Salmond vs. Sturgeon: the feud convulsing the SNP


Salmond vs. Sturgeon the feud convulsing the SNP

“Few spectacles are more horribly watchable than a political feud,” said Martin Kettle in The Guardian. And few political feuds have been as intense or bitter as the one now threatening to tear apart the Scottish National Party. That Alex Salmond, Scotland’s former first minister, should be seeking to destroy his successor and former protégée, Nicola Sturgeon, “may seem like overwritten melodrama, but it is true – and increasingly serious”. At stake is not only Sturgeon’s political future, but also her party’s “electoral clout”, and with that, her chances of bringing about an independent Scotland – the goal that she, and Salmond, have spent their entire adult lives fighting to achieve.

This complex drama has its roots in 2018, when, in the wake of #MeToo, the SNP introduced a new procedure for handling allegations of sexual harassment that could be retrospectively applied to former ministers. Sturgeon’s supporters say she was merely determined to protect women. But when Salmond heard that two complaints of sexual harassment against him were being investigated, he came to a different view, says Sean O’Grady on The Independent. He claims the procedure was put in place to trap him – as the first step in a plot to destroy his career in public life. Denying the allegations, he resigned, and took the government to court, claiming abuse of process. In January 2019, the court ruled that the investigation had been “unlawful”, and “tainted by apparent bias”. Now, Salmond claims that senior officials, having been warned that his judicial review would be likely to succeed, urged some of the women who’d complained about him to go to the police. That led to him being put on trial on charges including attempted rape – of which he was acquitted in March 2020. In a blistering submission last week to the Holyrood committee investigating the botched investigation, Salmond claimed that government and SNP officials had waged a “malicious” campaign to discredit him, “even to the extent of having me imprisoned”.

That’s a hell of a claim, said Alex Massie in The Spectator. It’s one thing to allege that party members – including Peter Murrell, the SNP’s chief executive and Sturgeon’s husband – conspired to bring him down. It’s another to suggest that the prosecutors, and perhaps Police Scotland too, were involved. “If true, it would amount to the near total corruption of Scottish public life.” Appearing before a committee of MSPs this week, Sturgeon described Salmond’s claims of a conspiracy as “absurd”; and she has accused him of wilfully trashing the reputation of Scotland’s institutions. Yet she cannot absolve herself of responsibility for whatever damage is done. It was her government that ran an unlawful investigation; and it is her fault that she is facing a separate inquiry into whether she broke the ministerial code by misleading Parliament about when she first heard that Salmond had been accused of sexual misconduct. Although she told MSPs that it was on 2 April 2018, Salmond’s ex-chief of staff says he’d broken the news to her four days earlier. She doesn’t deny that; she just claims she had forgotten the meeting, which (given the apparently bombshell nature of its agenda) suggests some “impressive powers of forgetfulness”.

Her memory lapses aren’t the only problem, said Andrew Neil in the Daily Mail. Sturgeon promised that her government would cooperate with the inquiry, yet it has “stymied legitimate evidence gathering” on numerous occasions; most egregiously, officials sought to suppress Salmond’s submission, arguing (wrongly) that it would be unlawful, as it might lead to the complainants being identified.

If Salmond is to be believed, “Scotland under the SNP” is like a “cold weather version of a banana republic”, said Andrew Rawnsley in The Observer. He may be over-egging it, but the affair has revealed a real problem: the SNP has been in power for the last 14 years, in a country with a population the size of Yorkshire’s – “where everyone in public life knows everyone else”, and where the official opposition (the Tories) has no chance of winning an election. It has long been claimed that you get nowhere in civic life in Scotland if you don’t toe the SNP line. And you don’t have to believe all of Salmond’s charges to accept the force of his claim that the boundary between the government and the SNP has become blurred. The question now is, how much will this toxic row resonate with the voters in the Scottish elections on 6 May? Salmond’s claim – that the SNP is unfit to rule an independent Scotland – may prompt some to stop thinking about independence and ask how well the SNP has governed them these past 14 years. But unionists in London shouldn’t get excited. Boris Johnson could have been custom-built to aggravate Scottish voters. “Even a badly damaged SNP will be a great deal more popular in Scotland than he can ever hope to be.”