The trials of Salmond and the tribulations of Sturgeon
by Martin S. Gibson
Probably the most serious schism in the history of the Scottish National Party is no longer hearsay or gossip: it is real and could split the independence movement right down the middle.
Over two years ago Alex Salmond claims his worst ‘nightmare’ began. According to the former Scottish National Party (SNP) Leader and former First Minister of Scotland it started when Nicola Sturgeon’s SNP Government launched an official investigation into allegations that Salmond sexually assaulted nine women who worked with him in 2013 while he was First Minister. Scotland’s MeToo movement version of Hollywood’s Harvey Weinstein scandal: a powerful man serially sexually assaulting the women in his employ. It was all the more astonishing because it was initiated by someone who was Salmond’s closest political ally and friend and his chosen successor as First Minister. It had to be true.
For Salmond and his staunchest supporters this was akin to a declaration of war. Never one to run from a fight, Salmond’s riposte was a crowdfunding campaign to raise £50,000 to meet his legal costs. This closed two days later after he raised over £100,000. In August 2018, Salmond launched a civil action in the Court of Session for a judicial review. His complaint - that the Scottish Government’s investigation was unjust - was upheld by the court. Sturgeon’s Government paid more than £500,000 in Salmond's legal expenses. They further admitted breaching their own investigation guidelines by appointing an investigating officer who had ‘prior involvement’ in the case. Sturgeon’s Government also admitted its procedures had been ‘flawed’ and ‘unlawful’.
Despite Salmond’s resounding success, the sexual assault allegations did not vanish with his victory. The Court of Session only concerned itself with a complaint of an ‘unjust’ procedure. A second, criminal, case on 9 March 2020 at the High Court in Edinburgh, would determine his guilt or innocence.
What Salmond’s judicial review did was to lift the lid a little on the SNP’s schism between supporters of direct action to win independence sooner rather than later, versus those who preferred to tread the legal and more cautious road to independence. This longstanding faultline has, for the most part, been suppressed for the greater good of the cause of independence. Fast forward to 23 March 2020 and the Covid-19 pandemic is raging over every continent. On that day the schism lid is blown off completely when a High Court jury - under Judge, Lady Dorrian - acquits Salmond of all the charges made against him. One of the 14 charges was dropped before the trial began. After nine days in court and six hours of deliberation, the 13-member jury - mainly women - found him not guilty of 12 charges and not proven on one charge of sexual assault with intent to rape. Salmondistas ‘welcomed’ their former party boss’s victory and demand:
* ‘heads must roll’;
* a judge led inquiry into the whole affair;
* a clear out of the SNP’s HQ from top to bottom; and,
* the return of Salmond’s party membership surrendered when he began his fight to clear his name.
Sturgeonites - having lost in court twice inside two years - licked their wounds again and worried about what lay ahead. Nicola Sturgeon says the jury’s verdict must be ‘respected’, and adds that now is not the time for discussing Salmond’s two court cases, ‘This country faces a crisis right now (Covid-19) that is bigger than anything we've ever faced before, and as first minister my duty to the public is to focus 100% on steering us through that crisis - and that is what I intend to do.’
In a joint statement, issued through Rape Crisis Scotland, the nine women said: ‘While we are devastated by the verdict, we will not let it define us. We hope through shining a light on our experiences, it will serve to protect and empower women in the future.’
All those outside the party’s inner circles wondered what on earth was going on inside the normally ultra-disciplined, on-message SNP, and why all 14 charges by nine women were rejected. From the very start of the whole affair two years ago, Salmond’s main line of defence was to admit he was ‘no saint’ but had committed ‘no criminality.’ This was employed to the full by Salmond’s lawyer, the veteran Dean of the Faculty of Advocates and former Labour MSP, Gordon Jackson QC. Jackson told the jury that Salmond, ‘should have been a better man’, but none of this made him a ‘criminal’. Something with which a majority of the jury agreed. A few days later, the Dean was overheard talking about his client’s case on a train, including naming two of the female complainants whose anonymity is protected by law. As a result, Jackson referred himself to the Scottish Legal Complaints Commission (SLCC) and resigned as Dean.
