Henry Kissinger’s sardonic appraisal of the Iran-Iraq War is increasingly applicable to the war between Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon: it is a shame they can’t both lose. Disinterested observers, however, are under no obligation to pick a team. It is wholly possible neither protagonist has offered a convincing version of events. Treating Salmond’s claims sceptically imposes no requirement to swallow Sturgeon’s and, indeed, vice versa.
Salmond’s allegations are so extraordinary they risk seeming incredible. It is one thing to allege that senior officials within the SNP – including but not limited to Peter Murrell, the party’s chief executive and Nicola Sturgeon’s husband – wished to destroy Salmond’s reputation. It is also one thing to allege that the Scottish government and civil service were also determined to do him in. And it is still a further thing to allege that the Crown Office – and perhaps in time Police Scotland, too – were also happy to see Salmond imprisoned on the flimsiest of grounds. Put these allegations together and you have one hell of a thing. If true – an important and sometimes overlooked detail – it would be a conspiracy on a monstrous, unprecedented, scale. If true, it would amount to the near total corruption of Scottish public life.
Sturgeon yesterday asked us to 'be careful here' and avoid endorsing “false, damaging conspiracies that have no basis in fact' and which could 'start to unfairly undermine trust in our public institutions'. Well, indeed. But it is worth pausing to remember why we are here in the first place. Two truths cannot be wished away: first, multiple women raised concerns about Salmond’s behaviour and second, the Scottish government’s investigation into those complaints was a botched fiasco. Salmond sought judicial review and the government collapsed its own case, acknowledging it had behaved in a manner that was, literally, indefensible.
So one part of this tawdry scandal starts with Salmond himself but another element of it begins with the first minister. When she complains her opponents – inside the SNP and outside it – risk trashing important institutions and undermining confidence in them she might, for a moment, pause to contemplate the basis of those complaints.
If only those institutions – notably the government over which she presides – had not conducted an 'unlawful' investigation in the first place. If only those institutions had co-operated with the inquiry established to investigate their failure. If only the promised candour had been forthcoming. If only nobody had behaved in the manner you might expect from those with something to hide, even as they protest there is nothing to be discovered here. If only there were greater grounds for trusting these institutions, eh?
Because, again, this saga only arises because Sturgeon’s government proved incapable of conducting an investigation that was not 'tainted by apparent bias'. It is her government’s failure, not Salmond’s behaviour, that is the issue before the committee, just as it is the first minister’s actions, not those of her predecessor, that are the subject of James Hamilton’s investigation into whether she broke the ministerial code. All of this, yet again, stems from her government’s failures.
So, with all necessary respect due to the first minister, she has some cheek to suggest it is everyone else who is the problem here. I don’t assume Sturgeon was responsible for the procedural blunders which led to Salmond’s successful judicial review, but she is responsible for her own actions and no amount of smoke can truly hide that.
And if I were the first minister, I might be cautious about suggesting 'the root of all this might just have been issues in his [Salmond’s] own behaviour'. For while this might be so, it might then also seem unlikely that these issues only arose or otherwise became apparent once Salmond became first minister. And if that were not the case, the SNP – the party Sturgeon leads – might reasonably be asked if any whispers of concern were heard before 2007 and, if so, what was done about them.
I doubt this is a road down which the current first minister really wishes to travel any more than she wishes to explore what happened in November 2017 when senior SNP officials were informed of the broad outline of an incident that would subsequently lead to Salmond being charged with attempted rape.
We do not know if any conditions were attached to this information or the precise terms in which it was conveyed but, as best we know, the party decided to 'sit on' this story in the hope the information would never have to be 'deployed'. This incident is not within the remit of either the Holyrood or Hamilton inquiries but it seems an important one nonetheless. Not least because, at present, we are asked to believe that neither the SNP’s leader nor its chief executive were informed of it.
Is it unreasonable to think they should have been? And is it also unreasonable to suspect they must have been? In like fashion, we are asked to believe that when two civil servants reported their concerns about Salmond’s behaviour no-one thought that Nicola Sturgeon should be told about these? Her own account claims this to be the case. Members of the first minister’s office knew of the complaints and so did the permanent secretary but Sturgeon was kept in the dark.
So it must have been quite a surprise to be informed, four months later, by Alex Salmond himself that he was being investigated by the Scottish government. I suggest that the moment you learn that your predecessor, a man whom you served as deputy leader for a decade, is being investigated on charges of grotesque sexual misconduct is not a moment anyone, least of all someone such as Nicola Sturgeon, is likely to forget.
And yet, remarkably, this is precisely what Sturgeon asks us to accept. For during Salmond’s trial, his former chief of staff, Geoff Aberdein, testified that he had met Sturgeon on 29 March 2018 to discuss the allegations against, and investigation into, Salmond. Sturgeon does not deny this meeting took place; she merely forgot about it.
