Scottish Politics: How Did It Come To This?

This year has been a significant one already for Scottish politics, particularly with the ongoing strife between former First Minister Alex Salmond, and Nicola Sturgeon. However, for those of us who have not always lived in Scotland, it can be difficult to understand exactly what is going on, especially considering the fact that this issue has been years in the making. The issue surrounding Sturgeon and Salmond has become so complicated that it is no longer just about two politicians who cannot see eye to eye; it has become an issue of Scottish democracy. So with this article, I will try to help others make sense of the current state of Scottish politics and what it might mean for them. 

In order to get a clear idea of the friendship that Salmond and Sturgeon once had, we need to go all the way back to the Scottish Independence Referendum of 2014. At this time, Salmond was serving as the country’s First Minister and led the movement for Scottish Independence. Sturgeon was his deputy and together the two politicians became the face of the Independence campaign. When Scotland voted to remain, Salmond stepped down and Sturgeon took over as the country’s leader, becoming the country’s first female First Minister. Salmond meanwhile returned to his previous role as an MP for the Scottish National Party in Westminster, but swiftly lost his seat to the Scottish Conservatives in the 2017 General Election. It would be another year before we heard any news about him again. 

And when the news finally came, in August 2018, it was far from good ‒ at least for his former supporters. Salmond was accused of sexual misconduct, said to have occurred whilst he was serving as First Minister. He was forced to resign from the SNP as the allegations were investigated by the Scottish Government. However, Salmond began a judicial review into the fairness of how the Government handled the accusations against him. The complaints against Salmond were made just after Sturgeon had asked for new government policies to be put in place regarding sexual harassment, and Salmond complained that he believed the policy had been directly and unfairly aimed at him. He claimed that there was a conspiracy against him with the aim of tarnishing his reputation. Salmond won, and the Scottish Government had to pay his legal fees, which amounted to more than £500,000 of taxpayers’ money.

Nonetheless, Salmond still had his criminal trial to go through. Arrested in January 2019, he was charged with thirteen offences, which included attempted rape and sexual assault. Salmond was found not guilty on twelve of the charges and not proven on the remaining charge. For those who have not heard of the not proven verdict before, it is unique to Scottish courts, and used in cases where there is not enough evidence to convict a defendant of a crime but where the jury is not sufficiently convinced of the defendant’s innocence to give a not guilty verdict. Deemed a very controversial verdict, it is frequently used in rape and sexual assault cases. While it is a verdict of acquittal, it leaves a threatening black cloud over those who receive it. After leaving the courtroom, Salmond addressed the press, saying that there was information that would soon be made public.

This leads us to where we are currently, with the ongoing inquiry into how the government handled the accusations against Alex Salmond. The committee is made up of members of the Scottish Parliament and has accused both Salmond and Sturgeon of trying to hinder its efforts in the search for truth. Even Sturgeon’s husband, the SNP chief executive, Peter Murrell, has been accused of lying about a meeting that was held between his wife and Alex Salmond that took place within the couple’s home. The second inquiry that is taking place is trying to decide whether or not Nicola Sturgeon broke the ministerial code. 

The ministerial code sets out standards for government ministers to follow and it states that all of the First Minister’s meetings should be recorded. The one held in Sturgeon’s house with Alex Salmond was not recorded, but the First Minister claims that this was because the meeting was a personal visit, rather than government business. On top of this, a meeting took place in March 2018 between Ms Sturgeon and Geoff Aberdein, who was Alex Salmond’s former chief of staff, and it was during this meeting that Nicola Sturgeon is supposed to have been informed of the allegations made against her predecessor. However, Nicola Sturgeon originally told the Scottish Parliament that she had not been informed of the allegations against her former political mentor until days after the meeting had taken place, and that she was told by Alex Salmond himself. The meeting with Geoff Aberdein was also not recorded. 

These inquiries have been rather heated and emotional; Sturgeon was close to tears at one point when she was giving evidence. She complained that Salmond had not thought of others during this whole ordeal and whilst she accepted that her predecessor had been cleared of sexual assault and attempted rape, she said that she knows his behaviour was not always appropriate based on information that Salmond himself told her. She apologised to the women who she said had been let down by the Salmond investigation. These women were disappointed when Salmond was cleared of charges in court, and one of the accusers has now said that she finds the ongoing inquiry to be more traumatic than the original trial.

So, what happens now? For the time being, we are waiting to find out the inquiry’s decision on whether or not the First Minister broke the ministerial code. If they find that she did, she will be expected to stand down from her role. However, she is a popular political figure in Scotland and there are many who would not want her to step down.

Whatever decision the inquiry makes, this entire debacle has the potential to leave voters with a bad taste in their mouth. A poll conducted by Savanta ComRes found that 48% of those asked would vote for the SNP, down 6% from the poll that was conducted in February. A separate poll was conducted by YouGov on how many Scots would support holding another Independence Referendum, finding that 50% rejected the idea. However, we will have to wait and see what the results of the election in May are before we begin analysing the impact of the inquiries on voters. 

In the meantime, we can look back on this time as perhaps the most turbulent period in Scottish politics in a long while. Once these findings have been released, there may be more drama to follow, no matter what the inquiry decides. In any case, I am sure that most people are hoping that Scottish politics returns to normality sooner rather than later.