EXCLUSIVE: Fergus Ewing on his suspension from the SNP – 'sadly, minds were made up'
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It was not the best day of my life. Facing a “jury” of ones peers, as the “accused” was an uncomfortable experience. Nearly all the SNP MSPS – about 61 or 62 – attended the committee room 6, to pass judgement on me, or joined on video link.
I had determined to have a lawyer appear for me and for two reasons. First, the circumstances of the vote which led to my being disciplined occurred on the day when I learned that my mother was dying and I did not feel able to put my case involving as it did a reference to the events of that day and the day after – when Winnie passed away.
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Second, as a solicitor myself, I am only too well aware of the maxim: “A lawyer that acts for himself has a fool for his client.”
John Campbell KC, originally hailing from Bonar Bridge, was my lawyer. In the finest traditions of the Scottish Bar he provided professional advocacy of the highest quality, and with unstinting dedication in preparing for the hearing, over the week or so we had to prepare.
Sadly, minds were made up; I suspect before any evidence or argument was led. John argued that I had exercised my conscience and voted for my constituents’ interests. The SNP rules state that one can vote with one’s conscience. And that these included constituency issues.
In the vote in question, a confidence motion, I voted against the minister Lorna Slater, who was in charge of the Deposit Return Scheme (DRS), continuing in office. But It was never about personality, but policy. The DRS scheme had it been implemented, would have been a disaster for Scotland pushing up prices for people , and hammering businesses. Some told me they would have to close.
In his oral submission, John explained to the SNP MSPs that I had had no less than 41 meetings or conference calls with businesses about the DRS – many in the north – and on the day after voting, I was thanked in a letter signed by 171 businesses for the courage in voting with my conscience, my constituents and beliefs.
But the SNP disciplinary rules go on to say that the chief whips’ permission is needed before one can vote on a matter of conscience.
John argued that conscience can never be a matter of permission. “One cannot sub-contract one’s conscience,” he argued. That surely must be correct. Or else we are not a parliament but a group of automatons voting at the behest of party bosses.
However, I did enjoy support from many colleagues, not least my friend and parliamentary neighbour Kate Forbes. That was a source of real comfort.
On the way to the Holyrood committee room, in which the hearing took place, I ran the gauntlet of press and media and gave a statement to them at the end. I often think of the quote from the Prime Minister Arthur Balfour, himself a Scot. He said of political issues: “Nothing matters very much and few things matter at all.”
What happens to me – a suspension from the group for a week – is of no consequence. But what is hugely important is that members of the place we call our Parliament is worthy of the name. And that means that members must, to the best of their ability and experience, represent their constituents and part of Scotland they serve.
On the way in I was ask if I had any regrets. I replied “Je ne regrette rien” the marvellous old song made famous by the great Edith Piaf. I have a clear conscience as I hope I did what was right.
After the ordeal was over, I then received a deluge of messages from all over Scotland, and they were pretty much overwhelmingly supportive. Most people were urging me to carry on speaking out. Be in no doubt: that is exactly what I plan to do, and most especially in the campaign to deliver for the people of the north of Scotland the same safer better road links as the central belt populace take for granted.
I am writing this at my desk in the Holyrood chamber. People think suspension means a ban from Parliament. It does not. It means I cannot attend the group meeting – a hardship I can live with! As I conclude this, I hope to catch the presiding officer’s eye to quiz the First Minister on what is happening to delivery of the pledge to dual the A96 between Smithton and Auldearn, including the Nairn bypass.
Courier readers will be the first to be told.