Claim: “The Scottish people are entitled to know why a government that assured us public safety was its sole focus was gaming its push for another independence referendum while the death toll mounted" – Donald Cameron, Tory MSP, January 22

Who is Donald Cameron?

Donald Cameron has been a Tory MSP for the Highlands and Islands region since 2016. He was educated at Harrow and Oxford, and subsequently worked as an advocate. Perhaps his greatest claim to fame is that he is Chief of Clan Cameron.  After university, Cameron worked for a time at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, a US security think tank whose board includes former senior military brass and defence contractors. 

In 2021, Cameron’s Holyrood register of interests revealed he was a non-executive director of an investment company, Edinburgh Worldwide Investment Trust. This second job paid him between £25,000 and £30,000 per annum. He also received between £25,000 and £30,000 per year for his role as non-executive director of Murray Income Trust until he resigned from that company. 

The National:

Mr Cameron's claims 

Donald Cameron was commenting on SNP government minutes from the pandemic period published by the UK Covid public inquiry.  These purport to show – in his and The Telegraph’s interpretation – that the Scottish Government was secretly using the pandemic to further independence at a time of national emergency when many were dying of the new disease. 

Cameron criticised the SNP’s “independence obsession” and “crass constitutional opportunism”.  Some might think that Boris Johnson's claim that Brexit helped the Covid vaccine roll-out is a better example of “constitutional opportunism”, especially in light of the subsequent dire consequences of Brexit for the economy

Donald Cameron went on: “The Scottish people are entitled to know why a government that assured us public safety was its sole focus was gaming its push for another independence referendum while the death toll mounted." 

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But what do the minutes actually say?

In March 2020, at the start of the Covid pandemic, Nicola Sturgeon announced the Scottish Government had “paused” preparations for an independence referendum so it could focus on tackling the crisis.

But now, the UK Covid public inquiry has published “secret minutes” (to use The Telegraph’s loaded phrase) of a Scottish Cabinet meeting on June 30 that year, which says ministers “agreed that consideration be given to restarting work on independence and a referendum”. 

These minutes also say that the case for independence should be updated “with the arguments reflecting the experience of the coronavirus crisis and developments on EU exit".

The Telegraph article notes that on the same day this Cabinet meeting was held, the FM used her daily Covid briefing to argue that anyone who was “trotting out political or constitutional arguments is in the wrong place completely and has found themselves completely lost”. 

In fact, most people would consider it reasonable that a government managing a pandemic might also review how that pandemic is impacting on the future political agenda, which is clearly the case here. At no time did Sturgeon use her daily televised press conferences during the pandemic to argue for independence. Her focus on giving information and reassuring the public won her plaudits compared with the bumbling performance of Boris Johnson. 

The National: Former prime minister Boris Johnson leaves Dorland House in London after giving evidence to the UK Covid-19 Inquiry (Victoria Jones/PA)

What the Scottish Cabinet minutes of June 30 reveal is that “consideration” needed to be given to restarting” work on the referendum. This was some four months after the initial emergency was signalled and, in fact, the first wave of the pandemic appeared to be subsiding. Chancellor Sunak’s “Eat Out to Help Out” scheme was announced just a week after the June Cabinet meeting. The second Covid wave began in September. 

Note also that the Scottish Cabinet minutes also refer explicitly to “developments on EU exit” as a reason to “consider” restarting work on independence. The UK had formally left the EU on January 31. On June 12, Michael Gove announced that the UK would not extend the transition arrangements beyond the end of the year, raising the prospect of a hard Brexit. Clearly the UK Government was involved in Brexit as much as in the pandemic, and this was impacting on Scotland. It is hardly credible this would not be discussed at a Scottish Cabinet. But again, discussing the political agenda – a necessary task – is a very different matter than orchestrating the nuts and bolts of a fresh independence campaign.

In fact, the formal relaunch of the campaign for a second referendum did not take place till June 2022, after the pandemic had abated. The lockdown ended in mid 2021. All remaining restrictions were lifted in Scotland in March 2022. The first white paper on independence – called Independence in the Modern World – was not published till June.

We might also note that there was nothing “secret” about this scheduled Cabinet meeting. Minutes of Cabinet meetings are always published eventually. It strains credulity to imagine the entire Scottish Government would plot a second referendum – having announced they wouldn’t – knowing their duplicity would see the light of day eventually. 

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Tory politicisation of Covid

Donald Cameron’s comments have the air of being faux outrage. When it comes to politicising the Covid pandemic, Mr Cameron might care to look at the record of the new Conservative Foreign Secretary, Lord Cameron of Chipping Norton, who is also giving evidence to the Covid Inquiry.

The National: Foreign Secretary Lord Cameron told the Lords Israel has a responsibility to ensure aid can reach people in Gaza (Lucy North/PA)

After resigning from Parliament, David Cameron became a paid lobbyist for Greensill, a financial services company. In the spring of 2020, shortly before the Scottish Cabinet meeting in question, David Cameron was helping Greensill lobby the Bank of England for a staggering £20 billion in finance. Through April, Cameron lobbied Chancellor Rishi Sunak for Greensill to benefit from a major Treasury subsidy scheme.

In June, he lobbied the Chief Secretary to the Treasury about referring the matter to Prime Minister, Boris Johnson. Reasonable people might question if it was appropriate for an ex-prime minister, in the middle of a pandemic, to send 62 messages to former colleagues pleading for them to help a controversial private business – a business in which he owned stock options. 

Fact check rating: The Lochiel gets one point for his skill in acting outraged, for the Tory media.