Why the SNP’s opponents aren’t benefiting from the Salmond-Sturgeon feud

All the main parties have handled allegations of sexual harassment poorly.

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The inquiry into the Scottish government’s handling of allegations of sexual harassment against Alex Salmond will not hear evidence from the former first minister today, after the Scottish parliament withdrew and then republished a revised version of Salmond’s written submission, following advice from the Scottish Crown Office.

Salmond, who has offered to attend this Friday (26 February) instead, has said that he cannot appear before the committee unless his evidence is published in full. He insists that individuals within the Scottish government and the SNP planned to damage his reputation, even to the extent of sending him to prison, and has accused his successor, Nicola Sturgeon, of misleading the Scottish parliament and breaking the ministerial code. Sturgeon denies the claims. 

The ongoing dispute about the Scottish government's handling of the charges against Salmond, who in March last year was found not guilty of 12 charges of attempted rape, sexual assault and indecent assault, and “not proven” on a further charge of sexual assault, has yet to dent the SNP’s popularity or interrupt its march to a fourth consecutive election victory. 

[see also: The Alex Salmond affair has shown Scotland at its worst]

While the party’s internal divisions are not going away, the fantasy of some of the SNP’s opponents – that the Salmond inquiry would boost their chances – has proven to be just that: a fantasy.

For Scottish politics, the more significant event yesterday was probably Sturgeon’s unveiling of the Scottish government’s route out of lockdown, which is more cautious than the plan for England. The coronavirus crisis has allowed the First Minister to demonstrate the ways in which she is unlike Boris Johnson – she speaks in an accessible, easy-to-understand way, she largely avoids jokes and analogies, and she generally sounds more careful than the Prime Minister – even on the occasions when she hasn’t been. Since December, that tonal difference has been accompanied by a genuine policy divergence: Scotland has had a far tougher lockdown considering its caseload and it is plotting a longer journey out of it too. 

[see also: Why support for Scottish independence is more fragile than it appears]

The uncomfortable reality for the SNP’s opponents is that, whatever the truth of the Sturgeon-Salmond divisions, no party can say it handled well the wave of sexual allegations that followed the #MeToo revelations in Hollywood in 2017, whether it is Theresa May restoring the whip to Charlie Elphicke, who was later convicted of sexual assault; Labour’s unresolved sexual harassment claims; or the legitimate allegations brushed aside across the House. It is no wonder the Salmond row has not changed the political climate in Scotland.

That speaks to the real challenge before the SNP’s opponents: if they want to beat the party, they need to first demonstrate that they are a better alternative, whether through governing England well or doing a better job of handling their own internal affairs.

Stephen Bush is political editor of the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics. He also co-hosts the New Statesman podcast.

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