Support 100 years of independent journalism.

  1. Politics
  2. The Staggers
23 March 2021updated 23 Jul 2021 1:21pm

How both Nicola Sturgeon and Alex Salmond managed to shake off scandal

Despite the chaos within Scotland’s ruling party, both SNP titans have headlines they are happy with.

By Ailbhe Rea

Nicola Sturgeon did not breach the ministerial code over her handling of the Alex Salmond harassment case, an independent investigation by James Hamilton QC, the Scottish government’s independent adviser on ministerial standards, has found.  

That’s the crucial conclusion that has made headlines this morning, and that is an important outcome for Scotland’s First Minister. She is no longer fighting to stay in her position, and will inevitably survive the vote of no confidence today (the Greens have confirmed they won’t be voting against her given Hamilton’s findings) and her position is, to all intents and purposes, safe.

[See also: Nicola Sturgeon can breathe easier thanks to her incompetent opponents]

In this respect, Hamilton’s findings about Sturgeon have some parallels with another legal process involving her former political ally almost exactly a year ago. Alex Salmond was cleared of all of the sexual offences charges against him in his high-profile trial; he, similar to Sturgeon, got the result that he wanted. But in both cases, not everything in the outcome of the legal process is as flattering for the First Minister or former first minister. As Stephen Bush notes in his snap take on the Sturgeon outcome, Hamilton clears Sturgeon of breaking the ministerial code but casts doubt on the effectiveness of her handling of the allegations against her predecessor, and questions over her conversations with Salmond remain unanswered.

This is also the conclusion of the Holyrood committee of MSPs investigating the affair. As was previously leaked, the committee, dismissed as partisan by the SNP leadership, has found that Sturgeon misled it, that her account of finding out about the allegations was “hard to believe”, and that her handling of the complaints was “seriously flawed”. 

Sign up for The New Statesman’s newsletters Tick the boxes of the newsletters you would like to receive. Quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics from the New Statesman's politics team. The New Statesman’s global affairs newsletter, every Monday and Friday. The best of the New Statesman, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning. The New Statesman’s weekly environment email on the politics, business and culture of the climate and nature crises - in your inbox every Thursday. A handy, three-minute glance at the week ahead in companies, markets, regulation and investment, landing in your inbox every Monday morning. Our weekly culture newsletter – from books and art to pop culture and memes – sent every Friday. A weekly round-up of some of the best articles featured in the most recent issue of the New Statesman, sent each Saturday. A newsletter showcasing the finest writing from the ideas section and the NS archive, covering political ideas, philosophy, criticism and intellectual history - sent every Wednesday. Sign up to receive information regarding NS events, subscription offers & product updates.

[See also: Scottish independence poll tracker: will Scotland vote to leave the UK?]

Salmond’s defence made use of the argument that some of his behaviour was “inappropriate”, to quote his own lawyer, but not criminal. The former first minister “could have been a better man”, his lawyer said: “He behaved badly, I’m not here to defend him, but attempted rape? It doesn’t fit.” When Salmond was cleared of all the charges against him, the public conversation didn’t register that the former first minister had behaved at times in a way that was “inappropriate” by his own lawyer’s admission.

Content from our partners
How do we secure the hybrid office?
How materials innovation can help achieve net zero and level-up the UK
Fantastic mental well-being strategies and where to find them

Both SNP titans have headlines they are happy with, and the public conversation won’t fully absorb the more complex aspects around the edges of that: “inappropriate” behaviour from Salmond, and a potentially ineffective handling of the allegations against him by Sturgeon. At the core is the same problem: a failure by the SNP’s opponents to treat this as a serious story about real women bringing serious allegations, rather than a scandal in Scotland’s ruling party that would, somehow, in ways the opposition parties hadn’t quite worked out, destroy the SNP. 

[See also: Nicola Sturgeon won’t resign, but the Salmond scandal could yet be her downfall]