What must Scotland make of itself now? Of its government and its governing party? Of its former First Minister? Of its current First Minister? Of what Scottish justice is?
The questions left hanging in the wake of Alex Salmond’s acquittal on charges of sexual assault are multitudinous, and will doubtless be answered in unforgiving fashion over the coming months. This is far from over, as Salmond made clear on the steps of the court. Key evidence he had been prevented from airing in court would be made public, he said: “At some point, that information, facts and evidence will see the light of day.” His rage and clear thirst for revenge will not be deflected.
Salmond has won on all legal fronts – first in his civil case against the Scottish government over the way it conducted its inquiry into the allegations against him, and now in a criminal court in the most dramatic trial Scotland has witnessed in years. His reputation may have taken a battering in recent weeks, his morals and behaviour exposed as questionable, to say the least, but he has been cleared of sexually assaulting nine women.
Salmond is said to believe there was a political conspiracy against him, which will strike anyone who has been covering Scottish politics and the internal machinations of the SNP for the past few decades as unlikely. It is worth bearing in mind that his accusers were SNP politicians and advisers, and senior civil servants, high-achieving career women, some with significant public reputations, all with much to lose. Mr Salmond is innocent, says the jury. The women have lost. One feels for them, given all they have risked. But where does it all leave us?
Given the profile of the case, there should clearly be an independent public inquiry, as well as the parliamentary probes that have already begun. The same would be true had the verdict gone the other way. Nicola Sturgeon faces uncomfortable questions about private, unminuted meetings with her predecessor after the allegations first emerged. Scotland’s top civil servant, Leslie Evans, who oversaw the government inquiry, will be in Salmond’s sights. The rabid, largely male, cybernat community, whose social media comments have strained at the legal boundaries in past weeks, will expect bodies. It is essential that the complainants have their anonymity preserved, even in this age of social media savagery. And the country needs this most distasteful and upsetting of periods dealt with transparently and neutrally in order, eventually, to move on.
Salmond’s supporters were quick out of the blocks after the verdict was announced. Joanna Cherry, a prominent SNP MP and critic of Sturgeon, tweeted that “there should be an independent inquiry into how the SNP dealt with these allegations”, adding archly that she was “sure the… Chief Executive [Sturgeon’s husband Peter Murrell] would welcome the opportunity”. Kenny MacAskill, another MP and Salmond ally, declared bluntly: “Some resignations now required.” Scores will be settled, not all of which are necessarily related solely to this trial.
As Salmond left the court, victoriously bumping elbows with his QC Gordon Jackson, it was said he intends to resume his political career by returning to the Holyrood backbenches at next year’s devolved election. The idea of him sitting behind Sturgeon in the chamber is almost unthinkably toxic after all that has passed. Can the First Minister survive this? What should voters make of a governing party that is so publicly and traumatically split?
In the meantime, Sturgeon cannot afford to be distracted from dealing with coronavirus, and neither can the country afford her to be. This crisis requires all her attention, long hours and total focus. But she knows now that there is another enemy on the horizon – her former mentor and friend – and that there will, one way or another, be a significant price to pay.