The Nationalists have never had a week like last week.
Not when they freed Megrahi. Not when the voters ditched a third of their MPs. Not even when they lost the referendum. Nicola Sturgeon’s septem horribilis was the lowest point thus far in the SNP’s 11-year reign.
It began last Tuesday when the Scottish Government was forced to concede at the Court of Session that it had acted improperly in its handling of sexual misconduct allegations against Alex Salmond. Permanent Secretary Leslie Evans oversaw the investigation and Lord Pentland, presiding in a judicial review secured by the former first minister, decreed that her probe was ‘unlawful’, ‘procedurally unfair’ and ‘tainted by apparent bias’.
That judgment lit a fuse that leads we still don’t know where but the alarms are ringing throughout the corridors of powers. In the past seven days we have learned that Nicola Sturgeon, who claims she didn’t intervene in the Salmond probe, met him three times and had two phone conversations with him in the course of the investigation.
Ms Sturgeon did not immediately inform the Permanent Secretary of the first meeting, which she posits was not government business but was attended by her chief of staff Liz Lloyd, a government employee. Ms Sturgeon yesterday referred herself for investigation into a possible breach of the ministerial code.
Details of the investigation were then leaked to a newspaper by persons unknown, an action now the subject of a criminal probe by the Information Commissioners’ Office. Opposition MSPs at Holyrood are demanding a parliamentary inquiry into how the Scottish Government blundered the internal investigation, with an estimated cost to taxpayers of half a million pounds.
Mr Salmond has yet to confirm whether he will sue for damages. The allegations against him remain the subject of police consideration.
This might be the biggest scandal since the Holyrood building fiasco and when the fuse finally detonates, someone’s career is going up in smoke. There are reports that the Permanent Secretary could go, but Ms Sturgeon’s government would look like the mafia throwing its weakest member to the G-men.
The probity of the Scottish Government is paramount but the human dimension is no less compelling. Stroll around the Holyrood gossip factory and you will hear schadenfreude. Brute political assassins now find themselves in the firing line. You will also hear relief. Finally, a scandal seems to be sticking to the Teflon First Minister.
More commonly, though, and the farther you get from the media tower, the talk is of sadness. However this ends, lives will have been ruined, careers imploded and families put through hell. There are two women who say they were the victims of sexual misconduct by the most powerful man in the land. If their allegations are true, they have been grossly maltreated and their cases handled so ineptly their trauma can only have grown.
The man who stands accused has been unlawfully investigated by the government he once led and his name publicly associated with grave acts throughout a lengthy police inquiry. If, as he insists, there is no case to answer, he has been treated grievously.
For the SNP, its two biggest beasts are now pitted against one another, the most successful leader of the party versus the one it hopes will lead it to its goal of independence. It is no exaggeration to say that, together, they made history, taking a separatist movement into government and fashioning from it a new establishment whose influence stretches from the third sector to academia and from the arts to the media.
Theirs was an equal partnership and a mutually beneficial one. Alex Salmond took his protégée from rent-a-quote list MSP to deputy leader of the SNP and deputy first minister of Scotland. She helped him win the votes of women and the Left, who didn’t trust his low-tax, pro-business instincts.
She was instrumental in picking up votes in the West of Scotland during the independence referendum. Each of them is as cold-blooded as the other but, raw as emotions are, both will mourn a friendship now surely unrecoverable.
Among SNP members, there is disquiet and some rancour. Those who still hold Mr Salmond in great affection believe Ms Sturgeon has thrown him under the bus – or at least chucked him off at the side of the road. On the paranoid wing of the SNP – such people are numerous enough to constitute their own wing – the allegations are of a Westminster and/or media plot. These members are confused and angry that Ms Sturgeon is going along with the conspiracy.
The First Minister’s backers speak of the former first minister with undisguised contempt. He is arrogant, full of bluster and pandering to the worst of the membership. Most annoyingly, Mr Salmond appears to have some high-profile Nationalists on side. Westminster home affairs spokesman Joanna Cherry last week tweeted ‘Good news’ over a report that Mr Salmond was planning to rejoin the SNP and ‘liked’ a tweet that endorsed his return to the party leadership.
Battle lines are being drawn. Backbenchers openly grumble about Ms Sturgeon’s failure to seize the opportunity of Brexit and her otherwise lacklustre policy agenda. Tsar Nicola the Unquestionable is facing internal dissent and the dissenters have a point.
Already in her fifth year in Bute House, she has amassed less of a legacy than Gordon Brown managed in three years at Number 10. The opportunities to point this out to her have been few as she surrounds herself with a small clique of mid-career burn-outs and positive reinforcers. We have a First Minister who governs from her own safe space.
Headlines declaring an SNP ‘civil war’ are overheated but cracks are opening up and there is no obvious way for Ms Sturgeon to fill them. She cannot pivot to policy because she is light there, nor can she turn her talk to SNP delivery because the record is dismal. Launching a war on the opposition – perhaps trawling Tories’ social media for dubious comments – might distract the Press but Ruth Davidson’s absence on maternity leave complicates matters.
What she certainly cannot do is demand a second referendum on independence. Not just because Theresa May would refuse and not even because the polls say she would lose again. Calling for another plebiscite before the Salmond scandal is resolved would look like – and would be – an act of callous, tacky desperation.
Ms Sturgeon has nowhere to turn and can only hope to ride this thing out with minimal damage to her position and that of the party. That might not be possible given the rising tensions in a party once notorious for its North Korean-style loyalty cult.
An SNP source tells me: ‘Sturgeon has the party machine and the sensible people on her side. Salmond still commands loyalty in the grassroots and some backbenchers. The party divide used to be fundies versus gradualists, now it’s inner circle fighting off zoomers, with ordinary members caught in the middle. That said, the inner circle is too tight and excludes too many and we’re seeing the consequences of that now.’
The two people who made the SNP the electoral titan it is haven’t spoken in five months. Nationalist politicians are nailing their colours in public while behind the scenes aides skulk around with knives in search of colleagues’ backs.
No, it’s not yet a civil war but nor is it a party capable of running a country. That’s the other human cost of this ugly mess: a government already failing patients and pupils because it became too wrapped up in constitutional politics is now too wrapped up in itself to mend its ways. That fuse leads to the rest of us too.
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Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Contact Stephen at firstname.lastname@example.org. Feature image by the Scottish Government via CC BY-NC 2.0.