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Paul Vallely: Sturgeon-Salmond drama defused

26 March 2021

Will it affect the chances of Scottish independence, asks Paul Vallely

Alamy

Nicola Sturgeon and Alex Salmon campaigning for a “Yes” vote in the Scottish independence referendum, in September 2014

Nicola Sturgeon and Alex Salmon campaigning for a “Yes” vote in the Scottish independence referendum, in September 2014

THE Sturgeon-Salmond soap opera may not be over, but its moment of high drama has passed, at least until the Scottish parliamentary elections in May. Then we shall discover whether the bitter rift between Scotland’s current and past First Ministers will undermine the nation’s chances of pushing for a second referendum on Scottish independence.

Yet, the drama remains interesting for several reasons, even if few people beyond the politicians seem actually to care whether Nicola Sturgeon was guilty of a “potential breach of the ministerial code”. Once that might have been deemed a resignation issue, but Priti Patel was found egregiously guilty of that and survived.

The Sturgeon-Salmond saga arose out of the sea-change of the #MeToo movement, which, three years ago, after the Harvey Weinstein case, appeared to empower women to speak out about sexual harassment. Sturgeon-Salmond has been a huge setback for that.

The women who complained about inappropriate behaviour by Alex Salmond when he was First Minister have been failed in every imaginable way. The Scottish Government bungled its investigation into the affair and then referred the case to the prosecutors, against the women’s wishes. The women were subjected to merciless social-media abuse. Despite headlines such as “Boozed-Up Salmond ‘Touched Woman’s Breasts & Bum’”, the former First Minister was acquitted of all 13 sexual-offence charges against him and emerged from court to hint darkly at an Establishment conspiracy.

The bungling enabled him to recast himself as the victim — despite behaviour that was clearly inappropriate, and testimony that the Salmond administration was “like the Wild West” for women, who were stopped from working alone with him in the Scottish leader’s official residence, after an allegation of sexual assault. Staff were said to feel shamed because they were expected to tie Mr Salmond’s shoelaces, straighten his tie, apply hand-cream to him, comb his hair, and remove dandruff. Ministers, special advisers, and civil servants were pressurised to keep stories about his behaviour under wraps.

Few have come out the affair with credit. Civil servants have been exposed as confused, cowed, complicit, or lacking competence. Opposition politicians have seemed more concerned with scoring points to damage Ms Sturgeon than to get to the truth or protect the women. And the Scottish National Party, after 14 years in power, has been exposed as riven with internal fault-lines between the over-cautious and the over-hasty, and between trans activists, feminists, and anything-in-a-skirt misogynists who deride the Sturgeon camp as “the wokerati”.

None of this seems good grounds on which to enter into a serious debate on the merits of the Union versus Independence. Perhaps, sadly, it is unrealistic to expect anything else. After all, the popularity of the Union took a dive in the polls after Boris Johnson became prime minister, after a campaign of blustering buffoonery. Ms Sturgeon’s comparatively assured handling of Covid has underscored that swing.

But, beneath all that, lies the tectonic constitutional shift of Brexit, which has forced Scotland out of the EU despite a 62-per-cent vote to Remain. Global Britain looks more like Little England from north of the border. Whether the Sturgeon-Salmond shenanigans are enough to alter that massive political reality, we shall know soon enough.

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