American journalist Michael Kinsley once observed that in Washington DC a 'gaffe' should be understood as a moment in which a politician or public official inadvertently blurts out a truth it would have been better, and certainly wiser, to leave unsaid. By that standard Humza Yousaf, currently serving as health secretary in the Scottish government, is a mighty friend to journalists.
Pondering the meaning and significance of what has become known as the Alex Salmond affair, Yousaf told the comedian Matt Forde that the conflict between Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon was 'really upsetting because it could have done our cause a hell of a lot of damage – it still might do our cause a hell of a lot of damage'. Sometimes it is better not to say the quiet bit out loud. But nevertheless, Yousaf’s remarks were a form of public service. For they revealed a deep, dark, truth about the SNP.
And Yousaf is not the only one. As another senior party figure told the journalists David Clegg and Kieran Andrews:
'I have asked myself, ‘Was I blind?’ We are talking about people – some of whom are good, close friends of mine – who have since said things about behaviours they have experienced that have horrified me that I was unaware of at the time. And do I have a sense of guilt over that? Of course I do. Do I have questions that I ask myself over whether I’m blameless or not? Of course I do. These are my friends. But set that aside – the bullying and the horrible human being that he was – why did we tolerate it? Because of the prize.'
Think on that. Think how much was known, even if only at some vague or inchoate level, about Alex Salmond and his behaviour. 'Why did we tolerate it? Because of the prize'. All things, including propriety, may be sacrificed if failing to do so might compromise the pursuit of independence.
I declare an interest. I know and like Clegg and Andrews, and the latter, who is Scottish political editor of the Times, is a colleague to boot. But even if this were not the case – and even if I were a wholly disinterested reader – I should have no hesitation in recommending their newly-published book, 'Break-Up: How Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon went to war'.
It is essential reading for anyone wishing to understand the extraordinary events that led to the former first minister being tried on a dozen counts of sexual impropriety and, following his acquittal, his attempt to destroy those he believed had wronged him. If that meant pulling down the temple Salmond did more to build than anyone else, then so be it. If it meant destroying his one-time protege and successor, then so be it.
Reporting restrictions mean many details it would be in the public interest to have revealed must remain shrouded in secrecy. But despite this significant handicap – and the sense that significant portions of the story have been snipped from the narrative on legal grounds – Clegg and Andrews nevertheless provide the clearest, fullest, account of a scandal of sometimes tortuous complexity. Anyone wishing a better understanding of why Scotland is governed the way it is will need to read their book.
Certain truths are too difficult to bear too much examination. It is considered somehow vulgar to note that just six months ago a Holyrood committee concluded that Nicola Sturgeon had misled the Scottish parliament. As this is an unseemly truth – and something which Sturgeon has denied – it has been cosigned to a deep, black, memory hole.
Members of the committee elected as representatives of the Green party, the Liberal Democrats, Labour and the Conservatives agreed Sturgeon had been less than candid in revealing what she knew about complaints made against her predecessor and, crucially, when she knew them. Only the four SNP members of the committee swallowed her story. Trashing the committee, the SNP suggested opposition MSPs were motivated purely by partisanship. If opposition members were predisposed to find Sturgeon guilty, it must also be possible that the SNP’s representatives on the committee were determined to find her innocent. Partisanship, after all, cuts both ways.
In my view, the balance of probabilities makes it highly likely that Sturgeon knew much more than she admitted and that she knew it earlier than she acknowledged too. I do not happen to think there anything objectionable about this. If serious allegations of serious misconduct are made about a former first minister, I think the current first minister should hear about them.
Remarkably, those close to Sturgeon knew about the allegations as early as late 2017. And yet, according to her own account, she remained in the dark until Salmond himself informed her the government was investigating complaints made against him under the provisions of a new complaints procedure introduced, and signed off, by Sturgeon herself.
Throughout this squalid saga, Sturgeon complained she was accused of covering up for Salmond and of conspiring to destroy him. These could not both be well-founded accusations.
Senior members of Sturgeon’s office certainly knew there was an issue with Salmond’s behaviour. As Clegg and Andrews reveal, Ms B, one of the two original complainers, had a meeting with Sturgeon’s principal private secretary, Lisa Bird, shortly after Sturgeon became first minister in the autumn of 2014 – just weeks after Sturgeon became first minister – during which, she says, 'I told her that bullying and sexual harassment had taken place under FFM (the former first minister)'.
Clegg and Andrews write that: 'It is unclear what action, if any, Bird took after this meeting'.
I find it inconceivable, however, that the first minister’s principal private secretary did not mention this encounter to the first minister. If she did not, it seems a catastrophic failure of judgement and duty. There would be others. Many others.
Ms B is clear that 'Everyone was afraid of him (Salmond) and no one wanted to put themselves in the line of fire (understandably) to stand up to him.' Most of all, and most damningly, she says, 'I felt angry that more senior people in the SG (Scottish government) and SNP clearly knew but felt powerless to do anything'. The words 'and SNP' are significant here.
