This article appears as part of the Unspun: Scottish Politics newsletter.

I’ve been thinking about the long-forgotten row over Alex Salmond’s dentist. I imagine it happened something like this.

- Hood hu hike hickets to Hunhig?
- Pardon me?
- Hunhig!
- You can close your mouth, Mr Salmond.
- I said, do you and your wife fancy tickets to Runrig? We’re having dinner at Scone Palace before the concert. 
- Um…
- The Solicitor General will be there.
- All right, First Minister. Thanks. I guess.

Of course, we don’t know exactly how the exchange went, but we do know that in 2009, the then first minister did indeed invite his dentist and his wife to join him at the taxpayers’ expense at a “Year of Homecoming” dinner and Runrig concert in Perth.

We also know that, a week after getting root canal work, Mr Salmond previously got the pair into the Royal Box at the Edinburgh Military Tattoo before a late supper at Bute House with Commons Speaker Michael Martin.

“Why he invites me, I don’t know,” the bemused driller admitted at the time. 

Inevitably dubbed ‘Col-gate’, it was a curious tale, faintly ridiculous yet also illuminating.

It came about because I noticed Mr Salmond’s official car records included periodic trips from Bute House to the other side of the New Town.

A quick check revealed a dental surgery. Having noted the name, it later jumped out from his official hospitality records.

The sums weren’t big, but it did suggest a rather casual attitude to public funds.

The Herald: Former first minister Alex Salmond's dentist and his wife were treated to a concert by celtic rock band Runrig on the taxpayers' behalfFormer first minister Alex Salmond's dentist and his wife were treated to a concert by celtic rock band Runrig on the taxpayers' behalf (Image: Newsquest)

The reason the story comes to mind this week is the row over the Scottish Government’s bank card spending.

Details have emerged of almost 60,000 purchases totalling £14m between 2019 and 2022.

Individually, most are modest, dull and readily justified.

But some smack of that same cavalier approach to your money and mine.

Civil servants spent £32,995 on various away days, including one to a massive pub.

Bowling, pottery lessons and yoga classes also featured on the eyebrow-raising list.

Nearly £10,000 was spent on VIP airport services for Nicola Sturgeon and her staff such as fast-track security and exclusive lounges in the UK and abroad. 

The Scottish Government publishes monthly summaries of spending above £500 on these “procurement cards”, but many of the iffy items we learned about fell below that threshold.

The summaries are also opaque, with generic labels on spending and the names of any ministers involved omitted.

Humza Yousaf has now ordered his most senior official, the permanent secretary John-Paul Marks, to check if the rules on this spending are “robust” enough.

I have a couple of suggestions.  

The story of Mr Salmond’s dentist came about because transparency was very often greater in the early days of the SNP’s reign than it is now.

Mr Salmond’s car trips were public. Under Ms Sturgeon that stopped and the First Minister’s were made secret on nebulous security grounds.

That may or may not change, but the lesson is that transparency works. 

After it appeared in the press, Mr Salmond’s state-backed largesse towards dentists and other random acquaintances dried up, just as lavish spending on his Council of Economic Advisers did when it was exposed.

If Mr Yousaf and Mr Marks want a robust system they should subject the spending by civil servants to maximum scrutiny and publish as much detail as possible. 

If certain items provoke uproar they can either defend them or learn their lesson. 

My other suggestion is to correct the brazen inaccuracies the data dump has revealed.

The Government’s “transparency data” includes monthly lists of ministerial travel.  

But comparing this with the hitherto secret version shows some records – notably around air travel – cannot be trusted. They are so incomplete as to be actively misleading.

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For instance, the official record says Ms Sturgeon’s “ministerial visit to Dublin” in November 2019 cost £100.98 for “travel and subsistence”.

We now know there was also a “meet and greet” for her costing £1605 from Dublin Platinum Services, which offers “VIP personalised treatment” including “private check-in, security, suites for relaxation, drinks and dining, and chauffeur-driven to your aircraft”. 

You would have no idea of the true cost from the official travel record. 

The spending row goes back to the Sturgeon era. But it falls to Mr Yousaf to clean it up.

If he lets the current secrecy continue, he will do taxpayers a disservice and provide a cloak for bad behaviour. 

Go on. Do what Mr Salmond’s knackered gnashers couldn’t. Bite the bullet.

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