Salmond’s demeanour when he left the court was devoid of the victor’s wide triumphant smile and fist in the air. It was more of a troubled, wounded man who felt he has a very big score to settle. This was perhaps a sign that, although acquitted of all charges, he knows his reputation has been shredded like no other time during his turbulent political life. Nonetheless, he was still able to issue his own warning to Ms Sturgeon and her supporters, ‘… there is certain evidence I would have liked to have seen led in this trial but for a variety of reasons we were not able to do so. At some point, that information, those facts and that evidence will see the light of day.’ To jostling journalists and photographers who surrounded him outside the court, he made a final and personal plea to all of them, ‘Whatever nightmare I have been through over the last two years it is as nothing compared to the situation (Covid-19 pandemic) we are all going through. I know you have a job to do. If you can, go home, take care of your families, God help us all.’ Salmond and Sturgeon agree that the SNP’s civil war, in public at least, has to wait until the world war to defeat the invisible and deadly Covid-19 pandemic is over.
It is believed Mr Salmond is writing a book about his two year ‘nightmare’ and the alleged conspiracy against him by his SNP opponents and institutions of the state. Nicola Sturgeon will face a Scottish Parliamentary Inquiry into her role during the whole two year-long sexual assault affair. She has also referred herself to a standards panel which will investigate whether or not she broke the Ministerial Code during her government’s investigation.
INDEPENDENCE NOW OR GRADUALISM?
The SNP’s schism is between ‘independence now’ fundamentalists - fundis - like Salmond and those like Surgeon who prefer to tread a legal and more cautious road to independence. It is said that one of the biggest political parties in Scotland is the party of ex-Labour opportunists who have joined the SNP. These defections reached their height during the highly emotional and divisive Scottish independence referendum in September 2014. SNP fundis are sceptical of these Johnny-come-lately ex-Labour devolutionists whose significant influence has - wittingly or not - undermined the struggle for independence. Few political parties have had the SNP’s good fortune to discover that their Labour unionist enemy’s only policy to defeat them - devolution, which the SNP always opposed - turned out to be highly beneficial electorally to the SNP. In less than a decade - as the late Labour MP for West Lothian, Tam Dalyell forewarned - the SNP has become the largest party within the Scottish Parliament. ‘Devolution’, Dalyell far-sightedly warned, ‘is a motorway with no exits’. And the irony of all ironies, is that the SNP’s inexorable rise is matched only by Scottish Labour’s inexorable fall. Labour used to count on 50 Scottish MPs at Westminster, today they have only one.
On the back of repeated SNP victories in Scottish Parliament and UK first-past-the-post General Elections, Salmond’s relentless demands for a Scottish independence referendum finally succeeded in October 2012 when Conservative Prime Minister, David Cameron agreed to a referendum which took place on 18 September 2014. Scotland’s answer to the referendum question, ‘Should Scotland be an independent country?’, resulted in a decisive 10% victory for the No side: 55% for No and 45% for Yes. Salmond immediately announced he would resign as SNP leader and First Minister.
Nicola Sturgeon - unopposed - became the new leader and First Minister. She paid a warm tribute to Salmond, ‘The personal debt of gratitude I owe Alex is immeasurable.’
The SNP’s disappointment at losing this ‘once in a generation’ chance of independence left them with a quandary which they have so far been unable to resolve. Do they accept the No vote and wait for another 30 years or for another legal referendum and use that time to win more powers for the Scottish Parliament. Or should they take the Jim Sillars’ direct action road to independence. Former left-wing Labour MP and former Deputy leader of the SNP, Sillars said, ‘We must be prepared to hear the sound of cell doors slamming behind us if we are prepared to win independence’.
When Salmond became First Minister, two Scottish voting blocs - Remain vs Leave - were established:
- The three main unionist parties - Conservatives, Labour and Liberal Democrats - are the sole beneficiaries of the 55% who would vote to Remain in the UK; and,
- The SNP is the sole beneficiary of the 45% who would vote to Leave the UK.
This is the great and stubborn 10% Remain vs Leave dividing line in Scottish politics which the SNP has failed to reverse. In normal Scottish Parliament and UK General Elections this 45% SNP block vote is unbeatable because the unionist vote is always split three ways. It’s why SNP electoral victories since 2007 - and more so after 2014 - usually vary from excellent to landslide. The last real test of Scottish public opinion was Boris Johnson’s Get Brexit Done Westminster election in December 2019. The SNP did well winning 13 new seats but their share of the Scottish vote was 43.6%, a gap of 11.4% against the unionist parties’ combined vote. Sturgeon wearily demanded another independence referendum (IndyRef2) on the back of the SNP’s ‘overwhelming’ vote. Johnson flatly refused her demand.
