Alex Salmond’s seven-year reign as first minister of Scotland was a regal affair. Chauffeur-driven cars ferried him to and from his preferred restaurants. Wine and champagne flowed during interviews and social meetings with journalists. Then, one morning in November 2014, it all vanished and power passed abruptly to his heir, Nicola Sturgeon.
Uneasy lies the head that no longer wears a crown and, in time, the old ruler reportedly came to resent what he saw as his exile from the court he built from scratch. Like an earlier Scottish monarch, Salmond became a king across the water, claiming the clandestine loyalty of those cold to the new regime and convinced it bore devious designs towards the former ruler.
The schism between the SNP’s first and second first ministers is a story of power, loyalty and revenge familiar to Scottish history. The present telling is nonetheless extraordinary for it involves a pair of potentates once thought inseparable and from a party famed for its unity. This is the split that never could happen.
Yet, years after their estrangement became public knowledge, Alex Salmond’s submission to the Hamilton inquiry on the ministerial code is still breathtaking in the severity of the charges it lays against Nicola Sturgeon.
James Hamilton, Ireland’s former director of public prosecutions, is investigating whether the first minister broke the rules when she met Salmond during the Scottish government’s probe into sexual harassment allegations against him.
The written statement Salmond has supplied not only asserts that his successor contravened the ministerial code and misled parliament, but questions her integrity with a vehemence few opposition politicians have ever managed.
Salmond’s declaration, which has also been lodged with the separate Holyrood inquiry into the Scottish government’s handling of harassment complaints against him, describes a crucial statement given by Sturgeon to that inquiry as ‘simply untrue’.
The document challenges Sturgeon’s assertion the now famous April 2 meeting at her private home was party business rather than a government matter.
Salmond says a March 29 rendezvous between his former chief of staff and Sturgeon ‘was “forgotten” about because acknowledging it would have rendered ridiculous the claim made by the first minister in parliament that it had been believed that the meeting on April 2 was on SNP party business’. He additionally alleges that Sturgeon broke the ministerial code by failing to inform civil servants immediately about these meetings. Sturgeon ‘entirely rejects’ Salmond’s version of events, her spokesman says.
Until now, the Holyrood and Hamilton inquiries have not intruded much on the public consciousness, in part because the row is so complex.
Salmond’s Hamilton submission, and his and Sturgeon’s forthcoming appearances before the Holyrood committee, could change all that. The first minister faces the most serious accusations yet levelled against that office. If they can be supported, the consequences for Sturgeon could be drastic, though Salmond’s assault on the current leadership might do more damage than any of the inquiries themselves.
One potential outcome is that either or both of the inquiries clears sturgeon and her government, in which case she would find it much easier to fend off her predecessor’s broadsides.
If the opposite outcome transpires, and either Linda Fabiani’s or James Hamilton’s review finds fault with the Scottish government, Salmond’s hand would be infinitely strengthened and Sturgeon’s position rendered precarious.
Even if any errors on Sturgeon’s part or procedural missteps on her government’s were determined to be inadvertent, some of Salmond’s enthusiasts would feel vindicated in their belief that he was the victim of a conspiracy.
Since inquiries like these sometimes fail to reach definitive conclusions, we should not rule out the possibility that either the Fabiani or Hamilton report turns out to be a fudge. The absence of a clear victim and villain may be the worst eventuality of all for the first minister, as it would allow her to continue in post but with enough of a stench in the air to keep her opponents’ noses twitching.
She would cling on, but sufficient doubt would have been created to permit opponents within and without her party to chip away at her reputation as a leader and as someone above the skulduggery of politics.
Another possibility is that perception rather than process is what could do for the first minister.
The break is regarded as a rift of personalities but there is something more fundamental about their divergence. Sturgeon has taken support for the SNP and independence to levels unimaginable years ago. Yet, she has brought Scotland’s exit from the UK not a single inch forward.
If anything, Brexit and the Internal Market Bill have actually set it back. Salmondites are convinced the independence movement would be in a very different position under his leadership. Sturgeonistas might protest that she cannot do much against a government with an 80-seat majority, but that majority is only a year old. For 30 months, between the 2017 and 2019 elections, the UK endured its gravest period of political instability in modern peacetime.
It was far more perilous than Suez, Profumo or the abdication, scandals of foreign policy, ministerial judgment and constitutional fortitude, because it implicated all three of these themes while rendering Parliament too dysfunctional to address any of them.
This is the opportunity Sturgeon missed: A minority Tory government, with a dwindling MP tally, divided by its attempts to leave the UK, paralysed by its failure to do so, at odds with Scotland’s 62 per cent Remain vote, and up against a Labour leader routinely making sympathetic noises about independence. No SNP leader has ever been handed such a favourable alignment of the stars.
Salmond may not be as smooth and shiny but he is cannier than Sturgeon, and made of sterner stuff. She irritates Downing Street; he scared them. She wants to be the Jacinda Ardern of Scotland; he wanted to be the first minister of an independent Scotland. She blew it; he wouldn’t have.
At least, that is the frame Salmondites want to impose on Sturgeon’s tenure. In some ways, that frame is a greater threat to the first minister than any inquiry. An adverse finding from the committee or from James Hamilton could be toughed out if Sturgeon convinced the Cabinet that her resignation would split the party and forfeit the dream of independence.
The perception that the dream has already slipped their grasp, and Sturgeon let it go, would not be so easily shaken off. The incentive to rally round her would be gone. Tribal loyalty no longer owed to a leader who betrayed the tribe. Pretenders to the throne would circle.
It is too early to say with certainty what lies ahead for the first minister. She has wriggled her way out of trouble in the past and she retains the confidence of a stout majority of voters. The public sees someone it trusts.
Alex Salmond is unlikely to change the public’s view of the woman he made first minister, but he may have the power to taint her standing inside a party that would be in the wilderness without him.
Salmond made the SNP and now he is tugging on fraying ties of devotion to ask a party that loves him and follows Sturgeon to believe him and disbelieve her. The decision they make may have far more bearing on Nicola Sturgeon’s future than the deliberations of those tasked with examining her conduct.
On the face of it, SNP members are being asked to take sides between an old wearer of the crown and a new one. In truth, they are being asked to decide the fate of the crown itself – its integrity, its endurance and its ultimate purpose. On the hinge of their decision, the future of government in Scotland hangs.
Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Letters: firstname.lastname@example.org.