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The Salmond trial and SNP factionalism

Writing: Megan Kenyon

Under normal circumstances, the results of the trial of Alex Salmond would have been headline news. As it stands, these are not normal circumstances. Emerging from the Edinburgh High Court, the SNP’s former leader had been acquitted on all counts of sexual assault which he had been accused of. While his trial may be over, its ramifications for the party at large have yet to come to fruition.

The enigmatic factionalism of the SNP often slips under the radar. United by the single goal of independence, the party finds it easier than most to bury the particulars of its internal divisions. While Alex Salmond’s recent trial has been overshadowed by the ongoing crisis of Covid-19, the stage has been set for a deepening of the party’s enduring rifts when the dust settles. With a number of key figures at the top of the party calling for an inquiry into the Scottish Government’s processes, Nicola Sturgeon’s leadership appears set for a difficult road ahead.

At the SNP Conference in October 2019, the issue at hand became clear. What is the best route to independence in a post-Brexit Britain? This question is age-old and has long been one bandied about among the party leadership, dividing the SNP into factions and causing internal rifts. Suggestions of a “wildcat referendum” – labelled Plan B by speakers at the conference – were voted down by delegates. But as impatience grows within the party, the route to its fundamental goal appears to be fuelling tensions. This is an issue over which the relationship between Sturgeon and Salmond has been particularly factitious. With the party leadership opting for a more cautious approach, so-called ‘Salmondites’ have persistently pushed for a route that is far more radical.

Posing himself as something of a party elder, Alex Salmond’s agenda has always been plain. Independence by any means necessary. The SNP under Salmond was something of a different beast. The former first minister of Scotland, Salmond brought the party to the forefront of the Scottish political agenda and saw the country go to the polls at the 2014 Independence Referendum.

Sturgeon on the other hand has famously been more cautious; she has pioneered an approach to the primary goal of independence which takes steps that are far more gradual. But there has always been a link between the pair. Salmond has often been thought of as Sturgeon’s mentor, with Sturgeon playing a part in his ascendency to the party leadership in 1990. Since the announcement of allegations against Salmond, relations between the once political power-couple have turned particularly sour.

Salmond is supported by a cohort of SNP heavyweights such as QC, Joanna Cherry, the MP for Edinburgh South West who was a key player in the court case against prorogation. Cherry, alongside others in the party such as MSP Alex Neil, have been among those calling for an inquiry into party processes surrounding the accusations that were brought against Salmond. The former Justice Secretary in Holyrood, Kenny MacAskill has also weighed in in Salmond’s defence, claiming that the case had been set up by some members of the party in order to discredit the party’s former leader.

In recent months, Angus Robertson, an ally to Sturgeon and the previous leader of the SNP in Westminster, threw his hat into the ring for the Edinburgh South West candidacy at next year’s Holyrood elections. Not long after Robertson’s declaration, Cherry also announced her intentions to stand. Internal divisions such as this, and the ongoing debate between Cherry and MP Mhairi Black regarding the changes to the Gender Recognition Act have been signposted by some as an overflowing of the factional debate over independence. It would seem that the upcoming inquiry into party processes may be weaponised for the same means.

In the midst of Salmond’s emergence from the Edinburgh High Court, rumours swirled suggesting that next year’s Holyrood election could see a return to power for the former First Minister. With the inquiry into the Scottish Government’s processes examining the allegations against Salmond firmly on the cards, things look set to be tricky for Sturgeon. While her leadership throughout the ongoing covid-19 crisis has been exemplary, her rivals are biting at her heels.

Indeed, the SNP’s united front from the outside appears unbeatable. Their drive towards independence and collective disdain for Westminster has, in previous instances, made the party appear as though it were coated in Teflon – no scandal has ever really seemed to stick. Yet, the trial of Alex Salmond and its results have exposed the rift at the heart of the party’s ascendant ruling body. Being united in the desire for independence is only so helpful if you can make a decision on how to get there.

Image: via tasnimnews

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