Very few people not obliged for personal or professional reasons to place their faith in the first minister actually believe this. Salmond’s submission to the Hamilton investigation alleges that the 29 March meeting was actually arranged by Sturgeon’s office. If this is true, Sturgeon’s powers of forgetfulness are all the more impressive.
The significance of this is rather greater than a four day gap in the first ministerial memory. For if Salmond’s claims are confirmed, it is difficult to avoid reaching the conclusion Sturgeon has repeatedly misled the Holyrood parliament. Misled is, you will understand, the polite way of putting it.
Other parts of the timeline are equally mysterious. On 7 or 8 November 2017, a civil servant (Ms B) raises concerns about Salmond’s behaviour. This comes a few days after the first minister has been alerted that Sky News were investigating a different allegation against Salmond (Sky’s story goes no further than an inquiry; it is never broadcast). Concurrently, the Scottish government is drawing up a new procedure for handling sexual harassment complaints. This will allow former ministers, as well as current ones, to be investigated. Early drafts of the policy, written around the 10 November, make it clear the first minister should be informed of any such complaints.
Nearly two weeks later, a second civil servant (Ms A) raises her concerns about her alleged experiences with Salmond. At this stage, the government’s policy is that the permanent secretary will lead any investigation but the first minister should be informed.
On 29 November Ms A says she wishes to 'speak direct' to Sturgeon. Throughout this period, Sturgeon’s office is kept in the loop. Then, on 5 December, the government’s complaints procedure is redrafted once again, this time removing the first minister from the information process. She is to be kept out of the loop. Sturgeon signs off the policy on 20 December and Ms A and Ms B make formal complaints the next month.
At best, I suspect Sturgeon’s plea of ignorance relies on a jesuitical distinction between an awareness of 'concerns' and knowledge of formal 'complaints'. This may be enough, just as it may be that many will feel some sympathy for a woman caught in a miserable position not of her own devising. She insists she has always tried to do the right thing, not least by the women complainers themselves. There could be no covering up of the complaints against Salmond.
I suspect this is true and – though this is also mere speculation on my part – I strongly suspect Sturgeon considered the complaints more than credible. I also suspect – again, I speculate – that it occurred to some people close to the first minister that there was a nugget of opportunity to be mined from this mess: however tough it might be, however much anguish it might cause the first minister, there was also a chance to bolster her credentials as a stateswoman no longer constrained by anything so meagre as mere party affiliation. She would follow the truth, wherever it led and if this bolstered her credentials just as the #MeToo movement spread across the world then, well, the first minister could live with the public relations bonanza that might follow.
All of which might have happened had her government not buggered up its own investigation. The official tasked with investigating had previously had contact with the complainers, thereby giving Salmond ample grounds for judicial review. If his conduct was the subject of the criminal trial – at which he was acquitted on all counts – it is now Sturgeon’s turn in the dock. What did she know and when did she know it?
For reasons that remain unexplained, the Crown Office insisted that Salmond’s claims about the fateful 29 March 2018 meeting should be redacted. This is fishy enough on its own, not least since this information had been in the public domain – including being published by The Spectator – for weeks. That the Crown Office insisted on these changes to Salmond’s submission the night before he was – at last – due to appear before the committee raises the piscatorial stink to an entirely new level.
Removing those sections from the published record would prevent either Salmond or Sturgeon from being asked questions about them. You might think this awfully convenient for certain parties but it still remains probable that stupidity and/or incompetence is a better explanation than malice.
Despite that, there is no need to believe or endorse Salmond’s intimations of a wider conspiracy to appreciate that his suggestion the 29 March meeting was arranged by the first minister’s office torpedoes many of Sturgeon’s other claims. For, once again, the only credible explanation for 'forgetting' that encounter is that Sturgeon learnt nothing from it she did not already know.
If so, that would mean the gap between the date Sturgeon knew about the investigation and the date when she says she learnt about it (2 April) was not a mere four days but probably weeks and quite possibly months. I submit this has the added advantage of plausibility.
In turn, that would put Sturgeon at the centre of the government’s handling of the investigation. If the first minister knew nothing about it she cannot be expected to shoulder responsibility for its failure. Shouldering responsibility for that failure might have been embarrassing, but it is as nothing compared to the jeopardy in which the first minister now finds herself.
That some of the attacks on her are partisan – for of course they are and there is no point denying it – it does not change the reality that the first minister’s truthfulness is a legitimate matter of public interest. There may be an election looming and this may be the opposition’s best and only chance of toppling Sturgeon, but that does not alter or otherwise impinge upon the central issues here. It is merely incidental, even if it also raises the stakes still higher.
I am not persuaded by Salmond’s allegations in the round, but nor am I yet impressed by the first minister’s defence. Perhaps, just perhaps, some light will be shed when Salmond testifies before the committee tomorrow and when Sturgeon does so next week. As matters stand, however, that seems an optimistic hope. In this instance, then, Salmond and Sturgeon may both lose, but neither his defeat nor hers means the other will in any true sense be considered a victor.