MICHAEL Matheson’s iPad scandal is discombobulating precisely because it’s so relatable. Very few of us can imagine private donors stepping in to refurbish our flats, or lobby groups queuing up to hand us cash for access. But ignoring the IT department’s instructions to change a SIM card, or being out-witted on the technology front by football-crazy teenagers?

Well, that could happen to anyone. Admittedly, those of us who are not MSPs would have no choice but to immediately stump up for our mistakes. But 6GB is not a lot of data. Those roaming charges were outrageous. And who isn’t tempted by the lure of a festive derby?

All in all, it’s hardly Greensill. It’s hardly government officials partying during Covid, a peer receiving tens of millions from a dodgy PPE contract, or a Prime Minister seeking to circumvent international law in order to pack refugees off to Rwanda. It’s not withholding medicine from sick people to force them into work. It’s not the destruction of the rainforests or the slaughter of children in the Middle East.

With the world so obviously, and terrifyingly, on fire, I understand the impulse to dismiss last week’s media scrutiny of Matheson as a petty distraction; to ask why journalists aren’t hunting a bigger catch. But if the health secretary’s initial mistake seems trivial, his attempt to evade responsibility is not. The relatively low stakes don’t serve as mitigation for his conduct.

And while shoddy behaviour is, of course, relative, it is also part of a continuum. Implicit in Matheson’s assumption that the taxpayer would foot the bill for his iPad idiocy is the same sense of entitlement that allowed some Tory politicians to break their own lockdown rules; an entitlement that leads them to believe they are somehow immune from the consequences of their actions.

That’s before we move onto the deceiving, both of himself and of Holyrood.





Old Firm spikes

For the health secretary not to have immediately connected the December 28 and January 2 spikes in his data usage with the Hibs v Celtic and Old Firm matches must have required superhuman levels of not wanting to know. It took Twitter a matter of minutes to work it out, although most commentators assumed it had been Matheson himself who was doing the streaming. Even after his kids finally fessed up, he kept on peddling the same story: that there had been no “personal” use of his iPad.

Finally, on Thursday, left with no option but to come clean, he appealed to our collective parental instinct, insisting that he had been trying to protect his children, a line that would have been more affecting had he not, at the very point his voice broke, been throwing said children to the wolves.

The flipside of the relatability of Matheson’s plight - the fact that we can identify with his technological ineptitude - is that we can also imagine our own reaction to what came next, and be sure it would have differed from his. Presented with an £11,000 bill for data used on a family holiday, wouldn’t we have sought to account for every megabyte? If we couldn’t account for it ourselves, wouldn’t we have summoned the other members of our family, and interrogated them until they gave satisfactory answers?

And then, having got to the bottom of events, wouldn’t we have apologised and offered to pay, in the hopes of appeasing our employers, and to prevent the story making its way into the public domain? If Matheson had taken that course of action, this would be over. His job would likely be secure and his children would be looking forward to another merry Christmas, albeit bereft of football matches live-streamed courtesy of their father’s hotspot. As it is, he has haemorrhaged public respect, undermined Parliament and humiliated those he loves the most.

Such a public shaming is a horrible thing, and it would take a hard heart not to feel sorry for the Mathesons right now. Some of those who empathise with the health secretary’s ordeal have criticised it as gratuitous. They believe the reporters and opposition politicians who have pursued him are motivated by ambition and spite.

Muddle not a fiddle?

Meanwhile, there is another school of thought that looks at Holyrood’s history of topplings over the sort of scandals Henry McLeish might have described as “a muddle not a fiddle”, and wonders if it is being damaged by an obsession with faults more venial than venal.



Henry McLeish


There is some weight in both these arguments. There is nothing more likely to lead to a Journalist of the Year Award than the claiming of a Cabinet scalp; and of course it would please Douglas Ross to bring down Matheson, just as it pleased David McLetchie to bring down McLeish and McLeish to watch the downfall of McLetchie.

It is also true that the frequent clamour for resignations - and the ministerial merry-go-round it produces - has an impact on policy-making and effective governance. Perhaps we should accept that all politicians - indeed, all human beings - are fallible, and seek to strike a balance between the scale of the offence committed and the damage likely to be caused by the loss of the offender’s contribution. For Humza Yousaf to have accepted Matheson’s explanation of his iPad’s usage without scrutiny demonstrated a cavalier attitude towards the public purse.

Ditto his proclaiming the case closed when he already knew what Matheson was hiding. But perhaps - in his continued refusal to sack him - he is making precisely this calculation. After all, the First Minister’s first priority is, and ought to be, ensuring the best possible hand is on the health tiller. And, it’s not as if there are dozens of talented contenders queuing up to fill Matheson’s shoes.

For these reasons and others, I have no particular desire to see Matheson driven from his post. But I have no doubt the media was right to keep pressing for answers until they got them. What some have criticised as a “scrum” was a justifiable and important holding to account.

That holding to account couldn’t (and shouldn’t) have stopped when Matheson offered to pay the £11,000 because, by then, it was clear there were holes in his story. Sure, it’s been hard on Matheson’s family. But really, that’s on him. If politicians would stop lying, journalists would stop haranguing them.


As for the oft-repeated notion that the offences of Scottish politicians should be overlooked because more egregious ones are being committed by their Westminster counterparts, it’s a whataboutery that highlights a contradiction at the heart of the Yes movement. On the one hand, many SNP supporters want Holyrood to be seen as morally superior to Westminster, on the other they rail against any attempt to ensure that reputation is deserved.





Those who push for greater probity are cast, not as defenders of our devolved institutions, but as enemies seeking to undermine them by revealing when they fall short.

Those supporters are wrong. Whether you view Matheson’s iPad lapse as a major or minor misdemeanour, it does matter. It matters because transparency matters, because respect for public funds and those you were elected to serve matters, because accepting the consequences of your mistakes matters. It matters because the erosion of morality in public life is incremental; because one lie feeds another until one day you are being told Brexit will deliver an extra £350m a week to the NHS, and no-one bats an eyelid.

It matters because in a world where ethical boundaries are being breached almost daily, it becomes doubly important to cling to our values. To set down a marker for our politicians. To remind them of what is and isn’t acceptable; and what will and will not be tolerated.