POLITICS in Scotland has always been a blood sport, but the vicious infighting within the Scottish National Party is raising it to new levels. At one time Alex Salmond was the face of the SNP, twice leader of the party, First Minister of Scotland for seven years and twice an MP at Westminster. He was also the confidant and mentor of Nicola Sturgeon, present First Minister. Once the closest of political partners, today they are determined to destroy each other.
The feud has rumbled on for months but is coming to a head. At present there is an investigation by a committee of MSPs into the Scottish government’s botched handling of allegations of sexual harassment against Salmond. He has already won a £512,000 payout from a case at the Court of Session in Edinburgh, which ruled that the Scottish government acted unlawfully when it investigated the allegations, and had been ‘tainted with apparent bias’.
Salmond accuses Nicola Sturgeon’s husband Peter Murrell, chief executive of the SNP, and other members of her entourage of plotting to destroy his reputation and see him behind bars. According to Salmond, Murrell was among a number of party officials and civil servants close to Sturgeon who conducted a ‘malicious and concerted attempt’ to damage his reputation and remove him from public life in Scotland. Amongst those named by Salmond are Ian McCann, the SNP’s compliance officer, Sue Ruddick, chief operating officer, and Liz Lloyd, Sturgeon’s chief of staff. Salmond claims there are others who, for legal reasons, he is not allowed to name.
Following the basic Scottish political principle that you should get your retaliation in first and get it in hard, Sturgeon gave a television interview even before Salmond presented his evidence to the parliamentary committee. Sturgeon claimed there was not ‘a shred of evidence’ of a conspiracy against him. She described Salmond’s allegations as ‘completely baseless’, and ‘not fair and deeply distressing’.
This conflict is not internal to the SNP but has dragged in both Scotland’s civil service and legal establishment. Salmond has reserved particular disdain for Leslie Evans, as the permanent secretary to the Scottish government Scotland’s top civil servant, and James Wolffe, QC, the Lord Advocate, Scotland’s chief public prosecutor and the Scottish government’s chief legal adviser.
At the heart of this long drawn out and confusing conflict, and what may yet bring down Nicola Sturgeon, is the suggestion that she has misled Parliament. On April 2, 2018, Salmond visited Sturgeon at her home and told her of the allegations being made against him. Sturgeon claims this was the first she knew of the matter. However, Geoff Aberdein, formerly Salmond’s chief of staff, testified in court that he discussed the allegations against Salmond when he met Nicola Sturgeon three days previously on March 29.
Nicola Sturgeon has claimed that she ‘forgot’ about the earlier meeting. A parliamentary rule that would have let her know immediately of any harassment claims was changed just weeks after the allegations were made against Alex Salmond. A key change was made to proposed rules for handling complaints, taking the First Minister out of the loop, just after the first claims against her predecessor emerged.
Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross said: ‘There are now even more serious questions about when Nicola Sturgeon knew about the allegations against Alex Salmond and whether it’s plausible that she was really in the dark.’ Liberal Democrat Alex Cole-Hamilton, a member of the investigating committee, said: ‘You’d have to be a very bold civil servant to decide not to notify the First Minister of these allegations at a time when the changes to the complaints procedure which took her out of the loop had not yet been completed.’
Why should it matter? What difference does a few days make? There are two possible explanations for Sturgeon’s lapse of memory, both of which could bring her down. The First Minister is expected to tell the truth, especially to Parliament. Misleading Parliament is a phrase which most of us translate as lying. When pressed in Holyrood by Jackie Baillie, interim Scottish Labour leader, as to whether she would resign if found guilty of misleading Parliament, Nicola Sturgeon refused three times to give a direct answer.
The other explanation for Sturgeon forgetting that she had been told of the serious allegations against her predecessor was that it was old news. Leslie Evans, Scotland’s top civil servant, knew of at least one of the allegations on November 9, 2017, five months before Sturgeon’s meetings with Aberdein and Salmond. On November 29 Evans met Sturgeon to discuss proposals for the new policy on the handling of harassment complaints involving current or former ministers. The rule change to say the Government leader should be kept in the dark about any allegations was not made until December 5. Sturgeon did not sign off on the changes until two weeks later. Is it plausible that in the November meeting a week before the rule change Evans never mentioned the allegations against Salmond?
Salmond and Sturgeon, once the closest of allies, are now determined to destroy each other. For the sake of Scotland and the union let us hope they both succeed.