Meanwhile Leslie Evans, the permanent secretary and Scotland’s most senior civil servant, was informed of Ms B’s concerns in November 2017. Later that month, John Somers, who had become Sturgeon’s new PPS in February that year, met Ms A who explained how the complaint she made against Salmond in 2013 had been dealt with. This concerned an incident that would lead to Salmond being charged with sexual assault with intent to rape, a charge he was acquitted of with a 'not proven' verdict. We are still asked to believe – based, in part, on their own testimony – that neither Evans nor Somers mentioned these startling allegations to the first minister.
At the same time, the SNP undoubtedly knew there were gathering concerns – and serious ones at that – about Salmond’s past conduct. In November 2017, Woman H gave a senior SNP official the 'broad outline' of an alleged incident that would later form the basis of Salmond being charged with attempted rape. In response, the SNP official promised to 'sit' on the information.
Once again, however, I think it incredible other senior SNP figures were not informed of this issue. If they were not, they should have been, for short of murder, the allegations could scarcely have been more serious. You would think the party’s chief executive would have been told. And you would think the party leader would have been too. Even so, Sturgeon has always insisted she knew nothing of either the complaints made against Salmond or her government’s investigation until he informed her of the investigation on 2 April 2018.
Regardless, the party was informed of an exceptionally serious allegation against Salmond and the party did nothing. The party knew and nothing happened. This is what counts rather more than whether or not the first minister was aware of 'concerns' but not, or at least not yet, of formal 'complaints'.
She did know of concerns, of course. And we know this because we have Nicola Sturgeon’s testimony. In November 2017, Sky News approached the Scottish government about an alleged incident at Edinburgh airport some years previously. Salmond and his team successfully 'killed' the story, but Sturgeon recalled that 'even though he assured me to the contrary, all of the circumstances surrounding this episode left me with a lingering concern that allegations about Mr Salmond could materialise at some stage'. A lingering concern. These things happen.
Concurrently, this was the #MeToo moment. In the wake of the Harvey Weinstein affair, Holyrood was – like Westminster – engulfed in rumour and innuendo. It was a moment for some house-cleaning. I have no doubt Sturgeon’s motivations in introducing a new complaints procedure were honest and well-founded. I'm in no doubt, either, that broadening the scope of such a procedure so it could cover the behaviour of former government ministers could not have been done without wondering, or having some inkling, a particular former minister might become the focus of attention.
This, of course, duly happened, though, typically, the Scottish government thoroughly bungled its investigation of the complaints made against Salmond. The investigating officer had made 'prior contact' with the complainants, a blunder of thundering proportions that ultimately left the investigation, in the words of Lord Pentland, 'tainted by apparent bias'. This was a procedural flaw distinct from the substance of the complaints which could, to this day, theoretically be revisited.
Salmond is an innocent man but no innocent. His own lawyer, Gordon Jackson QC, conceded that his client was an 'arsehole'. His behaviour may have often been deplorable, but it was never criminal. It is hard to credit, however, the idea this behaviour only became apparent in his final 18 months in office. Hard to believe that no-one had a clue before then; hard to swallow the proposition the Scottish government and the SNP were wholly in the dark. Hard to believe these things because the accumulated evidence supports the creeping conviction, however unpalatable it may be, that they did. And they didn’t care. Or, at any rate, they didn’t care enough to do anything.
On 28 April 2014, a young civil servant accompanying Salmond on a trip emailed a colleague in Salmond’s private office, to say the journey was 'all fine'. 'He’s a pig, but he’s not an angry pig today. Just a disgusting one.'
Her colleague replied:
'Just keep safe. And keep away from situations or conversations you may feel uncomfortable about.'
Ten minutes later, Clegg and Andrews reveal, the woman replied:
'Too late. Didn’t even get through the journey without him speaking about having sex with me. To be honest, I think I need to minimise my time with him this week after tomorrow'.
Once again, nothing else was done. And it was not done, in large part, probably because it was too dangerous and too risky to do anything. In the months leading up to the 2014 independence referendum, all concerned were abundantly aware of what might happen if any of this linen were aired in public. By such feebleness do institutions aide and abet their own diminishment.
The picture which emerges from Clegg and Andrews’s vital book is one of a deeply corrupted civil service, too craven and too weak to protect its own staff, too concerned with external appearances at the expense of internal propriety. Subsequently, the Scottish government would be revealed as an organisation riddled with incompetence too. Not that they were alone in this: none of the institutions touched by this affair – the government civil service, the governing party, the Crown Office, Police Scotland, the Scottish parliament itself – emerge from the mire with any great measure of credit. Each of them are tainted by their failures.
Perhaps it does not matter if the first minister misled the Scottish parliament. The presence in Downing Street of a Prime Minister utterly unconcerned with matters as trivial as the truth tacitly permits similar licence in the devolved administrations. Sauce for Boris is sauce for Nicola.
Even so, it is still not too priggish to think the truth should matter. Nor to insist that the truth is somewhat more important than it sometimes seems to be, especially in Scotland. Who knew what and when remains a matter of public interest and this is so even if it proves inconvenient.
Four words lie at the heart of it all: 'Because of the prize'. The implications that stem from that should wound and bruise and sting. And they should not be forgotten even if, no quite and precisely because, so many are so plainly interested in burying this reality and all it implies. 'Because of the prize', indeed.