At long last, there he was. After twice previously cancelling his appearance, Alex Salmond appeared on Friday afternoon (26 February) before the Holyrood committee investigating the Scottish government’s handling of sexual misconduct complaints against him.
This was a serious moment, and Salmond presented appropriately: he was dressed in business blue, the ever-present saltire badge in his lapel, a frown firmly fixed above his beetle brows. He was battling “a small chest infection” which had left him with a stubborn cough, he told the committee, but he was never going to miss this chance. The ten-minute opening statement revealed a man simmering with fury at what he sees as his ill-treatment. Ever since he was found not guilty of the criminal charges against him 11 months ago he had held his tongue, he said, “but today that changes”. He would tell “the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth”, and every charge he made would be supported by evidence.
“I have no incentive or advantage in revisiting the hurt and shock of the last three years,” said Salmond. “For two years and six months this has been a nightmare. I have every desire to move on, to turn the page, to resist talking yet again about a series of events which have been amongst the most wounding that any person can face. But the reason I am here today is because we can’t turn that page, nor move on, until the decision-making which is undermining the system of government in Scotland is addressed.”
The Scottish government remained locked in his sights for the next five-and-a-half hours, in the shape of the civil service, the Crown prosecutor, ministers and their special advisers. “Scotland hasn’t failed, its leadership has failed,” Salmond insisted. He was especially focused on Leslie Evans, the Scottish civil service’s permanent secretary. Salmond attacked her “rushed” decision to establish a brand new procedure to investigate the complaints against him. It was the government’s attempt to defend this that led to its loss to Salmond in a civil court, which found the new procedure unlawful, unfair and “tainted by apparent bias”. He compared Evans unfavourably to a number of her predecessors.
Things got increasingly personal. Salmond asked – fairly, one might think – why no one in power had yet been held accountable for a bungled process that had seen him win the civil case, at a cost to the public purse of more than £500,000, before then being cleared of the charges against him in a criminal court. “Somebody has to accept responsibility for a calamitous occurrence and defeat,” he said. “An abject disaster,” he kept repeating, in case the point had been missed.
As the committee members threw their questions at him, it quickly became clear who was really in charge. It has been possible over the past few years to forget quite how gifted and sinuous a politician Salmond is, but we were reminded here. Frankly, he ran rings round the MSPs, displaying an impressive grasp of dates and facts, rarely needing to consult his notes. Questions about his past personal behaviour were brushed aside. He would brook no proffered defence of the government’s actions. SNP committee members who had once been ministers in his administration were treated to long, cold stares.
He turned his attention to Nicola Sturgeon, challenging the First Minister’s version of what she knew and when. He claimed that she had clearly broken the ministerial code of conduct in relation to the now-infamous meeting between the pair at Sturgeon’s home, though added it was up to others to decide whether she should resign. He was less reticent about other figures: in his view Leslie Evans, the Lord Advocate James Wolffe, and Peter Murrell, the SNP’s chief executive and Sturgeon’s husband, should all go.
The inquiry has repeatedly found itself frustrated and stymied by the Scottish government during its investigation, with evidence withheld or redacted. Here, Salmond and the committee members found themselves in accord, criticising the administration’s apparent secrecy and lack of candour. “If I had been convicted of anything at all this inquiry would have been moot. Fortunately for me, I wasn’t and it is taking place,” said Salmond.
Less fortunate for Nicola Sturgeon, perhaps, who next Wednesday (3 March) replaces her former mentor and friend in the committee’s hot seat. She will find it a less sympathetic environment, and will have to defend her own, her husband’s and her government’s behaviour. Salmond has done everything he can to make her experience considerably tougher. He may yet have his revenge.