Anyone who has met Alex Salmond knows that you wouldn’t want him as an enemy. The former Scottish first minister is a born arguer: half-poetic, half-patronising, and generally overpowering.
Salmond once tormented New Labour, then David Cameron’s Conservatives. Now he torments his own former allies. His friction with the Scottish National party ended when he became its leader, and restarted shortly after he stepped down.
He accuses his successor, the current first minister Nicola Sturgeon, of lying to parliament, in relation to an investigation into harassment allegations against him. If proven, this would normally be a resigning offence for her.
She claims that she mixed up the date when she heard about the allegations, because she forgot about a meeting which one former Salmond aide says was specifically organised to discuss them. Salmond says a government official leaked the name of one of those who complained about him, a potentially serious breach of confidentiality that Sturgeon denies.
She also denies other figures, including her husband, the SNP chief executive Peter Murrell, acted maliciously against Salmond, although Murrell’s text messages show that he welcomed the police taking action.
Salmond’s case is that senior figures wanted to “remove me from public life in Scotland”. In truth, he was already marginal to public life. By 2018, he had lost his seat as an MP, and was hosting a chat show on the Kremlin-backed TV station, RT (Freeview channel 234).
He wanted the SNP to push quickly for a second referendum, but the party was in Sturgeon’s hands and largely ignored him. His influence waned further when he admitted acting inappropriately towards younger women, although a court acquitted him of sexual assault and rape.
One poll found Salmond is less popular in Scotland than Boris Johnson, which some thought impossible. He retains the affections of only one in four independence supporters. Nonetheless, the affair is clearly bad for the SNP, whose poll ratings have otherwise been as unresponsive to reality as Tesla’s share price. Brexit and coronavirus had increased public support for the party. Salmond’s re-emergence will remind some swing voters of the old SNP, which they didn’t like. He is scratching the consensual veneer that Sturgeon gained with her leadership during the pandemic.
Every poll in the last nine months has found a majority for independence, but the latest, published this week, is a marginal 52 per cent to 48 per cent. In a way, it’d be surprising if Scotland didn’t vote for independence. The SNP has been the biggest party and in government since 2007. Imagine if the UK Independence party were in power for a decade without achieving Brexit.
Sturgeon is lucky. If she needs a precedent for someone breaking the ministerial code and not resigning, Johnson has provided one. He refused to sack Priti Patel, his home secretary, even after an investigation found her to have bullied officials. If Sturgeon needs to explain why procedures weren’t adhered to, or parliament was treated with contempt, she can nod to Johnson’s behaviour, including his threat to break international law.
This is why it is grubby and depressing to see Salmond versus Sturgeon through the lens of independence. It should be about something bigger. Over the past decade, the norms of British politics have become eroded. Principles of good practice have been made subservient to higher purposes — Brexit, Jeremy Corbyn, Scottish independence. Those who have crossed lines have not resigned or apologised, because to do so would weaken the cause. Those who have complained have been ignored.
In Scotland, no one has been held accountable for the flawed investigation into Salmond, which led to him winning £512,000 in costs in a judicial review. Only one-quarter of SNP supporters say that Sturgeon should resign if she’s found to have misled an independent investigation.
A lack of accountability chokes good governance. It deprives political debate of its escape valves. It deepens partisanship. “You can break the rules, but not the conventions”, is how someone once explained the game of bridge to me. Indeed, there are procedures to enforce rules, but conventions rely on personal responsibility and shame.
The Salmond-Sturgeon affair may determine Scotland’s fate, or it may not. She could be a key figure in a second independence referendum, even if she is found to have acted wrongly. Yet before we can have fruitful debates about the future of the UK, we should re-establish some basic democratic decency. If Salmond’s allegations of serious wrongdoing are upheld, resignations must follow.