Will the Sturgeon-Salmond split sink Scottish independence?
Dispute over sexual harassment allegations could bring down Scotland’s first minister
Nicola Sturgeon and Alex Salmond have dominated Scottish politics for more than a decade, leading the campaign for independence during the 2014 referendum - and dealing with the fallout of their defeat.
But allegations of sexual harassment against Salmond have driven a wedge between the leading lights of the “out” campaign, with some suggesting that the dispute “could force Sturgeon to quit as first minister”, the BBC reports.
Scottish National Party leaders have been accused of “collusion, cover-up and cynical manipulation of events for political gain” in their response to the claims against Salmond, writes The Guardian’s Rafael Behr. And while “the truth may never be excavated from beneath the rubble of civil war between nationalist factions”, the divisions exposed in the independence movement could dent Sturgeon’s hopes of throwing off Westminster’s influence north of the border.
The fallout was triggered when two civil servants made allegations of sexual harassment against Salmond in 2018.
They came after Sturgeon asked for “new government policies on sexual harassment to be put in place in the wake of the #MeToo movement”, the BBC says. “Salmond believed the policy was aimed at him.”
Sturgeon and her allies have also been accused of misleading parliament over the inquiry into the allegations against Salmond, a charge the first minister denies. However, the Scottish government later confessed to “botching” its investigation and had to pay Salmond’s legal fees of more than £500,000 in January 2019.
The same month, the former first minister was arrested and charged with multiple counts of sexual assault, including attempted rape, after allegations from a group of nine women including an SNP politician, a party worker and several current and former government civil servants and officials.
He was cleared in court of these charges in March last year, having described the allegations as “deliberate fabrications for a political purpose”. After his acquittal, he said that “certain information” he had been unable to talk about during the trial would “see the light of day” in the future. Some pundits interpreted that as a threat against Sturgeon and her involvement in the trial.
The end of the criminal trial led to the launch of two further inquiries, one by a committee of members of the Scottish parliament and another led by James Hamilton QC, Ireland’s former director of public prosecutions.
These probes are now “in crisis after deep divisions emerged over publication of his evidence to the investigation”, The Guardian reports.
One of the lingering questions concerns when Sturgeon first knew about the allegations against Salmond, which relates to his belief that her call for new policies on sexual harassment in 2018 was aimed at him.
Sturgeon says that “she was first told about the claims by Salmond at her home on April 2 2018”, a statement which “formed part of the Scottish Government’s defence during the judicial review of its unlawful investigation of him”, The Scotsman says. However, it has since emerged that the first minister met with Salmond’s former chief of staff, Geoff Aberdein, four days earlier and “allegedly discussed the sexual harassment investigation”, the paper adds.
During a four-hour meeting yesterday, the committee of MSPs leading the investigation voted by five to four against publishing a statement that Salmond claims is “an essential part of his case alleging that Sturgeon broke the ministerial code”, The Guardian says.
Four SNP members and Andy Wightman, a former Scottish Green now sitting as an independent, voted against releasing Salmond’s statements. Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrat members questioned whether the committee is adequately investigating allegations made by Salmond against the first minister.
Salmond was due to give evidence to the inquiry yesterday, but pulled out claiming that the evidence that the inquiry refused to release is key to what he had planned to say. Sturgeon, meanwhile, is due to appear in front of the committee next Tuesday.
According to Politico, if Sturgeon is “taken down” by her former boss, it could “put the dream of Scottish independence in jeopardy at a crucial moment”. With elections to the Scottish parliament scheduled for May, even some in the SNP’s ranks admit privately that the loss of Sturgeon could “scupper the whole plan”.
The Telegraph, meanwhile, points out that a recent opinion poll showed that support for independence is now at 52%. Sturgeon’s supporters “might have expected that their poll figures would be much higher”, but the “on-going SNP civil war” is “beginning to damage both her popularity and also support for independence”.
But The Guardian says that while the timing is awful for supporters of independence, “Sturgeonism would live on” even if the inquiry sinks the first minister.
“It’s not as if Nicola Sturgeon came along and suddenly people started to believe in independence,” a senior SNP official told Politico. “The rising tide of support for an independent Scotland has been evident for a very long time.”