Alex Salmond stopped short of calling for Nicola Sturgeon’s resignation during his appearance before a Holyrood Committee last week, but the implication was clear. “Scotland’s leadership has failed” he declared, while also taking aim at those in charge of Scotland’s civil and prosecution services, as well as the SNP.
While little of what Mr Salmond had to say about the alleged “deliberate, prolonged, malicious and concerted” attempt by Nicola Sturgeon’s inner circle to discredit and even imprison him was necessarily new, that did not diminish the impact of his marathon six-hour session.
Nicola Sturgeon will have an opportunity to respond this week, but used her daily Covid briefing last Wednesday to get in some pre-emptive retaliation. She questioned whether the motive behind Mr Salmond’s allegations lay more in his unwillingness to face up to the consequences of his own inappropriate behaviour towards women than the existence of a “grand conspiracy”. It is not impossible that both may turn out to be right, even if only in part.
James Hamilton QC, currently investigating the alleged breaches of the ministerial code by Nicola Sturgeon, has not yet reached a determination. Nevertheless, the First Minister has already admitted to misleading parliament, albeit inadvertently, over the date she first learned of the allegations against her predecessor. For someone renowned for their mastery of detail, not vividly recalling the precise moment the bombshell dropped that your mentor and close friend was being investigated over complaints of serious sexual assault seems a stretch.
Trickier still is the allegation that Nicola Sturgeon’s office leaked to Mr Salmond’s former chief of staff the name of one of the two civil servants who made the initial complaints. When confronted about this at FMQs, the First Minister’s carefully replied, “not to my knowledge”: hardly the most robust denial. Having maintained throughout that her priority is protecting the women at the centre of this sordid affair, the First Minister will know that, if true, such a grotesque betrayal of one of the women involved would be unforgivable.
All of which makes it hard to comprehend those arguing that coverage of these events has been blown out of proportion by the ‘mainstream media’. A former First Minister accusing an incumbent First Minister of lying to parliament and conspiring, along with 'agents of the state', to have him imprisoned is undeniably headline news, not just nationally but internationally.
Talk of ‘failed states’ and ‘banana republics’ is, of course, the ridiculous hyperbole of people with their own political agendas, but a refusal to accept there are serious issues here about how government, parliament and our civic institutions function and relate to each other is self-deluding.
Moreover, it reveals a challenge arising from the SNP’s prolonged electoral success over the last decade and a half, particularly in a country this size.
We often draw comfort and strength from the notion of Scotland as ‘a village’, where lines of communication are shorter and taking a joined-up approach to dealing with issues is easier, at least in theory. The other side of this coin, however, is that challenging the prevailing orthodoxy, political or otherwise, can be difficult. For those who rock the boat or whose face doesn’t fit, it may be uncomfortable at times.
Such was the claim made during Labour’s long dominance of Scottish politics, and with good reason. The same charge is now levelled at the SNP, whose success has been built on a ruthless discipline and control from the centre of which their Labour predecessors could only dream.
Over time, this has an effect on the behaviour of those in the public sector, for obvious reasons. More subtly, though, it can seep into the way the third and even private sector behave. If grant funding, access to contracts or just an ability to influence policy appears dependent upon relationships with Ministers and a government whose grip on power is resolute, what incentive is there to ‘make waves’?
Concern about this should not hinge on one’s position over independence, far less the feud between Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon. As we rebuild from the pandemic, the checks and balances within our political and civic institutions could usefully undergo an MOT.