POLITICO, March 2020
The Alex Salmond case has revealed deep-seated issues with Scotland’s ruling party, which could have serious ramifications for his successor as first minister, Nicola Sturgeon.
On Monday afternoon, Salmond, the former leader of the Scottish National Party (SNP), was cleared in an Edinburgh courtroom of a series of alleged sexual offences against nine women.
Throughout the trial, which lasted two weeks, Salmond’s legal team vigorously asserted their client’s innocence. It emerged that the complainants — who can’t be identified for legal reasons — included Scottish government civil servants and political activists associated with Scotland’s pro-independence movement.
But the end of the case doesn’t mean the end of the divisions within the SNP, the ruling party at Holyrood, Scotland’s devolved national legislature in Edinburgh.
Speaking outside the Scottish High Court following his acquittal, Salmond cryptically told reporters that “certain evidence” which couldn’t be raised during the trial would soon “see the light of day.” Joanna Cherry, the SNP MP for Edinburgh South West and a staunch ally of Salmond’s, called for a public inquiry into the way her party had handled the accusations against the 65-year-old. Kenny MacAskill, the SNP MP for East Lothian, tweeted: “Delighted … Some resignations now required.”
The controversy had gripped Scottish politics long before the onset of the coronavirus crisis. News of an investigation into Salmond’s alleged conduct first surfaced in late 2018. In early 2019, Salmond sensationally took the Scottish government, now run by his erstwhile protegé Sturgeon, to court for botching that investigation. Eight months later, Sturgeon’s administration was forced to pay Salmond more than £500,000 in legal fees following the success of his civil action. Since then, the personal rancour between Salmond and Sturgeon — by some distance the two most important Scottish politicians of the modern era — is said to have been visceral.
Salmond and his supporters appear to believe that the ex-first minister, who oversaw the failed campaign for independence in 2014, is the victim of a politically-motivated conspiracy. Sturgeon, who once characterized Salmond as a “friend and mentor,” emphatically denies that charge. She told the Scottish parliament in January 2019: “It seems to me that I am being simultaneously accused of being involved in a conspiracy against Alex Salmond, and also of colluding with Alex Salmond. Nothing could be further from the truth in both of those — neither of those things are true.”
At a preliminary court hearing in January, one of Salmond’s lawyers, Gordon Jackson QC, indicated that the SNP government had, for reasons not yet made clear publicly, orchestrated the case in an attempt to “discredit” his client. By contrast, in a statement issued on Monday, Rape Crisis Scotland said the nature of Salmond’s legal defense risked “trivializing behaviours that would amount to sexual assault” and “turning the clock back on any progress [Scotland has] made towards a better conversation about sexual violence.”
Salmond is now thought to be planning a return to the Scottish political frontline and may stand for a seat at the next Holyrood election in May 2021, although party rules could prohibit this. (Salmond would first need to be formally readmitted to the SNP following his resignation from the party in 2018.) But the proxy war between his supporters and nationalists loyal to Sturgeon is already well underway.
In February, Cherry announced that she would battle it out with Angus Robertson — an influential former SNP MP and strategist with close ties to Sturgeon — to become the party’s nominee for the crucial seat of Edinburgh Central. The race could act as a litmus test for the nationalist base, sections of which have grown impatient with Sturgeon’s ultra-cautious approach to a second referendum on Scottish independence. Cherry wants the SNP to adopt a more adversarial stance toward the U.K. government, which is opposed to another independence vote. Robertson favours a negotiated resolution to the current constitutional stand-off.
In recent years, the SNP has been one of the most formidable vote-winning machines in Europe, scoring landmark victories at one election after another since 2007, when Salmond first steered the party into government at Holyrood. Under Sturgeon’s stewardship, the SNP has twice won an overwhelming majority of Scotland’s seats in the U.K. House of Commons and support for independence has reached a record high.
At the heart of the party’s success has been an unshakeable internal discipline, coupled with a rigid focus on the long-term goal of Scottish self-determination. In the wake of Salmond’s acquittal, that discipline looks increasingly unsustainable. After the historic challenge of coronavirus has subsided, the recriminations will begin. It’s not yet clear how far they will reach — or whether the SNP can survive them with its current leadership intact.
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