It’s not on the scale of the Dreyfus Case which divided France, for that was a monstrous injustice which saw an innocent man found guilty of espionage and consigned to the penal settlement on Devil’s Island. What one may call the Salmond Affair is a lesser business and, for the moment anyway, one which divides only the Scottish National Party. Still it’s murky, very murky.
A brief recapitulation may be necessary. Salmond was charged with a number of sexual assaults. He brought a civil action in the Court of Session alleging that the investigation by the Scottish government and civil service was flawed. He won that case because the official investigating allegations had been in communication with the complainers before conducting her examination. The Scottish government’s decision to defend a very weak case cost the public purse more than half a million pounds.
Nevertheless, a criminal trial on thirteen charges of sexual assault ranging from attempted rape to a pat on the bottom followed. Salmond was found not guilty on 12 counts, and the 13th was found Not Proven, the third verdict available to a Scottish jury. Legally, it’s equivalent to Not Guilty, but it’s commonly understood to mean “the case against you hasn’t been cogently made, nevertheless we canna bring ourselves to say you didna’ dae it….”
Salmond believes he was set up, the victim of a conspiracy to end his political life and prevent him from making a come-back to challenge his successor and previous protegée, Nicola Sturgeon. He has supporters in the party, chief among them the former Justice minister Kenny MacAskill, who is now a Westminster MP.
How likely is this?
Salmond resigned as First Minister and leader of the SNP only a few days after losing the independence referendum in 2014. This was a bit surprising since he had come closer to winning than many had expected, hoped or feared. He surrendered the reins to his Dauphine, Nicola Sturgeon. He chose to return to Westminster where, as many thought, he had always been more at ease than at Holyrood, and won the Aberdeenshire seat of Gordon in the 2015 General Election. He lost it two years later in Theresa May’s general election when Scottish Unionists made a surprising recovery thanks to Ruth Davidson’s robust Tory leadership and a good deal of anti-SNP tactical voting.
It was tactical voting that did for Salmond. Gordon had never previously been a SNP seat. For years it was held by the Liberal Democrats with the Tories as their chief challengers. Now the Liberal Democrat vote collapsed and went to the Tories. A combination of Davidson’s leadership, dislike of the SNP and, probably, of Salmond himself did the trick.
Sign up for our FREE Reaction Weekend Email
Read the week's best-read articles on politics, business and geopolitics
Receive offers and exclusive invites
Plus uplifting cultural commentary
His on-stage response to defeat was spirited. “You’ve no’ seen the last of my bonnets and me,” he declared, quoting Walter Scott’s poem on the Jacobite leader “Bonnie” Dundee. One could admire his resilience, even while reflecting that Dundee had been killed in the Battle of Killiecrankie a few weeks after riding defiantly out of Edinburgh.
Salmond escaped Dundee’s fate, but soon seemed to be digging his own political grave. Hosting a chat-show on the Edinburgh Festival Fringe was only a little demeaning. Taking the Vladimir Putin roubles to present The Alex Salmond Show on the Russian propaganda channel RT was very damaging. Though he insisted that he had editorial control, he seemed to many a Russian stooge and the idea that he might make a political come-back was highly improbable.
So, when he claimed to be the victim of a conspiracy, a reasonable response was “why would anyone bother?”
And yet… and yet… he remains a hero to a great many in the SNP, the man who took them into power, the Moses who brought them within sight of the Promised Land of independence. Moreover, the SNP is not the happy band of warriors it was in his day. Though party discipline remains strict, there is disgruntlement. Some think Sturgeon lukewarm on independence, certainly too slow and cautious in pushing for a second referendum. These are the Salmondistas. Then there are others who dislike and resent the feminisation of the party and the leadership’s espousal of a “woke” political correctness. It was no’ for this, they may mutter, that we sharpened our claymores.
Even so, the idea of a conspiracy aimed at destroying Alex Salmond seemed wild. He was yesterday’s man. Better, if you were tired of Sturgeon, to seek out tomorrow’s one. Even the Tories in their darkest days never plotted a Thatcher Restoration. His talk of conspiracy seemed to fall into the “he would say that, wouldn’t he?” category.
