Scottish Faultlines

On 26 February, Alex Salmond appeared before a Holyrood committee inquiry investigating how and why complaints of sexual misconduct made against him in 2018 had been mishandled by Scotland’s devolved government in Edinburgh – the devolved government that he used to run. The allegations were false, the former Scottish National Party (SNP) leader said. (Salmond was acquitted of 13 sexual assault charges in an Edinburgh courtroom last Spring.) There had been a ‘malicious plot’ in the higher reaches of Scottish civil society to press ahead with them anyway. The plot had spiralled out of control. Information had been suppressed. Key pieces of evidence were ignored. And those involved had tried to cover their tracks. ‘Scotland hasn’t failed’, Salmond declared in his opening statement; its leadership, from the Crown Office to the cabinet, has. 

Five days later, on 3 March, Nicola Sturgeon, Salmond’s successor as Scottish first minister and SNP leader, sat in front of the same committee inquiry. There was no plot, she said. A number of women had come forward with serious allegations regarding Salmond’s behaviour. The Scottish government had botched its response to those allegations. But procedure, not conspiracy, was to blame for the flawed investigative process. ‘I had no motive, intention, or desire to “get” Alex Salmond’, Sturgeon stated. Indeed, until recently, Salmond – sixteen years Sturgeon’s senior – had been one of her closest friends and political confidants. The first minister’s marathon eight-hour evidence session marked the apex of a drama that has gripped Scottish politics for months. Between them, Salmond and Sturgeon have run Holyrood for almost a decade-and-a-half. In September 2014, at the head of the campaign for Scottish independence, they came close to dissolving the United Kingdom itself. 

By the end of the night, the consensus among media observers was that Salmond’s account of the controversy – or elements of it, at any rate – felt implausible. As a witness, Sturgeon had been direct, engaging, and empathetic; Salmond, somewhat less so. Much of the documentary material that supported his version of events couldn’t be considered by the committee due to legal constraints arising from his trial, Salmond said – a situation he described as ‘intolerable’. Nonetheless, Sturgeon’s position isn’t safe. Even if the committee inquiry doesn’t find her guilty of breaching the ministerial code – Salmond insists she mislead parliament over the nature of a meeting she had with one of his aides at the outset of the crisis – a separate probe being conducted by the independent Irish barrister, James Hamilton, might. A resignation isn’t expected, but it can’t be ruled out. 

As if to add to the underlying tension, Scots go to the polls in seven weeks’ time. The outcome of that election, scheduled for 6 May, could determine whether or not Scotland becomes an independent country. The SNP wants to hold a new referendum on exiting the UK as soon as possible. Boris Johnson has pledged to block any such move. For commentators on the British right, ‘the Salmond affair’, as it is now universally known, stands as proof that Scotland has become a ‘one-party state’ under the SNP, and that the Scottish experiment with home rule is faltering. (Holyrood was established in 1999 by Tony Blair’s New Labour government as part of a broader decentralization of power from London; its legislative remit covers health, education and justice, among other areas.) ‘These are dangerous days in Scotland’, wrote the Spectator’s Andrew Neil in his typically hyperbolic style. ‘Democratic accountability and transparency are choked in a Kafkaesque fog.’ 

Sturgeon’s preference for behind-the-scenes policy-making lends a veneer of credibility to this charge. In 2018, Scotland’s Information Commissioner, Daren Fitzhenry, reprimanded the Scottish government for ‘significant’ and ‘unjustifiable’ delays in its response to Freedom of Information requests. And throughout the Salmond inquiry, SNP officials repeatedly stalled the release of crucial legal documents, prompting claims they were obstructing the committee’s work. Yet accusations of authoritarianism ultimately land wide of the mark. Holyrood’s constitutional authority is tightly constrained and the parliament is elected on the basis of proportional representation. Moreover, the evidence Salmond has produced to substantiate his claim of a conspiracy is circumstantial, at best. Nor is it obvious what the SNP leadership would have to gain politically from trying to discredit him. (The answer, as the past few weeks of negative news coverage have shown, is nothing.)

Meanwhile, beneath the headlines, a darker story is playing out. On 18 February, Rape Crisis Scotland warned that the threat of public exposure loomed over Salmond’s accusers. ‘They have been hounded [and] identified online’, the charity’s CEO, Sandy Brindley, wrote. Women are watching this case unfold and ‘getting a clear message about how they might be treated should they ever consider making a report of sexual harassment.’

