Alex Salmond: the great gambler faces a spinning wheel

After a slew controveries, the former first minister is now confronted by the gravest charge yet: allegations of sexual assault. 

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Politicians are often risk-takers. The profession seems to draw those who like to roll life’s dice, the equivalent of the sweaty, late night casino-goer who tosses his last remaining chip on black with a “screw it” cackle. The kind of people who are content for their continued employment to be placed in the hands of a bunch of strangers every four or five years.

I can think of no more precise example of the type than Alex Salmond (well, perhaps Tom Driberg, but let’s stick with the living). Salmond is literally a gambler. For many years, the former SNP leader wrote a horseracing column for the Herald and then the Scotsman (an analysis found that he was rather more successful as a politician than as a tipster). There were suggestions around the time of the Leveson Inquiry that Salmond’s bank account had been hacked by a newspaper investigating rumours of gambling debts

Salmond is the kind of guy who attracts controversy. He is deliberately aggressive and relentlessly divisive. He is an alpha male who prefers the company of other alpha males, and who likes to make his own rules. Non-alphas are viewed and treated as inferior. Those who know him best say he is driven, above all other things, by status. To maintain his status and profile he has gambled again and again – Scotland is still dealing with the after-effects of this ferocious personal ambition today.

He has always been surrounded by rumour, too: there are plenty of hacks who have, over the years, gone sniffing – fruitlessly - around his private life. There has always been chatter about women, and a lot of journalists have sought to stand allegations up, with no success. Now, a claim has finally made it into the public domain.

A story in today’s Daily Record reveals that Salmond has been reported to police by the Scottish government over sexual assault allegations “after two staff members complained about historic behaviour dating back to his time as First Minister”. The newspaper says he is accused of carrying out an attack on one of the female employees in Bute House, the first minister’s official Edinburgh residence, in December 2013.

An extraordinary confrontation is now underway between the former first minister and the civil service who worked for him until he stepped down following the 2014 independence referendum defeat (it’s important to note that the investigation and police report were made by the civil service, led by permanent secretary Leslie Evans, following an internal investigation, and not by Salmond’s successor Nicola Sturgeon or her ministers).

Salmond has denied the allegations in some detail and has launched a judicial review in the Court of Session, challenging the legality of the government procedure used to investigate the claims. “This is a procedure so unjust that even now I have not been allowed to see and therefore to properly challenge the case against me. I have not been allowed to see the evidence,” he said. “I have tried everything, including offers of conciliation, mediation and legal arbitration to resolve these matters both properly and amicably. This would have been in everybody’s interests, particularly those of the two complainants. All of these efforts have been rejected. The Permanent Secretary chose to deny me contact with any current civil servant, many of whom wished to give evidence on my behalf and access to documentation to allow me to properly challenge the complaints, all of which I refute and some of which were patently ridiculous.”

The Scottish government has responded equally robustly, saying it will “defend its position vigorously”. “As a matter of principle and integrity, it is vital that any allegations of harassment are treated seriously and investigated thoroughly, regardless of the identity of the party involved,” a spokesman said. Evans said there were “significant inaccuracies” in Salmond’s statement.

After the story broke on Thursday night, and following Salmond’s attack on the nature of the investigation, the government published full details of its complains procedure when “current or former ministers” are involved. This makes it clear that Nicola Sturgeon was informed in advance of the allegations and probe: “For complaints involving a former Minister who is a member of the Party of the current Administration, the Permanent Secretary will inform the First Minister both in this capacity and in their capacity as Party Leader, of the outcome when the investigation is complete.” 

Sturgeon, who has long described her predecessor as her mentor, said in a statement today that it was Salmond himself who first informed her: “My relationship with Alex Salmond obviously makes this an extremely difficult situation for me to come to terms with. I am also acutely aware how upsetting this will be for my party. However, the overriding priority must be to ensure fair and due process. I would also ask that the privacy of those who have complained be respected.”

This is merely the latest controversy to afflict Salmond’s post-government career. His refusal to stay out of the limelight has led to tensions with Sturgeon and her ministers, and even his closest former allies are frustrated by his behaviour, continued outspokenness and what are seen as a series of self-serving actions and misjudgements. These include his one-man show at last year’s Edinburgh Fringe, his hosting of The Alex Salmond Show on RT - a channel that is funded by the Kremlin - and his remarks about the possibility of a second independence referendum.

Like everyone else, Salmond is innocent unless proven guilty, and even his worst enemies would do well to remember that. Nevertheless, the great gambler now faces a spinning wheel that might stop anywhere.

Chris Deerin is the New Statesman's contributing editor (Scotland).