The first thing to be said about David Davis’s dramatic intervention in the Salmond-Sturgeon affair is that it is a masterful piece of concern-trolling. The second thing to be said is that this does not matter. Davis, speaking armoured by parliamentary privilege, revealed information passed to him by a 'whistleblower' that has hitherto been kept secret. On the face of it, there are very good reasons explaining why the SNP and the Scottish government would wish to keep it that way.
Ostensibly, Davis’s intervention is motivated by concern that the Scottish parliament and its members lack the ability to pursue the truth wherever it may lead. He came, he said, to strengthen the Scottish parliament, not to bury it. MSPs should, he suggested, henceforth enjoy the parliamentary privileges he enjoys as the member for Haltemprice and Howden. It is in everyone’s interests, he argued, that this be done.
Well, one may enjoy that without buying it. This was the MacGuffin and not much more than that. But the transparency of Davis’s political agenda should no more distract attention from what he said than his friendship with Alex Salmond discredits his revelations either. The message matters more than the messenger; the ball is more important than the man. That some folk see an advantage in discrediting Nicola Sturgeon’s account of what she knew and when she knew it should not blind one to the equally evident truth the first minister and her allies have an agenda of their own.
For months now, the first minister and her defenders have gone to great lengths to thwart scrutiny she – and they – claim would only demonstrate there is nothing to be found. This has always seemed an overly complicated way of proceeding. If there is nothing to see, no danger can arise from releasing every text, email, minute or other document that might shed light on just how the Scottish government bungled its own investigation into the complaints made against Salmond. It is not unreasonable to draw certain obvious conclusions from the government’s failure to act in this fashion.
And yet at almost every turn the Holyrood committee investigating this shabby affair has been obstructed. It is difficult to avoid the suspicion that the government would be quite content to run out the clock before May’s parliamentary elections. (Equally, the fierce urgency of the election timetable accounts for the increasingly frenzied tones in which Sturgeon’s accusers, not all of whom are found on the opposition benches, levy their charges.) After the election, you see, it will be time to 'move on'.
For that matter, some of the evidence Davis revealed in the Commons last night does not obviously fall within the remit of the investigating committee. On 8 January 2019 the Scottish government conceded its case in the judicial review sought by Salmond. Its investigation into the complaints made against him by two civil servants was 'unlawful' and 'tainted by apparent bias'. The government line is this merely reflects shocking incompetence, not malice.
Following that debacle, Sue Ruddick, the SNP’s chief operating officer, texted Ian McCann, the party’s compliance officer, expressing the hope that one complainant would be 'sickened enough to get back in the game'. Later that month, Davis revealed, Ruddick told Peter Murrell, the SNP’s chief executive and Nicola Sturgeon’s husband, that this complainant was now 'up for the fight' and 'keen to see him [Salmond] go to jail'. While this is interesting and revealing, it is not clearly within the committee’s remit to investigate.
Nevertheless, it would appear to give credence to some of Salmond’s charges against the party he led for 20 years and the government over which he presided for seven. That sense appears to be further substantiated by another message Ruddick sent in which she frets about 'what happens when my name comes out as [redacted] fishing for others to come forward'. 'Fishing' goes some way beyond creating channels through which other people who may have had unhappy experiences at the hands of the first minister may make their concerns known.
In like fashion, once Police Scotland’s investigation had begun in late August 2018, it is – how to put this mildly? – surprising to see party officials continue to be involved. According to Davis, 'On 28th September […] McCann expressed great disappointment to Ruddick that someone who had promised to deliver five complainants to him by the end of that week had come empty, or ‘overreached’, as he put it'. That is quite something.
Now perhaps this has all been so thoroughly removed from its context that it suggests a story wholly at odds with what actually happened. But there is an obvious public interest in discovering whether this is so or not. That in turn plainly requires the publication of these, and many other, messages and documents. For Davis alleges that 'the messages suggest' that Murrell was co-ordinating party officials 'in the handling of specific complainants'.
If so, and if so many senior SNP officials were playing at being policemen, is it really credible that the first minister knew nothing of their activities?
Perhaps it is, for one of the remarkable aspects of this entire saga is the extent to which Nicola Sturgeon is never there. She hears nothing. She sees nothing. She says nothing. But then she must also be protected, perhaps at any or all cost.
If the behaviour of SNP officials is suspicious enough, the behaviour of senior Scottish government officials is no less problematic. Davis revealed that on 6 February 2018, the civil servant appointed to investigate the allegations made against Salmond complained that 'Liz interference v bad'. The Liz in question is Liz Lloyd, the first minister’s chief of staff.
Last night the Scottish government did not deny the existence of this message but insisted that: 'The comment read out by Mr Davis in relation to the chief of staff does not relate to Ms A or Ms B and, at that time, she was not aware that there was any connection to the former first minister'.
Well, yet again, perhaps. In which case, though, what was Ms Lloyd interfering in? And why was the official investigating officer so concerned by that interference? From which a further question arises: how probable is it that the first minister’s chief of staff was freelancing wholly without the first minister’s supervision or approval?
Sturgeon insists she knew nothing of any of this until Salmond informed her he was being investigated when the pair met at her house on 2 April 2018. Since there is ample evidence her closest advisors knew of the investigation a month earlier, this has always been a claim that merits some scepticism. It warrants still more now.
None of which means that Salmond has proved his case. Nor does it require anyone to forget that the police, not the SNP or the Scottish government, judged that a dozen complaints made against the former first minister were serious enough to warrant criminal charges. One of these was a charge of attempted rape; another was of sexual assault with intent to rape. Salmond’s acquittal on all charges does not mean he always behaved well. As his own lawyer was overheard saying, a man may be an 'arsehole' without being a criminal.
No-one emerges from this miserable affair with very much credit and there is little need to believe everything said by any of the protagonists. But facts are facts. And they should be followed wherever they lead, no matter how much their pursuit might embarrass those whose promises there is nothing to see here are matched only by their determination to ensure no-one may look to see if that is, in fact, the case.