Scotland’s unionist parties are currently failing to capitalize on the political implications of the controversy. The Scottish Conservatives, in particular, are rudderless. Last week at Holyrood, Tory MSPs raised the prospect of a no-confidence vote in Sturgeon before abruptly backing down after it became clear the vote wouldn’t succeed. On Wednesday, they staged a separate no-confidence vote in Sturgeon’s deputy, John Swinney, only to see that fall flat as well. Scottish Labour is lost for different reasons. Up to 40 per cent of Labour members in Scotland are open to another independence referendum and one-third of Labour voters want Scotland to leave the UK altogether. Yet the party’s newly elected leader, the Brownite Anas Sarwar – son of an ill-reputed businessman and ex-MP who bought himself the Governorship of Punjab – has adopted a hardline anti-nationalist stance. Labour will oppose any attempt by the SNP to hold a fresh poll on independence, he says. On 9 March, the party’s candidate for the Holyrood constituency of Glasgow Kelvin, Hollie Cameron, was dropped after indicating that she wouldn’t stick to Sarwar’s line.

The crisis of Anglo-Scottish unionism is partly structural. The institutions that once bound Britain together – the industrial economy, the post-war welfare system, the NHS – have atrophied during the neoliberal era, amplifying the appeal of ‘Celtic’ self-determination. Westminster indifference hasn’t helped either. Boris Johnson is a pariah north of the Carlisle border, where his Brexiteer antics are reviled; Labour’s British leader, Keir Starmer, remains anonymous. To the extent that it still exists, the only conspicuous expression of organic grassroots unionism in Scotland today stems from loyalist groups associated with Rangers Football Club. Over the weekend, hundreds of Rangers fans decked-out in Union Jacks congregated in central Glasgow to celebrate the team’s first league title win in ten years, in direct defiance of Covid social-distancing rules. Sturgeon, speaking in her capacity as first minister, denounced the scenes as ‘disgraceful’. But, occasional flag-waving outbursts aside, there is little chance that this community could launch a mass challenge to the SNP.

On one level, the Salmond affair hasn’t derailed Scottish nationalism as much as it might have. Despite the ongoing feud between its two most influential figureheads, support for the SNP remains strong. Bolstered by Scottish opposition to Brexit and the perception that Sturgeon has handled the Covid crisis well, the party is on course for a comfortable victory in May, and possibly even an outright majority. But in other ways the damage has been vast. The independence movement is now badly divided: since his acquittal, Salmond has become an outrider for rank-and-file discontent, and despite her strong appearance at the committee inquiry, questions are being raised internally about Sturgeon’s technocratic governing style. Some nationalist campaigners allied to Salmond, including the former Holyrood justice secretary Kenny MacAskill, believe Sturgeon isn’t truly committed to independence – or, at least, lacks a credible strategy to achieve it. Others, like Independence for Scotland Party, a splinter organization, think her administration has capitulated to an amorphous ‘trans rights agenda’ at the expense of core demands for Scottish sovereignty – though such criticisms are a thinly veiled proxy for bigotry. According to the SNP’s Common Weal Group, a left-leaning party faction, Sturgeon has sold Scottish social democracy out to private-sector interests such as Charlotte Street Partners, the controversial PR firm that enjoys close political access to the Scottish government. For CWG, the first minister now runs Holyrood as her own personal fiefdom alongside her husband, the SNP chief executive Peter Murrell.

As the SNP’s internal fault-lines have become increasingly visible, support for independence has declined: on 11 March, a new poll put it at 45 per cent, its lowest level since last March. One irony here is that many of the criticisms levelled at Sturgeon by disgruntled independence activists could just as easily be levelled at Salmond: the architect of the SNP’s gradualist approach to independence, which anchored the nationalist movement to Labour’s devolutionary reforms in the late 1990s. During his second stint as leader between 2004 and 2014, he centralized the party’s internal operations and imposed a new culture of PR discipline. It was Salmond, not Sturgeon, who engineered the SNP’s embrace of market economics and blunted its more radical republican and separatist tendencies, leaving the party advocating for what is, in effect, a quasi-federal form of separation from the UK. It would not be an exaggeration to claim that much of the hostility to Sturgeon is a delayed and displaced frustration with her predecessor. With both the committee inquiry and the Hamilton investigation expected to report back in the coming weeks, Salmond may be right that Scotland’s leadership has failed. Yet it is a leadership that he helped build.

Read on: Neil Davidson, ‘A Scottish Watershed’, NLR 89.