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Salmond vs Sturgeon: when friendship turns to war

After Alex Salmond was accused of sexual harassment, his protégée, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, investigated him. The fallout has destroyed their relationship – and threatens the independence movement. 

Twenty-five years ago, the SNP was far from being the natural governing party of Scotland – with the attendant limos and government-funded mansion on Charlotte Square in Edinburgh. Instead, it was a small, slightly ramshackle, often-mocked outfit based in a cramped, shabby office above a pawn shop near Princes Street.

The 1992 general election had returned only three SNP MPs to Westminster. There was no such thing as Holyrood. Instead, what power there was resided above that pawn shop. King of the show was Alex Salmond, then in his first stint as party leader. He shared the space with Mike Russell, now Nicola Sturgeon’s Brexit secretary, at that time the cocky, cigar-chomping chief executive of the party. The men gathered some of the brightest emerging talent in Scottish politics: Angus Robertson, who would lead the SNP at Westminster during the Cameron administration; the economist Andrew Wilson, who chaired the recent growth commission; and Duncan Hamilton, a lawyer who became the youngest MSP in the first Scottish parliament.

There was also another fledgling lawyer, Nicola Sturgeon. Of them all, Sturgeon was viewed as “The One”. No one – Alex Salmond included – doubted she would one day lead the SNP.

As a student in 1990, Sturgeon had joined Salmond’s successful campaign to become SNP leader. She first stood for the SNP in the 1992 general election at the age of 21, encouraged by her leader. “In other words,” she has said, “he believed in me long before I believed in myself.” When she was 27, Salmond had the confidence to put her in charge of a committee that would cost the party’s manifesto commitments ahead of the first elections to the new Scottish parliament.

All this is vital to understanding the trauma ripping through the nationalist movement. Be in no doubt: today, Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon are irreparably, irrevocably at war over sexual assault allegations made against Salmond by two female civil servants in the Scottish government,. They relate to his time as first minister. The complaints were investigated over eight months by Sturgeon’s administration under a process she approved, and which was drawn up by her permanent secretary Leslie Evans, before being referred to police.

The story was broken in graphic detail in August last year by the Daily Record. The alleged victim accused Salmond of multiple incidences of harassment and conduct of an unwanted sexual nature. One specific incident relates to a night in December 2013 at Bute House, the grand official residence of the first minister in Edinburgh. The complainer claims she was alone with Salmond following an official engagement at which he had been drinking. She said he instructed her to move to his bedroom and then repeatedly offered her alcohol, despite her refusals. He is alleged to have told the woman to get in the bed before lying on top of her, kissing her and touching her breasts and bottom through her clothes, only stopping after being asked repeatedly.

Salmond admits he is “no saint” and “no angel”, but denies the allegations. He has launched the political equivalent of shock and awe tactics against them: beginning a legal action against the Scottish government over its handling of the investigation, and setting up a crowdfunding appeal to cover his costs. (He quickly raised more than £100,000 from more than 4,000 people.) The point was made: Sturgeon’s predecessor would fight his corner, and could count on continued support from a substantial section of the pro-independence movement, especially among the often unpleasantly aggressive online hordes known as “Cybernats”.

Disastrously for Sturgeon and her top civil servant Evans, Salmond won his court case earlier this month over the Scottish government’s conduct of the investigation on the basis of procedural errors. The government was forced to admit that its lengthy probe was “tainted by apparent bias”: its investigating officer had substantial prior contact with one of the accusers before taking up the role.

While the police investigation into the allegations of sexual misconduct goes, Salmond’s attempts to turn the whole affair into public farce also continue. He is intent on securing the scalp of Leslie Evans, Scotland’s first female permanent secretary, demanding she consider her position because of “abject humiliation” and “institutional fiasco”. Her bungled handling of the complaints procedure has left her vulnerable – and it may have cost the taxpayer something in the region of £500,000 in legal fees. It is difficult to find a politician on any side of the divide who thinks her job is secure – or ought to be – especially if the police eventually find that Salmond has no case to answer.

But Sturgeon is standing by her woman, which has enraged Salmond. The First Minister is now under investigation by a standards panel over ill-advised private meetings and conversations she held with her predecessor after the complaints were made against him, which opponents say broke the ministerial code of conduct.

It is a terrible mess. Were it not for Brexit, the story would doubtless have greater purchase on the public consciousness. Imagine if the principals involved were not Sturgeon and Salmond but Theresa May and David Cameron.

