No cure in sight for SNP’s self-inflicted ills

No cure in sight for SNP’s self-inflicted ills

by Tom Gallagher
article from Tuesday 24, March, 2020

WHILE THE VULNERABILITY of the world has been exposed by the coronavirus, in a tiny corner a political movement that felt it had the world in the palm of its hand, has suddenly faced its own day of reckoning.

Ruling political nationalism in Scotland has been shown up as too puny and superficial to withstand the perennial enmities that can tear apart a movement even when supreme success has appeared closer than ever.

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, lauded by a deferential media in Britain as the woman able to inspire and lead in this crisis even though her government is largely a conveyor belt for decisions taken elsewhere, now faces an uncertain political future.

An enquiry by the Scottish Parliament looms that will investigate her behaviour in 2018 when her mentor and former ally Alex Salmond fell under investigation by the police for alleged criminal misconduct that he was ultimately cleared of in court. The press is taking seriously claims by Salmond’s allies that the woman he had groomed to succeed him may have been behind a plot to eliminate him politically by encouraging a prosecution against him.

Arguably the most sensational trial in Scottish legal history got underway on 9 March with Salmond accused of one count of attempted rape, one of sexual assault with intent to rape, ten other counts of sexual assault, and two counts of indecent assault. The alleged incidents dated from June 2008 to November 2014 and involved ten women complainers, mostly civil servants.

Fourteen days later, a 13-strong jury cleared the defendant of all charges; which being of a serious nature would have likely meant a long custodial sentence. But it was not necessarily the case that the nine women accusers (one withdrew) had been disbelieved by the jury. As the lawyer Alistair Sloan tweeted in an illuminating thread, ‘it only means that when weighing up all of the evidence that was presented to them they still had a reasonable doubt of the accused's guilt.’

In a statement outside the Edinburgh court, Salmond referred to a nightmarish three years for both him and those around him. The six years that followed after vacating the leadership of the SNP have certainly been full of vicissitudes. He returned to Westminster in 2015 as MP for Gordon only to be defeated in the 2017 general election in the biggest swing against any SNP politician in that contest. He then controversially joined Vladimir Putin’s propaganda channel Russia Today where he has had his own regular show. He was criticised for that and for putting on a show at the Edinburgh Festival fringe in 2017 where his liking for lewd humour received full exposure. Increasingly, he was seen as having his own political court, one that was overtly dissatisfied with the cautious, process-driven approach of his successor to the holy grail of Scottish Independence.

Yesterday, Sturgeon issued a laconic statement. There was no hint of congratulations that her old boss with whom she had striven to put independence on the map for decades, had been vindicated. Her statement could be boiled down to simply this: ‘The court has reached a verdict and that must be respected.’

Salmond is now in the position that former political chiefs chafing in political retirement would envy: he has shown his continuing relevance as well as popular appeal.

In August 2018 when the allegations against him first surfaced, he formally challenged in the courts the Scottish Government’s approach to the complaints lodged against him. To do so he launched a crowd-funding appeal. Within days he had raised over £100,000 for his defence fund, many hundreds of well-wishers donating an average of £25 to ensure the target was reached in only three days.

In January 2019 further apparent vindication for his stand against what he had and his supporters viewed as a conspiracy, came when a judicial review by Scotland's highest civil court, the Court of Session, ruled that the Scottish Government's inquiry into the complaints against Salmond was unlawful and was 'tainted with apparent bias'.  He was awarded costs which meant that the tax-payer had to find a weighty sum for what many saw as in-house quarrels within the SNP.

Salmond went on the offensive, arguing that Sturgeon’s top bureaucrat Leslie Evans should “consider her position” over the sexual misconduct probe. Once he could have said this directly to his successor but they haven’t spoken from mid-2018 to the present. Sturgeon for her part rallied around her permanent secretary, even stating at the start of this year’s trial that she would stay in her job until 2022.

As soon as relations between ex-leader and successor were shown to be poor, Salmond, the shogun of the SNP, the man who had taken the party from the fringes to the centre of power, was written out of the official SNP story. His role in the catalytic 2014 referendum campaign was erased from the official website and instead it was Sturgeon who was depicted as the pivotal figure in the story of the party’s rise.

