Poll after poll seems to suggest that Scottish independence is so close — but there’s a bitter row simmering in the Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) that threatens to turn that dream into a nightmare and tarnish the reputation of First Minister Nicola Sturgeon. With an election due on May 6 to elect a new Scottish parliament, Sturgeon is hoping the scandal will just go away. It won’t.
For a decade, Sturgeon and Alex Salmond were the highly visible and indivisible duo who drove the quest for Scotland’s sovereignty, steering their party — and themselves — to power along the way. In politics, power can be fleeting. So too are friendships.
It was Salmond who laid the groundwork for the independence movement, became the face of the government of Scotland and who finally passed the reins over to Sturgeon, his deputy, for her 2014 referendum campaign for independence — a vote the sovereigntists lost by 55 to 45 per cent.
The row began when allegations of sexual harassment were made against Salmond by two female civil servants in 2018. He strongly denied the allegations. The complaints came after Sturgeon asked for new government policies on sexual harassment to be put in place in the wake of the #MeToo movement — and Salmond believed the policy was aimed at him.
How those allegations were handled — who knew what, when and how — are central to this bitterest of feuds. Legally, it culminated in a trial in 2020 that saw Salmon facing 13 charges of sexual assault. He was found not guilty on all counts. If people thought that would be the end of the matter and the scandal would simply fade away like a morning mist on a Scottish loch, how wrong they would be.
The case is explosive because Salmond says Sturgeon misled the Scottish parliament at Holyrood in Edinburgh and has also failed to be truthful in her role and how she handled the accusations against the former leader. If true, she would have no option but to resign.
For her part, she denies the allegations being levelled at her by her former friend and political mentor, claiming he is peddling a large element of conspiracy theories. And in the middle of all of this is the role of the SNP’s Chief Executive, Peter Murrell.
He also happens to be Sturgeon’s husband. At what point do conversations between husband and wife about work cross a line and become the party’s affairs — and how did they impact the way the party handled the allegations against Salmond.
Salmond maintains his reputation was destroyed by the accusations which dated back to his time as first minister before 2014. They included one charge of attempted rape that formed part of the court case against him and in which he was ultimately cleared.
Salmond’s supporters feels Sturgeon simply threw her former mentor under the proverbial bus, particularly when it was opportune to show she had no tolerance for boorish male behaviour following the #MeToo outcry — during a botched SNP internal investigation in 2018, which is long before Police Scotland began their inquiries.
That’s one theory. Another — she simply wanted him permanently sidelined to prevent his return to the SNP as a potential leadership rival.
There are two separate investigations underway and both face claims that statements are being redacted or suppressed, that Salmond is picking and choosing what he tells either one to ensure he’s seen in the best possible light — or that Sturgeon and Murrell are not.
An independent nation
The infighting has turned the SNP into a party of two camps, exposing fault lines in an organisation where unity or voice and purpose was a hallmark in building the case for Scottish independence. Now, if a party can’t run its own internal affairs, how is it ever going to convince Scottish voters that it had the maturity and finesse to run an independent nation north of the border with England.
The Holyrood parliament was established in 1999 and it was Salmond who oversaw the transformation of lefties and squabbling theorists into a coherent and unified political force capable of winning power at Scottish polls. It became cohesive and inclusive, the antipathy of Labour from which it has drained supporters.
It was progressive and built a belief that an independent Scotland would be caring — unlike the view of Conservative governments that imposed penny-pinching austerity on Britons for more than a decade.
And it was pro-Europe, campaigning against Brexit, forging a belief that Scotland could stand on the European stage with other nations. It even welcomes immigrants, showing that a modern and progressive nation of the United Kingdom could embrace all.
This week, Salmond accused senior officials in the Scottish government and SNP close to Sturgeon of engaging in a “malicious and concerted effort” to “banish” him from public life.
Attack in advance
Setting out his lines of attack in advance, Salmond claimed a “deliberate, prolonged, malicious and concerted effort among a range of individuals within the Scottish Government and the SNP to damage my reputation, even to the extent of having me imprisoned.”
Sturgeon’s supporters, however, point to Salmond as a man with an axe to grind who is lashing out at anything and anybody. Her future is likely to rest on the contents of a report from a separate but linked inquiry currently looking at whether she misled the Scottish parliament.
If the report rules she broke the ministerial code by lying to the Holyrood about when she found out about complaints against Salmond, the expectation would be that Sturgeon resigns. It’s unclear when the report will be published — and there’s every chance it won’t see the light of day this side of that May 6 polling day.
What’s clear is that Salmond won’t be silenced and will do his best to ensure his side of the story is heard. Whether voters will listen, is another thing.