The Ghost of Holyrood Past returns to haunt Sturgeon

UNDER OATH: Alex Salmond is sworn in by the convenor.

Alex Salmond appeared before the Holyrood inquiry on February 26, 2021This is the text of my Scottish Daily Mail sketch of proceedings. 

*****

It has been more than six years since Alex Salmond was First Minister but he continues to haunt Scottish politics. The Ghost of Holyrood Past took physical form in Committee Room No 1, the Robert Burns Room, where what has come to be known as the Salmond Inquiry was picking over the best-laid schemes o’ mice, men and First Ministers.

His hair was thinning and silvering, his jowls noticeably less jowly, but it was still Salmond. The affected chuckle broke forth now and again. The Saltire pin loomed over his heart. His ineffable ability to sound self-effacing while self-serving was still there. 

‘This inquiry is not about me,’ he began. ‘I’ve already established the illegality of the actions of the Scottish Government in the Court of Session and I’ve been acquitted of all criminal charges by a jury in the highest court in the land. 

‘These are both the highest courts in the land, the highest civil court and the highest criminal court.’

The rhetoric was classic Salmond, sketching himself as plucky underdog and shading the grandeur of his victory over the odds. 

‘The First Minister asserts that I have to prove a case. I don’t. That has already been done. There have been two court cases, two judges, one jury. In this inquiry it is the Scottish Government, a government which has already admitted to behaving unlawfully, who are under examination.’

His intonation was stately and his articulation steady. ‘For two years and six months, this has been a nightmare,’ he told them, and yet there was no pang of woundedness in his voice. This was the tone of a man whose heart has hardened against the people he believes wronged him.

‘The failures of leadership are many and obvious and yet not a single person has taken responsibility,’ he reminded them. ‘Not a single resignation, not a single sacking, not even an admission.’

In two sentences, Salmond landed a more savage blow on Nicola Sturgeon’s government than the opposition has managed in six years.

The ageing matinee idol may not be the leading man these days but you can still perceive the qualities that made him a star. His bombastic delivery is often remarked upon, but the real magic is in his eyes.

They dance with a devious lightning, drawing the observer into his present mischief. Before the committee, they bored into hostile questioners, lured in the more disinterested, and sunk and rose here and there for theatrical effect.

Salmond defended the harassment policy in place on his watch and challenged the retrospective nature of its successor, which he characterised as ‘spatchcock’ and an ‘abject, total, complete disaster’.

‘The policy wasn’t botched,’ he argued. ‘The policy was unlawful, unfair and tainted by apparent bias. Botched doesn’t cover it.’

When matters turned to the infamous meeting at Sturgeon’s home, he contradicted the notion, advanced by Peter Murrell, that he was prone to ‘pop in’ to their residence.

He said he had never threatened to resign from the SNP and Sturgeon had never discussed concerns about sexual harassment with him.

It was when Jackie Baillie got the microphone that the session became more uncomfortable for the Scottish Government. She queried whether the name of one of the complainers had been shared in a meeting attended by Salmond’s representative.

‘Yes,’ he replied, adding that three other people ‘know that to be true’.

Baillie raised the leaking of the original investigation to the Daily Record. Salmond called it ‘politically inspired’ and confirmed he had a culprit in mind, but said it warranted ‘further police investigation’. When she got the floor again later, Baillie pressed him on whether the Scottish Government continuing to defend its investigation in court against legal advice was a breach of the ministerial code.

A hammy dramatic pause. ‘Yes.’

He considered it necessary for the committee to see the legal advice. ‘This parliament has asked to see it twice,’ Baillie remarked, ‘so good luck with that one.’

From time to time, Salmond’s familiar hand gestures came out of retirement and his animated paws swept his points home. Some points needed no assistance, including his allegation that there had been ‘a sequence of deliberate suppression of information’.

This was, you had to keep reminding yourself, his own former government he was talking about. Murdo Fraser, the Perthshire Petrocelli, focused on the antics of the Crown Office and got Salmond to agree that the intervention to censor his evidence would never have happened at Westminster.

He had even received a letter, he told Fraser, reminding him what evidence he was forbidden to raise before the committee. This was ‘an extraordinary position’ and ‘clearly something is wrong’.

Canvassed elsewhere on Murrell’s text messages on ‘pressuring’ the police, Salmond quipped: ‘They don’t need assistance from Inspector Murrell’.

He told the committee that other messages, from whom he did not specify, would show evidence of ‘pressurising witnesses, colluding with witnesses and the construction of evidence’. The Crown Office, however, prevented him from disclosing them.

More than once he was asked whether Sturgeon had violated the rules. ‘I have no doubt that Nicola has broken the ministerial code’, he responded, but said it wasn’t for him to say whether she should resign.

Many tuning in for the first time will have been treated to the uneven quality of the committee. Deputy convener Margaret Mitchell started by telling Salmond he had become First Minister in 2008, complained the committee had faced ‘obscufation’ and said Deputy First Minister John Swinney had ‘affused’ to give the committee information it requested.

The man who once ran the show afforded quite some tolerance to the repertory company now in charge. Convener Linda Fabiani forgot to suspend the committee. Twice. Mitchell had to have the difference between informal resolution and mediation explained to her. Twice. Fabiani repeatedly reminded Alex Cole-Hamilton that ‘Mr Salmond is not on trial’.

All were veritable Jeremy Paxmans compared to Maureen Watt. The more I watch her contributions, the more I wonder if her middle name is ‘Twenty’. She struggled to string her questions together even though was reading them from a piece of paper. She also joined Mitchell in linguistic innovation, coining the word ‘regreticably’.

Even as he hacked his way through a chest infection, Salmond made it all look effortless.

What he is proposing, that multiple arms of the Scottish state conspired to frame him and chuck him in Barlinnie, sounds like a Russian TV channel conspiracy theory.

However, there was a reasonableness to his demeanour that will have enticed many. Yesterday, he made himself look like a wronged man and a man likely to haunt Holyrood — and his successor — for some time to come.

*****

Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Letters: scotletters [insert @ symbol] dailymail.co.uk.

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