‘Nicola should stop rewriting history and concentrate on making history by taking Scotland directly to independence’, Salmond fired back.

In court Salmond admitted he had behaved foolishly at times and that, in hindsight, he wished he had been 'more careful with people's personal space’.

Before the trial, it had emerged that back in 2008, his alleged over-familiarity with women staff had obliged a senior Edinburgh Airport manager to phone Angus Robertson then the SNP’s parliamentary leader at Westminster and request he raise the issue with Salmond privately.

During the trial one of the accusers claimed an informal civil service ruling had been introduced, specifying there was to be no civil service support for Mr Salmond after a certain time in the evening unless there was specific government business to attend to

No civil-servants were called who could have confirmed or denied this. Nor were politicians like Robertson (now fighting with Salmond defender Joanne Cherry for the nomination in the Edinburgh Central Holyrood seat). The presiding judge Lady Dorrian ruled that evidence from the 2019 judicial review concerning Scottish government actions, was inadmmissable and that the court needed to focus on the specific charges.

Testimony from civil servants shows the extent that a supposedly politically neutral bureaucracy that was technically subordinate to Whitehall in London, had been swept into the orbit of the SNP and its goal of breaking up the United Kingdom. Woman G, one of his accusers and a SNP politician who, like the others, could not be named, said in open court:

I felt a huge responsibility to protect his reputation … I thought if I got into some sort of scandal with him it would lose the referendum.’ 

With an independence referendum now off the agenda for possibly a long time to come due to the pandemic, the schism at the heart of the movement that several years of legal proceedings has exposed, are likely to consume many in the party. Sturgeon is unlikely to be able to dodge answering a parliamentary investigation about when she first learned about the complaints. She claims it was only when she and Salmond met at her official residence in Bute House in April 2018. But Geoff Aberdein, Mr Salmond's former chief of staff, told the trial he held a meeting with her in her private parliamentary office on 29 March 2018.

Jim Sillars, a veteran figure and former deputy leader of the SNP has claimed that when he went to see Salmond , his former colleague and indeed rival had shown him evidence he had been ‘set up.’

Salmond dropped heavy hints both before and after his trial that he had been the victim of a high-level attempted political assassination by former comrades. His most outspoken ally Joanna Cherry, herself a prominent QC, declared yesterday: "Some of the evidence that has come to light both in the judicial review and at this trial raise very serious questions over the process that was employed within the Scottish Government to investigate the alleged complaints against Mr Salmond... "

If Salmond was seen by a very controlling successor as too much of a liability to the cause as well as a danger to her survival in office, then his execution was abominably mishandled. The journalist Andrew Neil tweeted on 23 March: ‘to levy 14 charges against the most significant Scottish politician of his generation and to fail on all 14 might suggest incompetence of a high degree.”

The Scottish administration under Sturgeon has hardly been characterised by competence in any domain. A party famed for its cohesion and discipline may wake up to find that internal management which has been controlled for many years, by no less a figure than Sturgeon’s own husband Peter Murrell, was also dominated by informal processes.

In recent times, the party’s one epic moment was the 2014 referendum on Scottish independence. It was hailed as a signal victory despite the Yes cause being a clear 10 per cent behind its Unionist rival. Despite the years of turmoil in British politics, the party has been unable to consolidate its electoral strength into an unstoppable surge towards independence. The totality of the Covid-19 pandemic suggests that such an issue will be placed in the bottom drawer for possibly a long time to come. But for the party to ready itself for the next assault on British power, and to prepare, then house-cleaning and a righting of errors will be imperative.

Nationalist politics everywhere have been vulnerable to such wrenching inner schisms. The volatile and domineering people attracted to a millenarian cause and the emotions released by it make it unavoidable. And Scotland itself is a land where splits have been a central driver in politics, religion and much else.

Trish Marwick, a former Holyrood Presiding Officer, called for unity after the trial, declaring that both Sturgeon and Salmond were sterling individuals who had given noble service to a great cause. This is touching but all the signs are that by the time the Covid-19 virus is brought under control, the long-covered up enmities within Scottish nationalism may well have spun totally out of control and be beyond their own cure.

Tom Gallagher is a retired political scientist who divided his time between Cumbria and Scotland. His book on the SNP, Scotland Now: A Warning to the World was published in 2016. His twitter account is @cultfree54

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