Yousaf has sought to downplay things by arguing Scottish Ministers do not ‘routinely’ make decisions via WhatsApp. However, as we have seen to devastating effect in confirming the UK government’s chaotic handling of Covid, such messages reveal the mindset of the protagonists involved. They are crucial in explaining the ‘why’ behind ministerial actions, for example, the decision to move infected patients from hospitals directly into care homes.

The auto-delete function used by Scottish Ministers for WhatsApp messages is something Mr Yousaf probably wishes he could deploy with his former ministerial colleague and leadership rival, Ash Regan. Her defection to Alba comes a fortnight after he lost one of his SNP MPs to the Tories and a crushing defeat to Labour in the Rutherglen byelection.

Mr Yousaf may be right to insist that Ms Regan is ‘no great loss’ to his party, but she secured 11% of the vote in the leadership contest and was an SNP minister until March this year. It does just reinforce the sense of irreconcilable divisions within the SNP.

Divisions are also emerging within and across parties in relation to the horrendous events unfolding in Gaza following the barbaric attacks by Hamas militants on Israeli civilians on 7 October. The start of the Israeli Defence Force’s ground offensive in Gaza has seen a growing unease at the mounting scale of civilian casualties and devastating impact of the continued bombardment and blockade on the territory.

Calls for ‘pauses’ to allow more humanitarian assistance to be provided have been replaced in many quarters by ever stronger demands for a ceasefire. On this question, tensions within the Labour party are particularly acute, with Scottish leader, Anas Sarwar now at odds with Sir Keir Starmer in supporting a ceasefire.

More significantly, President Biden’s administration appears increasingly nervous about the effect Israeli actions in Gaza are having on global public opinion and the risk of the conflict spreading more widely. This has resulted in greater effort going into opening-up routes for more food, water and medicine to be brought into the territory, but this remains woefully inadequate in meeting the overwhelming need. All the time, ongoing destruction of housing, hospitals and infrastructure makes the plight of the two million souls left trapped in Gaza ever more desperate.

Destroying Hamas is obviously now the IDF’s number one priority, higher even than securing the release of 240 hostages still held captive in Gaza. That offers no insight into what then follows that might lay the foundations for breaking the cycle of violence and hold out a realistic prospect of achieving a lasting peace for Israelis and Palestinians alike.

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