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  • Lucy Saddler

Sturgeon vs Salmond: where the hell are we?

I wouldn’t blame you if you’ve lost track of where we are in the latest investigation into the Scottish government’s handling of complaints against the former First Minister Alex Salmond. So far, we’ve had a (botched) internal inquiry, a judicial review, a criminal investigation, a court case and now a parliamentary inquiry. Throw into the mix a lot of political mudslinging, senior civil servants forgetting key dates, the First Minister forgetting key dates, the withholding of legal papers and written evidence and a pandemic – and I’m at a loss as to what to make of it all.

Here’s the timeline so far:

Dec 2017: Sturgeon signs off on the government’s new policy for dealing with complaints of sexual harassment and misconduct.

Jan 2018: Two female members of staff make a formal complaint to the Scottish government about Salmond’s behaviour. An internal inquiry is established and an investigating officer is appointed.

April – July: Nicola Sturgeon meets on a number of occasions with Salmond or speaks to him by phone.

August 22nd: Government inquiry completed, Salmond informed of this and Leslie Evans (Permanent Secretary to the Scottish Government) tells both Sturgeon and Salmond that she intends to make the fact of the complaints public.

August 23rd: The Daily Record breaks the story – Salmond tweets to say the complaints are not true and announces that he will launch a judicial review into the investigation handling, saying it was unjust.

August 24th: Sturgeon releases statement saying that she had been aware of the complaints and the investigation for “some time”, “initially from Alex Salmond” but that she had “no role in the process”.

September 14th: Police confirm that they have launched an investigation into the complaints. Separate from Salmond’s judicial review.

January 8th, 2019: Government admits defeat in the judicial review, they accept that the investigating officer had had previous contact with the complainers.

January 15th, 2019: MSPs agree to hold an enquiry into the government’s handling of the complaints against Salmond.

9th March, 2020: Alex Salmond’s criminal trial on 14 charges begins at the High Court in Edinburgh.

During the trial Geoff Aberdein – Salmond’s former chief of staff – testifies that he had met the First Minister in her Holyrood office on March 29th where they discussed the complaints against Salmond. This is a few days before April 2nd , which is when Sturgeon claims she first heard about the complaints from Salmond. She later said that she had “forgotten” about the earlier meeting.

March 23rd, 2020: Salmond is acquitted by the jury of all charges.

Now (November 2020): The parliamentary inquiry into the government’s handling of the complaints process is still ongoing – Sturgeon and Salmond are both yet to testify. Leslie Evans and other key senior civil servants have testified but the inquiry has been marred by them forgetting key dates/bits of information and the refusal of the Scottish government and Salmond to hand over key bits of written evidence and legal papers.

To summarise quickly: In January 2018 two female members of government staff made complaints against Alex Salmond. They were investigated by the government but a judicial review later found the process to be unlawful. There was then a criminal investigation which resulted in fourteen charges being brought against Salmond in a court case. In March 2020, Salmond was acquitted by a jury of all fourteen charges. A subsequent parliamentary inquiry into the government’s handling of the complaints is ongoing, with both Salmond and Sturgeon yet to testify. The scandal has caused a bitter fall out between the former leader and current leader of the SNP, a fallout that would have seemed unthinkable five years ago, with Sturgeon accused of conspiring against Salmond. Sturgeon was once Salmond’s protege and heir-apparent. Sturgeon has said in the past that Salmond “believed in me long before I believed in myself”.

Although eventually acquitted of all fourteen charges, the court case must have been embarrassing for Salmond. It painted the picture of a man buoyed by the power his role brought with a reliance on alcohol to destress and a tendency to veer into the inappropriate when interacting with female colleagues. Even now he appears a slightly washed up political figure mourning the loss of his power and prestige. He has refused to blend into the background and act as an elder statesman. But for Sturgeon the process must also be painful with her government botching the initial investigation and she is also under investigation by a standards panel over ill-advised meetings and conversations she had with Salmond about the complaints.

For the civil service in Scotland, the process is also painfully embarrassing. Top civil servants have forgotten key dates on several occasions, refused to answer questions when giving evidence, forgotten or deleted vital texts and repeatedly had to write to correct their evidence because they misremembered or just answered totally incorrectly. The parliamentary inquiry is offering the public a lens through which to view the inner workings of the highest level of government and so far, all they’ve been given is a fairly chaotic impression of ineptitude.

It’s clear that nobody involved is going to come out of this process well and with their reputation unbesmirched. But if this really is a battle between the former and the current First Minister, then current polling of the Scottish electorate might suggest that she’s winning it. I can’t help but think that recent independence opinion polls, giving the independence movement a consistent lead, might suggest that the public are willing to forgive and forget Sturgeon’s role in the scandal. Undoubtedly the coronavirus pandemic and her handling of it in Scotland has helped move the spotlight away from the Salmond fiasco and it is in this health crisis that she has moved furthest away from her predecessor.

Where Salmond enjoyed the limelight, Sturgeon clearly doesn’t and had to learn how to appear comfortable on the main stage. Salmond is all swash-buckling bravado and doesn’t like to be bothered by detail. Sturgeon is shy and meticulous, obsessing over the finer details. But it is this attention to detail and quiet honesty that has won her praise during this crisis. She doesn’t make sweeping predictions, preferring to simply admit when she doesn’t have the answers. Arguably it is the style rather than the substance of her performance in this crisis that has ensured her reputation has been buoyed. Her handling of coronavirus in care homes in Scotland and the exams fiasco at the end of August was poor. But the style and semantics she employs week in and week out at the daily briefings gloss over the substance.

Before this crisis engulfed us in March, I was no Sturgeon fan. As someone who would consider themselves a supporter of the union, supporting the SNP has always felt out of the question. Yet, I like Nicola Sturgeon and I like the way she governs. Her era feels remarkably removed from the aggressive nationalism of the Salmond era and it seems to be paying off at the polls. If she is even forcing voters like me to reconsider, her stock will continue to rise. The Salmond fiasco and her government’s handling of it was highly questionable. I don’t quite know what to make of the claims she led a conspiracy against Salmond with it becoming increasingly difficult to separate fact from fiction. But for now, the style of her political leadership is ensuring that she wins the “battle”.

Image: via tasnimnews

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