STURGEON VS SALMOND
Since February, Nicola Sturgeon’s SNP Government has been consumed by Scotland’s battle against the Covid-19 pandemic which is naturally taking precedence over everything else. Her decision to ditch - indefinitely - IndyRef2 will only add to her fundis’ sense of disappointment and impatience. The tabloid’s usual and deeply shallow tendency to present political schisms as a clash of two personalities, is not totally unwarranted in this case. As an ardent advocate of the European Union, Sturgeon made many appearances in the Brexit Referendum of 2016 for the Remain campaign. Her passionate performances catapulted her into political stardom around the world. The US Forbes business magazine ranked Sturgeon in 2016 as the 50th most powerful woman in the world and 2nd in the UK. Around the same time, BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour regarded her as the most powerful and influential woman in the United Kingdom. At home and abroad her stature - and most probably her ego - was unmatched. Sturgeon was riding high, basking in the sobriquet of ‘Nicola, Queen of Scots’ and a reputation as one of the most powerful women in the world. Salmond was on a downer, having lost his Westminster seat of Gordon in East Aberdeenshire to a Conservative in the UK May 2017 General Election.
In August Salmond reappeared on the public stage at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival where he hosted his own show, Alex Salmond Unleashed. In November - his ego still intact - he launched the Alex Salmond Show on the RT (Russia Today) TV Channel and was fiercely criticised by politicians and media alike as a puppet of the Kremlin. Among Salmond’s critics was Sturgeon who said, ‘Alex … is free to do as he wishes, but had I been asked, I would have advised against RT and suggested a different channel ...’ This gentle rebuke is evidence that she believed - as his party leader - she should have at least been consulted, and at best, he should have followed her advice. The fact that he did neither is evidence they were no longer communicating with each other and that their old roles were reversed. She was now the boss. Their two enormous egos apart, the differences between Salmond and Sturgeon go beyond clashes of personality. The substance of their conflict is the unresolved quandary about which road to take to independence.
Many argue in Sturgeon’s defence that she has enhanced the SNP’s electoral superiority over all other parties in the devolved Scottish Parliament. Others argue that what she has never done - despite all her ‘successes’ - is reverse the stubborn10% gap between Remain and Leave and delivered a majority for independence. It’s 21 years since the devolved Scottish Parliament was established. It’s 13 years since Salmond became that parliament’s First Minister and over five years since Sturgeon succeeded him. It’s also getting on for six years since the nationalists’ deep disappointment at the outcome of Scotland’s one and only legal independence referendum. These milestones constitute an especially long time for many impatient nationalists who never wanted devolution in the first place and who have watched their party - year after year - being sucked into managing the affairs of a Parliament that is still devolved, still subservient, still incomplete and still not an independent and sovereign Scottish Parliament.
In the first ever Alex Salmond Show broadcast on RT on 16 November 2017, Salmond’s main interviewee was the now exiled former President of Catalonia, Carles Puigdemont, who on 1 October 2017 unilaterally declared Catalonia an independent republic. The Spanish government declared it an illegal rebellion and later gaoled several leaders of the Catalan independence cause.
Like Salmond, Nicola Sturgeon supports the Catalan nationalists’ battle for independence. However, it’s clear she has doubts about how they went about it. In the run up to the ‘illegal’ 2017 Catalan independence referendum, Sturgeon and Salmond offered their personal support. As First Minister, the Spanish Government criticised Sturgeon, claiming she had ‘totally misunderstood’ the situation in Spain and Catalonia. Sturgeon replied by advising the Spanish Government to follow ‘the shining example’ of the 2012 Edinburgh Agreement between the Scottish and UK Governments that allowed Scotland to hold the legal referendum in 2014. Another of her imperial majesty’s gentle rebukes!
Eighteen days after his acquittal, the Alex Salmond Show was broadcast on RT with Salmond alone at the helm and looking completely untroubled. The whole show was devoted to the 700th anniversary of the Declaration of Arbroath of 6 April 1320 and its ‘fundamental importance’ to the struggle for Scottish independence today. Optimistic supporters want Salmond to return to front line politics and lead the fight for independence now. Pessimistic supporters feel his sexual assault ‘nightmare’ will prevent such a return. The Alex Salmond Show’s first broadcast on Catalan independence, and his latest broadcast on Scottish independence, suggest that whatever he does, it is unlikely that he will be cautiously trudging along any legal roads to independence. It will be about winning Scottish independence sooner rather than later and by hook or by crook.