What Alex Salmond’s downfall means for Scottish nationalism
Resignation of former first minister could harm the SNP and even scupper a second independence referendum
Alex Salmond’s resignation from the SNP over claims of sexual misconduct looks to have brought the curtain down on one of the UK's most glittering political careers, but the looming scandal could have far bigger implications for the future of the party, Scottish nationalism and, by extension, the union.
Salmond was “for three decades a permanent star in the political firmament, loved and loathed in equal measure”, says The Independent’s Sean O’Grady, but his political legacy both north and south of the border cannot be questioned.
He was, more than any other figure, responsible for the recent resurgence of Scottish nationalism and the dominance of the SNP that has emerged since devolution in 1998, coming to within a hair’s breadth of achieving his dream of Scottish independence in 2014.
Yet a week after the former first minister launched an unprecedented judicial review of the Scottish government’s handling of two sexual misconduct complaints made against him, “it is hard to avoid talk of a major split within the party as well as potentially seismic repercussions for the pro-independence movement itself”, says The Guardian’s Scotland correspondent, Libby Brooks.
News that Salmond’s crowdfunding appeal to pay his legal costs had surpassed its £50,000 target in a matter of hours has only added to “an atmosphere of despair, a demeanour of despondency, around Team Sturgeon as they view the impact upon the party - it's a political problem for the SNP - and the cause of independence, which Mr Salmond believes he is partly ameliorating by stepping down while his court case is heard”, says BBC Scotland political editor Brian Taylor.
The Scottish Conservatives, who oppose a second independence referendum, said Salmond's crowdfunding appeal was “astonishing” as it meant Scotland “now faces the incredible and unprecedented situation of its most famous former first minister appealing to SNP supporters for cash to take legal action against the government he used to run”.
Writing in The Times, the head of the FDA civil service union, Dave Penman, described the events unfolding around Salmond as “unprecedented not only by the scale of the political fallout” but also, following his criticism of permanent secretary, Leslie Evans, because his actions had “undermined the integrity and impartiality of the civil service, thereby damaging the Scottish government itself”.
None of this bodes well for Sturgeon as she prepares to update Holyrood on her position regarding a second independence referendum this autumn.
The failure to win over the female vote to the pro-independence message was seen as one of the driving factors behind the Yes campaign’s loss four years ago.
Allegations of sexual misconduct, and even suggestions of an SNP cover-up or at the very least failure to properly investigate, would do little to convert women to the cause – and could scupper plans for a second vote entirely.
Were a second referendum to be called, the SNP would most likely be without its most effective and high-profile advocate – something that could make all the difference in a close-fought contest.
It was true Salmond’s star had waned since he stepped down as SNP leader following the referendum, but “observers of every stripe acknowledge Salmond’s continuing capacity to direct the news agenda with his usual hyperbolic flourish”, Brooks writes.
“If independence does eventually come to Scotland, there will be many claiming parenthood, but there will only be one man who has a just claim to be father of it”, says O’Grady. “Whether he will be in a sufficiently happy personal situation to be able to make much of it remains to be seen”.