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10 March 2021updated 11 Mar 2021 6:05pm

The Alex Salmond inquiry has failed to unsettle the SNP, but the vaccine roll-out might

Polls show support for Scottish independence has fallen and the problem can be traced back to a laboratory in Oxford. 

By Stephen Bush

An American film producer is accused of multiple counts of sexual harassment. He is fired from his production company, stripped of his accolades and, eventually, convicted and imprisoned. Five thousand miles away and four years later, as a direct result of the fallout from the affair, the 314-year Union between England and Scotland is saved.

That’s the unlikely story unionist politicians have started to tell themselves. The allegations against the Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein triggered the #MeToo movement and empowered victims to come forward with allegations of sexual harassment across much of the Western world.

The so-called Weinstein effect led to the departure of cabinet ministers from the Conservative government at Westminster and the Labour government in Cardiff. But the party that has faced the greatest disruption is the SNP in Scotland. Alex Salmond, the party’s former leader and in many ways the inventor of the modern SNP, was charged with multiple offences, including one count of attempted rape, one count of intent to rape, nine of sexual assault and two of indecent assault. He was subsequently found not guilty of 12 of the charges and “not proven” of the other.

The focus of the “Salmond affair” has since turned to the Scottish government’s handling of the allegations against the former first minister. The Scottish parliament and the Scottish government have both established inquiries into the matter. It is the latter, the so-called Hamilton inquiry, upon which Nicola Sturgeon’s opponents have come to rest their hopes: if it is concluded that the First Minister broke the ministerial code, she will probably have to resign.

That the Hamilton inquiry is now the great hope of Sturgeon’s political opponents is, in part, a reflection of their bungled handling of the Holyrood inquiry. The committee’s MSPs had Sturgeon in front of them for eight hours on 3 March, yet failed to lay a glove on her. (One Conservative, watching their Scottish counterparts struggle, sent a despairing WhatsApp message: “God, we really don’t send our best, do we?”)

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A large part of the problem is that, transparently, many MSPs on the committee are more concerned about “getting Nicola” than they are about uncovering the truth. As a consequence, they did a poor job on both fronts, and they made little attempt to unpack the ambiguities of the case. With some exceptions, notably the Labour MSP Jackie Baillie, they preferred to needle the First Minister rather than to probe her.

[see also: Nicola Sturgeon’s assured inquiry performance shows her job is likely safe]

The SNP’s internal difficulties – and the truth or otherwise of the allegations against Salmond – have been a means to an end for many of the party’s opponents. As one Scottish Labour politician gleefully said to me the morning the allegations against Salmond were published, it was as if Keir Hardie, Clement Attlee and Tony Blair had all come under investigation by the government of Harold Wilson – “Christmas” for Scottish Labour, in other words. Whether or not women had been sexually assaulted, as was alleged, or whether an innocent man could go to prison, seemed to escape attention. The opposition parties at Holyrood have failed to take advantage of the Salmond case because so few of their number have ever grappled with the severity of it.

Yet opinion polls still show that support for independence is falling slightly, while support for both the Scottish Conservatives and Scottish Labour is rising. For some in the pro-Union parties, the polls are a sign that their inquiry is helping them, even if its members are failing to unsettle the First Minister.

Look closer, however, and the picture is more complicated. Sturgeon’s approval ratings remain essentially unchanged. While Scotland continues to have a higher level of political engagement in the wake of the 2014 referendum, most Scots aren’t following the often arcane proceedings of the Salmond inquiry. And many of them, like most voters in England, get their news in short bursts on music radio, whose newsbreaks are largely set in London and reflect politics in England.

The explanation, I think, for the slight dip in support for the SNP has less to do with its divisions over the Salmond affair than with the success of the vaccine roll-out, which according to most polls is giving a boost to the Conservatives across Britain. The speed, effectiveness and, above all, the perceived fairness of the roll-out (no one has been able to buy their way to the front of the queue, while the most vulnerable people and healthcare workers have been prioritised) are all good adverts for the United Kingdom and for central government in particular. The same applies to the fact that the UK has control of its own currency and central bank, which has allowed the Johnson government to make extraordinary emergency interventions during the crisis.

However, the Chancellor Rishi Sunak likes to present those interventions as an exhausting strain on the state that must be paid for sooner rather later. This prompted one SNP politician to quip that the British government’s position might be that an independent Scotland would not have been able to afford the costs of lockdown, but that the UK can’t either.

The SNP’s present difficulties, then, should perhaps not be traced back to a film set in Hollywood, but rather a laboratory in Oxford. The story is a reminder that if the Union is to be saved, it will be saved by ending England’s dysfunctional politics, not through a series of constitutional tricks to see off the appeal of nationalism in Scotland. And while the vaccine bounce may not last for long, it only has to continue a little longer, and to reach a little higher, to ruin the SNP’s biggest and best shot at independence this side of the next general election. 

[see also: A kingdom of fragments]

This article appears in the 10 Mar 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Grief nation