For two and a half years most people in Britain ignored the brewing fight between Nicola Sturgeon and Alex Salmond. No longer. The civil war among Scottish nationalist factions has been justly described as Shakespearean. Scotland’s first minister is vying to save her career while her predecessor and long-time mentor seeks to salvage what’s left of his reputation and legacy.
With important elections coming in May, the battle of Salmond versus Sturgeon threatens to undermine the Scottish independence movement to which both politicians have dedicated their careers, and just as support for that cause had genuine momentum. That’s music to Boris Johnson’s ears, even if the U.K. prime minister doesn’t have a dog in this fight.
Whatever else he accomplishes, history would not be kind to a leader of the Conservative and Unionist Party who presided over the dissolution of the United Kingdom.
The latest chapter in the Salmond saga is nominally about how the Sturgeon government handled allegations of sexual harassment against him. It’s not clear even now whether the truth will ever emerge, but the plot certainly thickened with Salmond’s six-hour testimony in the Robert Burns room of the Scottish Parliament recently.
Salmond accused Sturgeon of breaking the ministerial code, normally a resigning offense, and contradicted both her account of events as well as testimony given by Peter Murrell, the Scottish National Party’s chief executive who happens also to be Sturgeon’s husband.
He accused SNP officials of pressuring the police, colluding with witnesses and engaging in the “construction of evidence.” He closed his statement hinting that Scotland’s fitness to be an independent state was on the line if it couldn’t ensure its institutions were properly led. Johnson couldn’t have scripted it better.
The roots of this dispute date back to late 2017. As the #MeToo movement claimed the political scalp of the U.K. defense secretary and a Scottish minister, Sturgeon called for new government policies on sexual harassment. Salmond believes the policy change, which applied to ministers retroactively, was designed to ensnare him.
Initially two women made allegations of sexual harassment against Salmond; one contested question is when Sturgeon learned about it. Salmond sued the government in Scotland’s highest civil court over its handling of the matter and won a judicial review in January 2019. The government was found to have acted unlawfully in its investigation and had to pay Salmond’s legal fees of more than 500,000 pounds ($697,000).
Later that month, however, Salmond was arrested and charged with 14 counts of sexual offenses, including an attempted rape, relating to incidents principally between 2010 and 2014 when he was Scotland’s first minister. Salmond was acquitted in March 2020 of the 12 charges that made it to court. He admitted he was “no angel” but described the allegations as “deliberate fabrications” made for the purposes of removing him from public life.
By then, it was all-out civil war in the SNP. Inquiries were launched into the government’s botched investigation. Salmond claimed he had evidence that proves there was a conspiracy led by his protege. He accused the Crown Office — whose top law officer has a dual role as both an independent prosecutor and an SNP-appointed minister and legal adviser — of frustrating justice after it raised “grave concerns” about publishing Salmond’s evidence, effectively blocking it.
In the current parliamentary inquiry, it’s really Sturgeon who’s on trial. More evidence may yet emerge. Among the questions she has to answer is the famous Watergate one: What did she know about the allegations against Salmond and when did she know it. If Sturgeon is found to have broken the ministerial code, the pressure to step down will intensify.
Resignation isn’t automatic, however. The SNP-dominated parliamentary committee hasn’t seemed in a hurry to uncover the truth. Salmond is almost as unpopular in Scotland these days as Johnson, while Sturgeon is highly regarded, especially for her deft political handling of the pandemic. There really isn’t another Scottish figure of her stature to take over. Derek Mackay, who’d been tipped as a future leader, had to resign as finance chief last year after admitting to bombarding a teenage boy with suggestive texts.
This all raises questions about the health of Scottish politics. Some of that may be cutting through to voters, too. A new Ipsos MORI poll finds the SNP is still well ahead, but its support has fallen by 4 percentage points since October. Support for independence is now 52%, the same vote share that won the Brexit referendum in 2016. Almost a third of Scots say the Salmond affair has tarnished their view of the SNP.
Sturgeon has been weakened, no doubt, but in Westminster only one question matters: how best to keep the union intact. The SNP leader has been pushing for a new independence referendum ever since the U.K. voted to leave the EU. One option for Johnson is simply to deny a vote. But that will get harder over time.
Downing Street has had its own internecine dramas in recent weeks, including the appointment and resignation of two officials in charge of saving the union. Cabinet Secretary Michael Gove is in favor of love-bombing Scots ahead of any vote and using new legislation to provide direct funding to the country. That’s not a terrible idea. The SNP has been skillful in blaming London for Scotland’s problems while taking credit for programs funded by British taxpayers. But Scots may find the Gove plan too little, too late.
While the SNP emerges badly from this shabby tale, that still may not be enough to save the union.
Therese Raphael is a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion.
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