I start this blog with an extended anecdote. But I suspect some who read it might think it can't be true. For couldn't this all have been sorted out with a few emails? Except it comes from an age before emails. Where the only means of instant communication, and even then only when your correspondent could reciprocate, was the new fangled fax machine.
I am currently in possession of my 44th and last practicing certificate from the Law Society of Scotland. The profession I entered is almost unrecognisable today. Where the day to day conduct of business was dependent on the mail. Where when you went to court you were uncontactable until you returned and when you went home in the evening you were uncontactable by anybody except the Polis, who had your only line (your landline) but chose to employ that even then if it was convenient for them to do so.
Anyway, it was a different age and everything I say in what follows has to be seen against that background. Although its conclusions today remain equally valid.
In the late 1980s I had just arrived at what was then the Cumbernauld office of Ross Harper & Murphy. Which was then, in turn, by some way, only rivalled by Beltrami Dunn & Co as the main criminal defence firm in Scotland. And that reputation brought in a good deal of interesting "off the street" business.
So, one day, I am asked to see urgently, a man who has walked in off the street needing advice. And that is how I first met George Beattie (needless to say not his real name).
Anyway, Mr Beattie, then found his way in to my office. A man in his late twenties, very good looking impeccably turned out. He explained their was a warrant out for his arrest. About which he was visibly upset. He then told me his story.
Mr Beattie was originally from Cumbernauld, By his own admission he had not enjoyed school so had left at the earliest opportunity to become a joiner. He had served his time but at 19 or so had decided to see a bit of the world. So he had decided to move to Hong Kong, then still a British Dependency. Where he continued his trade and developed a reputation for an expertise for fitting out bars and restaurants. That in turn had decided him to set up his own business and to ultimately end up in partnership with a local man of Chinese extraction. George would do the designing and occasional specialist work and his partner would recruit the local tradesmen and bridging finance to enable it to be carried out. To the significant mutual benefit of them both.
But they both knew their was uncertainty about the future in Hong Kong given the imminent handover to China so they had decided to hedge their bets by setting up a Scottish arm of their business. In furtherance of which George had returned to Scotland with a partnership cheque to finance this enterprise. He had opened a bank account with a major bank here and, in anticipation of a future business arrangement, had asked to speak to the bank manager to introduce himself. A week or so later he had returned to inquire of the manager if the cheque had cleared to be told it yet hadn't. A week after, the same story. Whereupon he explained to the manager that this was all a bit awkward but he had secured a major contract from which he would need to walk away if he could not show some evidence of immediately available capital. Whereupon. according to George at least, the bank had volunteered to provide some interim funding. Not to nearly the amount of the as yet not honoured cheque. which was for a very large sum indeed, but nonetheless for a very large sum.
Now, you know what is coming here, but I can only say that as an admittedly young lawyer but still possessed of the cynicism that most of your clients are guilty. I believed this. But, never mind that, so. as I'll come on to narrate, did others.
The cheque had, needless to say, bounced. But, far from George being the perpetrator of fraud, he had been the victim of it! He had tried to phone his office in Hong Kong to work out what was going on, only to find the number disconnected. He had tried to phone his bank but understandably they wouldn't speak to someone who could be anyone on the phone. His best assumption was that his partner had cleared out the firm's account and disappeared.
But, I asked, not being a complete idiot, why had he not explained this to the Police before it had reached the stage of their being a warrant for his arrest? Well, George explained, when he had returned to Cumbernauld, he had stayed with his mother, but she had been unable to accept that he was now a grown man and things had proved difficult there. In the meantime he had met a young lady and had asked if he could move in with her. To which she had readily agreed. He forgetting that his mother's address was the only one by which he could be contacted. And since this was before mobile phones, it was only when he had phoned his mother weeks later that she advised him that first of all the bank and then the Police had been looking for him? But why had he himself not been in touch with the bank after learning the cheque had bounced? He was trying to work things out and had I, myself, never been distracted by love?
I'm telling this tale , even as I do so, exposing myself as an idiot, but as I again go on to narrate, so proved others. He was so charming and so apparently distressed as to his circumstance that I at least thought he might be telling the truth.
But let's move on to when he voluntarily answers the warrant and appears in court. Even non lawyers will be familiar press report that someone has appeared in court and made "no plea or declaration". Nobody ever makes a declaration. But this time we did, For establishing that George had himself been a victim required investigation on in Hong Kong that was beyond my resources but if we raised it as possibility we could require the Crown to look in to it. So I told George that was his best option. It was prosected by someone who subsequently became a very, very senior figure at the Crown Office but was nobody's mug, even in her then more junior role and proceeded before a Sheriff who normally objected to his time being wasted by "obvious criminals".
But he utterly charmed them both. At the end of his declaration as above, the Crown indicated that they wished his passport forfeited as a condition of bail, As I stood up to object, George intervened to say he had no objection as he would not be leaving Scotland until his name was cleared. Whereupon the Sheriff observed that while the passport would be taken, if George needed to go abroad, the Court would be likely to be favourable if Mr Smart made an application for its reasoned return.
And then the fiscal, the hard but fair Fiscal, tells me, after the hearing that she will arrange for this to be looked into in Hong Kong as a matter of urgency! We were all utterly bewitched.
So anyway, about six weeks later, the Fiscal gets back to me. She has gone through the Foreign Office to get co-operation from Hong Kong. George had indeed lived there but had left after fleeing various people he had defrauded there. He had indeed had a business but it had failed long before his departure and certainly had never remotely had funds to cover the cheque he had presented to a Cumbernauld Bank.
And when I present this to George? His response is that it was worth a try, gives me a smile and goes to jail.
Now, before I make my, shorter (I promise) political conclusion, I just wanr to add an epilogue.
About five years later, out of the blue, I am phoned at work by a woman who has both a posh name and is very well spoken. "Thank you for taking my call, Mr Smart, I am phoning about a mutual friend, George Beattie. Have you heard from him lately?"
Ethically. I'm in a bit of an ethical dilemma here. So I ask if I can call her back. But in the end I conclude my obligation of professional confidence to George ended after I saw him in Barlinnie to agree there would be no appeal against sentence, So I phone the woman back only to discover the number she has left is not a direct line but is that of a well known firm of Chartered Accountants. And on asking to speak to her I don't initially get transferred to her directly but to her personal assistant. From whom I extract the information that my initial caller is a partner there before I am put through.
What follows is awkward.
"Why did you think to phone me?"
" George always said you were a friend of his. I haven't heard from him for ten days or so and wondered if you had?"
The rest of the conversation involved a tale of a brief romance during which George "a former airline pilot" had persuaded her to fund his project to set up a flying school(!) and then disappeared. In the end I had to tell her why I knew him and we parted company on civil terms.
Now why do I tell you this? Because there are those on my side maintaining that what went wrong over Covid and its aftermath was due to Civil Servants and other public servants being partisans of Scottish Independence. They were not. They were simply conned. Being unwilling to even contemplate that the priority of the First Minister,, the charming First Minister, of any Party, during a pandemic would be something other than saving lives. And yet it is increasingly obvious it was.