Alex Salmond has been cleared of sexual assault following a trial at the High Court in Edinburgh. The jury returned this afternoon and found the former First Minister not guilty of 12 charges and resorted to Scotland’s special not proven verdict on a 13th allegation. Salmond’s twin defences were that the claims against him were ‘exaggerations’ (he wasn’t perfect but he had never done anything criminal) or ‘deliberate fabrications for a political purpose’ (he was the victim of a conspiracy).
In private, much of the Scottish political and media class already had him hanged, drawn and quartered and so this verdict is being met with a mixture of shock, horror and contempt. But the law is the law and the law says he didn’t do it. The consequences of this are far-reaching. Salmond is not a man who parts with grudges readily. The reckoning that is about to hit will make the asteroid that killed the dinosaurs look like a pebble dropped in a puddle.
For one thing, Salmond may be able to revive his political career. He is still beloved by the grassroots of the SNP and a substantial flourish of the population regards him as a hero. He brought Scottish nationalism and the cause of independence to its greatest height so far. He connects with blue-collar Scots in that visceral way that Trump connects with Americans in the heartland and Boris with C2s in the Midlands and the North. He is from the anti-establishment wing of the establishment, a careerist rebel in the cause of the nation.
There are several options open to him now. He could apply to resume his membership of the SNP or convince a sympathetic backbencher to step down and return to Holyrood. There he could bide his time while his protege and successor Nicola Sturgeon endures a forthcoming parliamentary inquiry into her government’s handling of the allegations against him. Factor in, too, that five and a half years after he secured 45 per cent support for independence, she has failed to move the dial by more than a few percentage points. Against the backdrop of Brexit — which 62 per cent of voters in Scotland opposed — and an unpopular Tory prime minister, she still can’t produce a decent streak of polls with a majority for Scexit. Her rank-and-file are growing restless and some, including elected members, want her to take Downing Street to court to get another referendum or simply call a wildcard vote like Catalonia.
Salmond handed her the leadership when he stood down in 2014 and now he might decide to take it back. As First Minister, he would be more aggressive towards the UK government and more willing to test the limits of the constitutional settlement, and this is what the SNP base wants to see. The once and future king could reclaim the crown by promising to lead the party into a final, victorious battle for independence.
Another route, albeit more financially costly and electorally challenging, could see Salmond set up his own rival party to split the nationalist vote and eventually replace the SNP. I don’t see it, though. Salmond loves the SNP. It has been not just his life’s work but his life. He would sooner cloak himself in Union Jack ermine and take up a seat in the House of Lords next to Michael Forsyth than damage his old party or its cause. If he is to return to frontline politics, it is most likely to be inside the SNP, though he could decide to set up his own Momentum-style ginger group as a stepping stone.
Whatever his opponents inside and outside the SNP may think of him, he has a compelling story to tell. He has cleared his name of serious charges. His assertion that he was a victim of a political conspiracy now appears to carry the imprimatur of a High Court jury. Alex Salmond is back from the dead and he will have his revenge.