Alex Salmond has gone full Trump – and could split the SNP

The former leader’s resignation from the party over sexual harassment allegations pits his supporters against Nicola Sturgeon’s. 

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If you want to understand what’s going on at the top of the SNP, look at the Twitter feeds. The official statement paints one picture. Responding to the news that Alex Salmond has resigned his SNP membership while he battles allegations of sexual misconduct, Nicola Sturgeon said that she felt “a huge sadness about this whole situation. Alex has been my friend and mentor for almost 30 years.”

Her Twitter account hints at a less sympathetic view, however. The release of the above statement was followed by a series of tweets and retweets by the First Minister in support of Rape Crisis and Women’s Aid. Liz Lloyd, her chief of staff, did similar. The most senior special adviser in her government, Colin McAllister, retweeted a Rape Crisis Scotland message that “For any women considering speaking out about abuse or harassment, we say you are not alone.” Point made.

If it is not yet clear how this nuclear moment in nationalist politics will ultimately play out, it seems safe to say the key relationships that drove the SNP to their decade-long position of political eminence are ruined forever. Salmond, who strongly denies the allegations against him, has responded to the complaints by launching a judicial review of the Scottish government’s handling of the situation. He may be a relatively wealthy man, but he nevertheless set up a crowdfunder to meet the bill for his legal action. Within 12 hours his target of £50,000 had been met, and was approaching £70,000.

The division is clear: those nationalists who view Salmond as some sort of secular saint due to the narrow defeat in the 2014 independence referendum are standing by their man. Others, who perhaps have a more rational view of the import of the allegations, and of the Yes movement’s future and reputation, have rallied behind Sturgeon.

All of this, of course, ignores the two complainants at the centre of the furore. It must have taken great courage to step forward, and they will surely be looking at how events are developing with some alarm.

The aggression with which Salmond has responded has been breath-taking. Recent days have not cast the Scottish media in its best light. The focus of many (almost all male) columnists and editors and their front pages has been on “what did Nicola know and when did she know it”. This is a reasonable line of interrogation, but a strange journalistic priority. It was the First Minister who set up the complaints system that enabled her political mentor to be investigated over sexual misconduct allegations and then reported to the police.

A sample of opinion among women on Twitter suggests they overwhelmingly view Sturgeon’s behaviour with respect. Will Scottish victims of sexual harassment take confidence from the tone and direction of the public debate as they consider coming forward?

For his part, Salmond has gone full Trump. He is publicly and loudly taking on the system, portraying himself as a wronged man who is being treated shabbily. Those who know him well view his actions with horror, but little surprise. Since departing Bute House in 2014, the former first minister has spun beyond SNP control – he has tried to be a back-seat driver as Sturgeon has sought to move the party and government out of his long shadow, and he has taken every opportunity to promote his personal brand, including presenting The Alex Salmond Show on the Kremlin-funded RT channel. Even before the sexual harassment allegations, his egotism meant he had few friends left at the centre of power.

The scene is now set for a potential split among pro-independence supporters, who in the past were chiefly noted for their obsessive loyalty to the cause. Sturgeon is clearly aware of this, and in her response to Salmond’s resignation from the party made sure to say that she agreed “with Alex that the cause of independence, to which he and I have dedicated our entire lives, is bigger than any one individual.” But can the centre hold? Will the gung-ho parts of the Yes movement, already frustrated by the First Minister’s refusal to push for a second referendum, and who have been assiduously courted by Salmond, find their loyalty stretched to breaking point? What will Middle Scotland think of it all when it comes to the next elections?

The irony that nationalism’s greatest figure could potentially blow the whole thing up is extraordinary. But more important is that a culture is created in which any alleged victims of sexual misconduct feel they will be treated fairly and decently if they have the courage to come forward. It’s not clear that Scotland is handling its #MeToo moment with much dignity.

Chris Deerin is the New Statesman's contributing editor (Scotland).