Sunday 28 January 2024

A con-man is a con-man. Even if they are a woman


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. 


Sunday 21 January 2024

Useless to the end.

So, today, we had Humza on the Sunday morning political telly. In my opinion, in his own terms, he did alright. His offer to Keir Starmer was a bit strange. How Parties work together after the next election is a matter for after the next election and if Humza had intended this as anything other than a stunt he wouldn't have qualified what he said by insisting that Starmer needed to come to Scotland for this meeting. Anyway, Starmer will have better things to do in Scotland between now and the election than meet with Useless. 

But of course after the election the UK Prime Minister will have to have meetings on some basis with the First Minister of Scotland. And that got me thinking. Will that be Useless? 

Now, I'm not writing a mystery story here, so I will start with the conclusion. Yes, it will. The SNP are stuck with Useless until May 2026. Because nobody else will want the job.

Let's just start with the current political consensus drawn from the current polling. Come the next UK election, the SNP are going to lose a lot of seats, probably more than half their current  roster. For what it's worth, I think they'll do a lot worse than that for there is no upside for them about the year ahead. Branchform will eventually report. I strongly suspect there will be charges and amongst those charged will be the former first minister. The significance of her being arrested has I think. if anything, been underappreciated. Section 1(1) of the Criminal Justice (Scotland) Act provides:-

A constable may arrest a person without a warrant if the constable has reasonable grounds for suspecting that the person has committed or is committing an offence.

That's it. For the avoidance of doubt, a "constable" includes a Police officer of any rank and the word "only" is implied because without "reasonable grounds for suspecting that person has committed an offence" the Police do not have any power of arrest. Given the prominence of the arrestee you can be satisfied that these suspicions were believed to exist by officers of the highest rank . And I think further, given the reputational damage to the arrestee, if the Police had no further interest in her as a suspect that would long since have been made public.

But in any event, the one consolation for Useless might be that unless charges resulting in appearance in Court follow pretty soon then there will be no trial before the UK General Election and contempt of court consequences will prohibit any comment until the trial. Nonetheless, this will now hang around the SNP like a bad smell until any criminal proceedings are concluded, 

But that is only the beginning of the troubles that lie ahead of Useless in the nine months or so until the General Election. For starters there is the Covid Inquiry. It has only just started its work in Scotland but already with devastating impact. And it has weeks here to run. And then, in case the First Minister, might at least think "thank goodness that is behind us", we have still to have the distinctly Scottish Inquiry, a wholly unnecessary exercise brought about by the hubris of Sturgeon, determined to get ahead of the UK but which is now, in typically Scottish Nationalist manner of promising more than they can deliver, is now trailing months behind. Months that, assuming Lord Brailsford's early return to health, will nonetheless trail on throughout and beyond the election.

And then, currently, we have the Michael Matheson inquiry which has already run for nearly two months without anybody being clear who exactly is doing the inquiring, or what inquiries they have made to date or even having the remotest clue as to what is to happen when these inquiries are over. Suffice to say this will run and run but if the ultimate conclusion is, on a Parliamentary vote divided along Party lines,  that Matheson should face no sanction? Suffice to say that is likely to have electoral consequence with, unfortunately for the SNP, an election imminent.

And that's without even considering the already suppurating sores: The ferries; the health service; the schools; local government finance; the wholly inadequate ministerial team. To which bonfire of doom, Humza seems determined to throw on another rotting corpse in the form of revisiting the issue of Trans demands, albeit from a different direction.

So, suffice to say, the omens are not good for a SNP recovery at the polls. Yet Humza will survive the UK General Election, even if the SNP lose far more than half their seats.

 He will survive for two reasons. Firstly, there is simply no alternative from within the Sturgeon continuity faction who still dominate the higher ranks of the SNP. We've so far had four previous Deputy First Ministers: Jim Wallace; Nicol Stephen; Nicola Sturgeon and John Swinney. Even their worst enemies would not have doubted their ability to step up to the top job as Wallace did (temporarily) twice and Sturgeon more permanently. The best Useless has been able to recruit is Shona Robison who, to be fair, given the limited pool he was prepared to fish in, was as good as it was going to get. But, suffice to say, when Useless eventually does go she will hardly be the first name on every, or indeed any, lip to succeed him.

But the second reason he will survive is that the obvious alternative candidate, Kate Forbes, would be mad to take the job on with perhaps less than 15 months until the next Holyrood election. The aftermath of a decisive reverse to the Nationalists will be a complete bloodbath. Dozens of Nationalists will be out of work. Not just MPs but their staff and other advisers. Fury will be in the air but not just fury, desperation to find other elected office. not least to pay the bills but also to continue to have a role in what was famously described as "showbusiness for ugly people".

And that will coincide with the commencement of the SNP's selection process for the Holyrood contest to come. There will be a battle royal for places on the list as sitting MSPs work out that their constituency seat is very much at risk. A battle joined by dismissed MPs and possibly some of their redundant advisers. This might even spill over into direct challenge to some of the more anonymous existing back benchers. And every Party knows such internal contests inevitably are.....brutal. Who would want to be part of that. Particularly if they knew their very own elevation to the leadership might cause a collective nervous breakdown in certain quarters? Never mind among the inevitable departure of their coalition partners among a combination of denunciation and outrage. 

Oh, and then there will finally be the Branchform trial. 

And at the end of all this? Without much time to turn things round in terms of either policy or achievement (just one budget) and at the end of it all, every prospect of loss of government office and even a consequential leadership challenge. It is hardly an attractive vista.

So Useless will survive. Which is an additional reward for Anas and Jackie in the week the latter received her well deserved early reward. We'll hardly have to worry about having a competent Deputy First Minister when the time arrives.