Nicola Sturgeon and Alex Salmond are engaged in an extraordinary feud. But what is it actually all about?


Nicola Sturgeon and Alex Salmond are engaged in an extraordinary feud. But what is it actually all about?

How did the row begin? 

Nicola Sturgeon has known Alex Salmond since 1990, and served as his deputy for a decade from 2004. They formed both a very successful political partnership, and a close friendship. Although they always had their differences – Sturgeon is further to the left and less bullish on independence – the first major tensions emerged during the independence referendum campaign in 2014. After Scotland voted “No”, Salmond resigned, and Sturgeon replaced her mentor as both leader of the SNP and Scotland’s First Minister. Unexpectedly, the campaign led to a massive boost in party membership and its popularity; Salmond struggled with his new position, particularly after he lost his Westminster seat in 2017. Sturgeon’s allies became annoyed by Salmond’s public interventions, as well as his decision to host a show on the Kremlin-controlled RT TV channel. Things really came to a head, though, when #MeToo hit British politics.

How did #MeToo change things? 

In late 2017, Mark McDonald, the SNP children’s minister, resigned following allegations of inappropriate behaviour towards women. Sturgeon ordered that the Scottish government’s policies on sexual harassment be updated, including measures to address historic complaints against former ministers. In January 2018, complaints of sexual harassment were made against Salmond by two female civil servants, dating from his time as First Minister. An investigation was duly launched. Salmond seems to believe that the new harassment policies were aimed at undermining him, and driving him out of politics. (It was rumoured at the time that he might make a comeback, by standing for McDonald’s seat.)

How did Salmond react? 

Furiously. In August 2018, soon after the allegations were leaked to the press, he gave a press conference saying that he was “no saint”, but had never sexually harassed anyone. He resigned from the SNP and took the Scottish government to court, on the grounds that the investigation was an abuse of process (he said that he was not even allowed to know the charges against him). In January 2019, the government accepted that its investigation had been “unlawful” and “tainted by apparent bias”, since the lead investigator had had prior contact with the complainants. Salmond’s lawyers suggested that the official had even encouraged their complaints. The Scottish government later paid him £512,000 in legal costs.

What about the criminal case? 

In the meantime, Police Scotland had launched a criminal inquiry against Salmond which led to a trial on 13 counts of attempted rape, sexual assault and indecent assault, alleged by nine women – all government and SNP officials. Salmond conceded that he should have been “more careful with people’s personal space”, but said that he had “never attempted to have non-consensual sexual relations with anyone in my entire life”. In March 2020, the jury acquitted him of all 13 charges. In court, Salmond called some of the allegations “deliberate fabrications for a political purpose”. After he was cleared, he warned that there was “certain evidence” he had been unable to submit during the case, which would “see the light of day” in time.

So what is Sturgeon accused of? 

First, of ultimate responsibility for the botched investigation; her government also resisted Salmond’s court challenge to this for months, although its lawyers (reluctantly disclosed last week) advised that he was bound to win. These issues are being investigated by a committee of MSPs. Secondly, there’s the question of whether she breached the ministerial code; a separate inquiry, led by the Irish lawyer James Hamilton, has been set up to examine this. She is accused of failing to inform her civil servants about a series of off-the-record discussions she had with Salmond about the investigation. She also misled MSPs: she initially told the Holyrood parliament that she had first heard of the complaints against Salmond at a meeting on 2 April 2018. Later, she revised her account, saying she had “forgotten” about an earlier meeting, on 29 March, when Salmond’s ex-chief of staff Geoff Aberdein told her about them. Finally, there’s the question of whether she or her staff were in some way conspiring against Salmond.

Who is meant to have plotted against Salmond? 

Salmond alleged to the MSPs’ committee last month that senior SNP figures and government officials had waged a “malicious and concerted” campaign to drive him out of politics, “even to the extent of having me imprisoned”. He has some partial evidence for this: Peter Murrell, SNP chief executive and Sturgeon’s husband, sent texts in early 2019 which suggested “pressurising” the police to take action against him; Scotland’s top civil servant Leslie Evans sent a text message in which she spoke of the “war” against Salmond. He also claims to have more evidence, which government lawyers have prevented him from airing. Sturgeon has rejected claims of a conspiracy as “absurd”. She says she was trying to behave impartially in a situation brought about by his bad behaviour; and that the messages have been misinterpreted.

What will be the outcome? 

Both inquiries are expected to report this month. Sturgeon is likely to survive the Holyrood inquiry, having ridden out last week’s eight-hour grilling by MSPs; the committee is dominated by the SNP. More worrying for her is Hamilton’s inquiry. If found to have breached the ministerial code, she would normally be expected to resign as First Minister, but has given no guarantee that she will. Until recently, the affair was not thought to have “cut through” with voters, due to its complexity. That now seems to be changing. A recent Panelbase poll found that only one in three Scottish voters think she has been entirely honest, and 61% think she should resign if she has broken the code.