Except for the SNP, it’s worse than that. For years, Salmond and Sturgeon have been the alpha and omega of nationalist politics. Their previously harmonious relationship has been a secret weapon, a standing rebuke to the game-playing and self-advancement that defines the big players in the other parties. Whatever the disagreements in private, there was never a hint of division in public. This set the tone and helped shaped a movement that has shown astonishing levels of discipline and unity.

Sturgeon has often described Salmond as her “friend and mentor”. It is unlikely we will ever hear that phrase again, and that famous discipline has all but broken down. There have been ferocious exchanges between the two politicians’ camps, with Sturgeon’s spokesman accusing the other side of attempting to “smear the First Minister”.

The SNP group at Westminster has divided into two – the majority support Sturgeon, but a small number maintain their allegiance to Salmond. Kenny MacAskill, who was Salmond’s justice secretary, has accused “a coterie surrounding the SNP leadership” of seeking to drive out “any who might taint her… not one blemish must be allowed to be cast upon the party leader and First Minister. She is to be whiter than white and the SNP purer than the driven snow”.

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In truth, the united front was always something of a mirage. A shared belief in independence made it easier for the SNP to stay focused, and to skirt the kinds of awkward issues that divide the other mainstream parties. But behind the scenes it has never been hard to identify differences both in ideology and personality, or the rivalries and plotting that are commonplace in politics. And, political beliefs aside, Salmond and Sturgeon could hardly be more different. Salmond is gregarious, swaggering and domineering. He takes easily to the main stage and expects to be the centre of attention, he doesn’t like to be bothered by detail. Sturgeon is more introverted and bookish, perhaps even a little awkward. She has had to learn how to appear comfortable in the public eye and she obsesses over the small print. Salmond has certainly been her mentor, but they have never been true friends. Indeed, according to one source who knows both well, one of the reasons for Salmond’s rage is his belief that he “created” Sturgeon and that she is now displaying intolerable disloyalty: “His anger towards her is quite breathtaking. He feels betrayed.”

With the creation of the parliament in Holyrood, Sturgeon’s path was set – she was put on the front bench and would never leave it. In 2004, when Salmond returned for his second stint as SNP leader, his protégée became his deputy. When the party won power at Holyrood for the first time in 2007, Sturgeon became deputy first minister and health secretary. When Salmond stood down following defeat in the independence referendum in 2014, there was never any question about his replacement – Sturgeon was elected unopposed.

With this symbiotic history it’s little surprise, then, that the break, now it has arrived, is having such an effect. Even without the sexual misconduct claims against Salmond, it was inevitable. To the annoyance of Sturgeon and her advisers, Salmond has refused to merge into the background as an elder statesman of nationalism. Instead, he has made regular rogue statements about another referendum, staged a one-man show at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2017, where he happily spoke about political issues, and launched a chat show on the Kremlin-funded channel RT.

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The main question on the minds of SNP strategists is: how does this end? How far is Salmond willing to push it? Is Sturgeon’s position as first minister at risk? And what does it all mean for the cause of Scottish independence?

One MP loyal to Sturgeon believes her position as leader and first minister should be safe. “What you have is a fuck up, no question, by the civil service, and the most raging of raging egos on the other side. There’s a sense in both the Westminster and Holyrood groups of ‘how on earth did we let this happen?’ We have staked our reputation in government on competence. I think we can get through it, and that Nicola’s secure, but that largely depends on Salmond and how he chooses to behave. She’s the First Minister and needs to maintain her dignity, so the agenda can only really be set by him.”

Yet in the independence movement, there is a threat of a split between those who support Salmond and those who don’t. This aligns with another emerging difference in party opinion: those who believe Sturgeon should hold a second Scottish independence referendum as soon as possible, and those who prefer to allow the consequences of Brexit to play out in a nation that voted 62 per cent Remain. “No matter what the police investigation finds, there will always be an enormous bunch of people who will feel Salmond has been wronged,” says one MP. “They are the headbangers of our movement, and there’s not much we can do about them. But they can’t be in charge.”

By fighting his corner so publicly and belligerently, and by turning it into a war on the SNP government and his successor as first minister, Salmond is risking not only the party’s reputation for competence and its support going into the next devolved election in 2021, but also the prospects for that second referendum.

“How the hell do you have an independence referendum with this in the background?” asks a senior SNP source. “Every interview with an MP or MSP will have that question at the end of it. Is that really the legacy Salmond wants?”

Undoubtedly not. But if it comes down to a choice between his personal reputation versus the fortunes of the SNP and the independence movement, few with experience of the man would expect Salmond to pick the latter. He may yet bring the entire edifice down around him.

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

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

This article appears in the 25 January 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Who’s running Britain?