The most remarkable — and chilling — day in the history of Scottish devolution ends the only way it could: Alex Salmond has pulled out of an appearance before the Holyrood inquiry. The road to his withdrawal began on Monday evening with the publication of a key document in the long-running inquiry. The submission, in which Salmond alleges that Nicola Sturgeon broke the ministerial code, was uploaded to the Scottish parliament website ahead of an evidence session by Salmond on Wednesday. However, the Crown Office contacted Holyrood authorities and demanded they remove or redact the submissions. The parliament complied, replacing it with a further-redacted version.
When The Spectator published this very document in January, it was in defiance of a Holyrood inquiry that refused even to admit it into evidence. When the magazine went to court to ensure as much of Salmond’s evidence as possible could be seen by the public, it was against a backdrop of secrecy and obstruction that has come to define the inquiry’s attempts to reach the truth. When the Scottish Parliament Corporate Body (SPCB) decided that Lady Dorrian’s ruling allowed the committee to accept and publish Salmond’s submission, it was accused by the SNP of imperilling the anonymity of women who had alleged sexual misconduct by Salmond, even though no one was proposing to name or otherwise identify the complainers.
This pattern of behaviour — of believing that the Salmond affair could be dealt with ‘in house’ — has led where it was always going to: smack-bang into the middle of a trap laid by the former first minister himself. For Salmond’s contention is that he is the victim of a grand scheme orchestrated by his own former government to brand him a sexual predator and even have him jailed. Rejecting, then accepting, then censoring a parliamentary document, whatever the merits and motivations behind each individual decision, only plays into Salmond’s narrative.
This saga is lengthy and labyrinthine but in the background is the breakdown of Scotland’s most successful political partnership, between Salmond and his protege, successor and current First Minister Nicola Sturgeon. After handing over the leadership in 2014, Salmond’s erratic and extravagant behaviour (pink champagne, a bawdy one-man show at the Edinburgh Fringe, hosting a talk show on Russia Today) became an embarrassment for the new regime. But even before he stepped down, he had begun to make unhelpful interventions on referendum strategy.
In 2018, the Scottish government launched an internal investigation into allegations of sexual harassment stemming from his time as first minister. Salmond secured a judicial review and a judge ruled that the investigation was ‘unlawful’, ‘procedurally unfair’ and ‘tainted with apparent bias’ — the investigating officer had had prior contact with Salmond’s accusers. Two weeks later, Salmond was arrested and charged with a long list of sexual offences, including attempted rape. He was tried and acquitted by a jury on all counts last March.
The SNP-dominated Scottish parliament set up a narrow inquiry headed by an SNP MSP into how the SNP government handled internal complaints against Salmond. The Irish QC James Hamilton was tasked with a similarly narrow probe into whether Sturgeon contravened the ministerial code. While it was Salmond’s evidence to the Hamilton inquiry that prompted The Spectator’s legal action, it is the accompanying document — Salmond’s fourth and perhaps even final written submission to the parliamentary inquiry — that is causing ructions north of the border.
This document brings to an end the hints and intimations. Salmond comes out and writes it in black and white: ‘The inescapable conclusion is of a malicious and concerted attempt to damage my reputation and remove me from public life in Scotland.’
This, he asserts, took the form of ‘a deliberate, prolonged, malicious and concerted effort amongst a range of individuals within the Scottish government and the SNP to damage my reputation, even to the extent of having me imprisoned’. He names those behind the plot as Sturgeon’s chief of staff Liz Lloyd, SNP compliance officer Ian McCann, SNP chief operating officer Sue Ruddick and Peter Murrell, the chief executive of the SNP and husband of Nicola Sturgeon. ‘There are others who, for legal reasons, I am not allowed to name,’ he adds.
There is, Salmond claims, ‘obvious and compelling evidence of such conduct’ which the Crown Office (Scotland’s equivalent of the Crown Prosecution Service) ‘refuses to release’. This refusal he brands ‘disgraceful’ and says it ‘denies me the opportunity to put the full truth before the committee and the public’. The ‘only beneficiaries’ of the Crown Office’s decision, he suggests, ‘are those involved in conduct designed to damage (and indeed imprison) me’. The Crown Office, under its present leadership, is ‘simply not fit for purpose’.
Perhaps even more provocative is a specific allegation against Murrell. The committee has previously heard that the SNP chief executive sent text messages to a senior party staffer the day after Salmond’s first court appearance in January 2019. These texts described the police as ‘twiddling their thumbs’ and said it was a ‘good time to be pressurising them’, adding that ‘the more fronts he is having to firefight on the better for all complainers’. Murrell said at the time that ‘the messages have been presented in a way that suggests a meaning that they do not in reality have’.
Now Salmond goes further. He alleges that Murrell ‘deployed his senior staff to recruit and persuade staff and ex staff members to submit police complaints’, an effort, he says, that was ‘coordinated with special advisers’ and took place ‘after the police investigation had started and after I ceased to be a member of the SNP’. He goes on to ask why ‘supporting evidence establishing this point was not shared with the committee by the Crown Office’.
The SNP responds that these accusations are ‘just more assertion without a shred of credible evidence’ and reproaches Salmond for ‘making these ridiculous and baseless claims and lashing out at all and sundry’. For her part, Sturgeon contends there is not ‘a shred of evidence to back these wild claims up’ and says ‘the burden of proof is on Alex Salmond’. She argues that ‘it is time for insinuation and assertion to be replaced with actual evidence’. To the suggestion she was part of a plot against Salmond, Liz Lloyd ‘rejects the allegation in its entirety’ and says it is ‘not substantiated by any evidence and is founded on a number of claims that are false’. The Crown Office maintains it has behaved ‘independently and in the public interest at all times’. The Scottish parliament says: 'The SPCB agreed to republish the submission in redacted form in line with representations from the Crown Office. We cannot comment any further on the redactions as the Crown Office has advised that its correspondence on this matter must be kept confidential.'
Salmond coyly notes in his statement that he ‘leaves to others the question of what is, or is not, a conspiracy’ but that is plainly what he is alleging. He is suggesting, ultimately, that the political machinations of the Scottish National Party and the governmental and prosecutorial apparatus of the Scottish segment of the UK state were marshalled against him in a coordinated scheme to malign his name, banish him from public life, and even deprive him of his liberty. The implications, if his version of events were to be vindicated, are almost incalculable.
There, however, is the rub: can he prove it? The SNP certainly seems to think not. They believe he is tossing around wild allegations to distract from the original facts of the matter: the women who came forward to complain about his alleged behaviour and the experiences they described. The bar of proof for Salmond is as high as the conspiracy he posits is grand. However, by censoring his evidence at the behest of the Crown Office, the Scottish parliament set limits on what Salmond could say and what evidence he could cite. It is therefore unsurprising that he has pulled out.
It’s hard to decide what stands out most. The brazenness of the Crown Office. The cowardice of the Scottish parliament. The telling silence of the Scottish government. The utter humiliation of a fatally compromised committee. Or perhaps it’s this: the unshakeable suspicion that this is the best we can hope for from devolution.