Still, as I say, it’s a murky business and turning murkier by the day. There is, first, the evident determination of the Scottish government to obstruct the parliamentary committee charged with examining the circumstances of the civil service investigation of Salmond. Nicola Sturgeon promised that the Committee would get all the documents and evidence it sought. Much has been withheld and denied it, while witnesses have had surprising but convenient lapses of memory. It’s a cross-party committee, chaired by a Nationalist MSP and its members are fed up. Evidence is being published today, Wednesday.
Most damaging is an admission from the party’s chief executive, Peter Murrrell, who doubles as Nicola Sturgeon’s husband, that he did indeed write and send two messages which were recently leaked to MacAskill. (It’s not known, so far as I can tell, to whom they were directed.)
The first reads: “Totally agree folk should be asking the police questions… Report now with the PF on charges which leaves the police twiddling their thumbs. So good time to be pressurising them. Would be good to know MET looking at events in London.”
The PF is the Procurator-Fiscal, responsible for deciding on prosecutions and preparing the Crown case. The MET is the Metropolitan Police, then reported to be looking into allegations against Salmond in London.
According to the “Daily Record”, which reported Murrell’s belated and, one supposes, reluctant admission of authorship, he says this email meant that he wanted individuals to direct any questions they had to the police. Oh yes?
The second email reads: “TBH (i.e. to be honest) the more fronts he is having to fight on the better for the complainers – so CPS action would be a good thing.”
CPS is the Crown Prosecution Service.
According again to the Record’s report, Murrell meant only that all allegations should be investigated.
I would say that the words “the more fronts he is fighting on the better” bear a darker meaning even if you add, as he did, “for the complainers” – that is, the women who made allegations of sexual abuse by Salmond.
Murrell’s explanations are lame, and given his position as the SNP chief executive and the First Minister’s husband, the emails were at the very least unwise. His tone makes it hard not to read into them a considerable and rather nasty relish at the prospect of Salmond in the dock.
None of this proves that there was a conspiracy. It does however suggest that, no matter how embarrassing it would be for the SNP to have its former leader in the dock and even in a prison cell, the prospect was viewed with enthusiasm and even delight by some in the upper ranks of the SNP.
Salmond may be wrong in thinking there was a conspiracy against him. He would evidently be right to believe that he had enemies in the party who eagerly welcomed the opportunity offered by the charges against him and the criminal trial to end his political career and finish him off.
Now at last, today, we have Sturgeon’s written submission to the Parliamentary Committee, dated early August but published only today. It is not very revealing, almost the only surprise being her claim to have forgotten a meeting with Salmond’s former adviser, Geoff Aberdein, a few days before the meeting with Salmond at which he told her he was under investigation. None of what she has to say relates to the criminal trial; it would be highly improper if it did. Most of the matters in the Whatsapp messages exchanged with Salmond, now also published for the first time, relate to his attempts to have the charges against him resolved by arbitration, an understandable if futile wish.
There is of course no evidence of conspiracy. Two things are clear, however. First, that Ms Sturgeon was scarcely surprised by the nature of the allegations; second ,that it was all very painful for her. Salmond, she says, had been closer to her, professionally and personally, throughout her adult life than anyone but members of her family. At the same time, it was clear to her that she must now keep her distance from Salmond in the interest of both the government she runs and her party. She gave neither support nor succour to him. This was politic and doubtless proper. It is easy to see why his remaining admirers and supporters translate this abandonment of her mentor into suspicions of a conspiracy to destroy him.
We are no clearer than we were about the part played by her husband Peter Murrell, the chief executive of the SNP. His explanation of the leaked messages is so feeble as to be risible. Their plain meaning is that he was eager to see the police investigating Salmond more energetically, forcing him, as Murrell put it, to fight fire on more fronts.
Given that whoever leaked them to Salmond’s ally, Kenny MacAskill, is likely to be in Salmond’s camp, the question suggests itself: was the leak intended to damage Sturgeon by turning fire on her husband?
A very murky and unpleasant affair, however you read it. There may be more nastiness to come. I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if there is.