Shortly after becoming Prime Minister in 2010, David Cameron came north to meet the First Minister and called for a new relationship between the London and Edinburgh parliaments.
He wanted Westminster and Holyrood to work together for the mutual benefit of the UK and Scotland, he said. He wanted the two governments' ministers to give evidence before each other's committees, he said. He wanted what he called an agenda of respect.
But where is that respect now? As was revealed at Westminster yesterday, a radiation leak was detected in a nuclear submarine test reactor at Dounreay in Caithness in 2012 but Scottish ministers were not told about it until shortly before the Defence Secretary Philip Hammond provided details in the Commons yesterday. To make matters worse, Labour at Westminster was informed of the affair before Scotland's Environment Secretary Richard Lochhead.
Loading article content
Technically, the UK Government did nothing wrong and it can point to the fact defence is a reserved matter, which means there is no legal obligation to inform the Scottish Government. But there is (or there should be) a difference between the letter and the spirit of the law. Mr Cameron said four years ago that he wanted to show respect to the Scottish Government. That must include informing ministers of a matter as important as nuclear safety and security.
But the lack of transparency by the UK Government is more than just a lack of respect for Scottish ministers. It shows a lack of respect for the Scottish people too. After all, they are the ones who bear most of the environmental risk of nuclear reactors located at Dounreay. The UK Government did inform the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (Sepa) of the incident at the plant in 2012, but specifically told the organisation not to make the information more widely known on grounds of security.
If the UK Government had been following the respect agenda, it would have informed Scottish ministers of the incident as well as Sepa, although the reality is that commitment in London to such an agenda has been shaky from the start. Shortly after Mr Cameron's visit to Edinburgh, the UK Government gave Scottish ministers little or no warning of plans to scrap or cut back more than 80 environmental, health and cultural quangos, many of which operated in Scotland.
UK ministers have also been reluctant to appear before MSPs, contrary to Mr Cameron's promise of openness in 2010. Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith and several others have refused to attend committees at Holyrood (Scottish ministers have taken a similar position with Westminster committees).
All of this has undermined the respect agenda and the Dounreay fiasco may have dealt it a fatal blow. Mr Salmond warned in 2010 that the Prime Minister's fine words about respect would have to be followed up by actions. Instead, the UK Government has been caught pursuing an agenda of secrecy.
It must tell us why it has taken so long to make the Dounreay incident public. It must also explain why it has treated Scotland with such disrespect.