1 March 2021

Why the Salmond saga threatens Sturgeon – and the separatist cause

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When Alex Salmond finally gave his evidence to MSPs investigating the Scottish Government last week, he did not prove the existence of an all-encompassing conspiracy against him. Despite his waving yet-unpublished evidence under the noses of the committee, it still feels unlikely that he will.

But his testimony, along with further evidence secured by the press over the weekend, nonetheless poses a serious danger to Nicola Sturgeon and the government she leads.

Evidence is mounting that the First Minister may have misled Holyrood over when she knew of the allegations against her predecessor. Even more seriously, unpublished testimony from Geoff Aberdein, Salmond’s former chief of staff, claims that her administration leaked the name of one of the complainants.

Meanwhile the failure to substantiate the more luridly conspiratorial claims does not mean that there aren’t serious questions to be asked of some of the Scottish institutions embroiled in the story. It says something that even Adam Tomkins, a legal academic and Tory MSP who is no friend of devoscepticism, is pressing hard on why the Crown Office intervened to censor parts of Salmond’s evidence critical of Sturgeon.

Whilst said criticism is in the public domain, the censorship meant that MSPs can’t question Salmond or Sturgeon about it. The move, which obviously has no possibility of allowing the identification of the former First Minister’s accusers, has fuelled concerns of improper distance between the Scottish Government and Scotland’s prosecution service.

The conspiratorially-minded point to the fact that James Wolffe, the Lord Advocate, simultaneously leads the Crown Office and sits in Sturgeon’s Cabinet. But you don’t need to believe he intervened personally to have broader concerns about the decision. As Alex Massie, another observer with no wish to drum up scepticism about Holyrood, put it:

“So why the redaction? By far the most convincing explanation for this startling censorship is that publishing the unredacted documents risked embarrassing the First Minister and exposing her as a liar.”

Of course, Sturgeon herself has yet to give evidence and she may yet be able to put the whole thing to bed. But having pledged her full cooperation with the initial inquiry, she and her administration have certainly been acting as if they have something to hide. There may not have been a conspiracy, but it looks increasingly like there has been a cover-up.

But will any of it matter? For months, it has felt like there are two Scottish National Parties. One is an all-conquering political phenomenon which looks set to secure a second supposedly impossible majority at Holyrood after 14 years in office.

The second is a ministry and a movement exhibiting symptoms of advanced morbidity, the former stacking up policy failures whilst the latter is wracked by increasingly poisonous divisions over existential questions such as gender politics and independence strategy.

Yet to the immense frustration of unionists, these two parties have managed to co-exist in our universe. The bad news stories keep coming, yet the Nationalists’ poll ratings don’t budge.

To an extent, this reflects the fact that the core of the SNP’s support is set on independence and will vote for the party best placed to deliver it. Parties in this position can soak up a lot of damage – just look at how long Theresa May managed to keep the Tories upwards of 40%, even when her Government was shedding a Cabinet minister a month.

But research from These Islands also finds that Scottish voters place huge trust in the First Minister personally. She is an irreplaceable asset to the SNP’s electoral prospects and thus to the separatist cause.

That’s why this saga is potentially so dangerous to that cause. It cuts to the heart not just of the Scottish Government’s competence – which voters do not seem too exercised about – but the First Minister’s personal integrity. It also seems to be causing a decline in polling support for independence, the other crucial lynchpin of the SNP’s bulletproof vote.

As May discovered, once voters decide you’ve let them down on the one big thing they were backing you on, all the things they previously ignored can suddenly come back into play.

But the case also raises questions about devolution itself. In the last week or so there has been a sudden realisation by devophile commentators that shadowy forces – such as myself, presumably – might exploit the story to try and undermine public confidence in the devolution settlement. Salmond himself also seems alive to the danger: as I noted elsewhere, he opened his evidence by trying to separate his damning judgment on the performance of the Crown Office, Civil Service, et al from his view of the institutions themselves.

The problem is that this ‘devolution was never about results’ line – what we might call the ‘Barnes Formulation’ – is unpersuasive as an argument. It’s basically just the statement of a pre-rational premise, and if your audience doesn’t share it, you’re out of luck. It will therefore do little to arrest the growth of devosceptic sentiment amongst that section of the pro-UK vote for whom the Scottish Parliament was always a compromise with a purpose, not an end in itself.

A civic hegemony?

Moreover, concerns that the SNP have managed to secure an improper hegemony over ‘civic Scotland’ predate the Salmond scandal. Their internal culture is, or was until recently, one of phalanx-like discipline and suppression of dissent, and that is reflected in how they govern.

Over the decade since their first overall majority, they have ruthlessly centralised power to Edinburgh, squeezing the autonomy of local councils and abolishing regional police forces.

It is not unreasonable for people to be worried about the influence such a government would try to exert on the civil service – especially if there seems no realistic prospect of it losing office anytime soon; on other parts of ‘civic Scotland’ that depend on Scottish Government grants or other forms of public assistance; or the shadow it might cast over a small, tight-knit devocrat class where everyone knows everyone else.

Merely pointing out that the SNP don’t command an overall majority at Holyrood at the minute is not sufficient to counter this case.

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? In Westminster’s oft-maligned adversarial model, two or more camps keep energetic watch on each other. In Edinburgh’s cosy consensus, that seems less effective. This is not the time and Boris Johnson certainly isn’t the man, but in future the Government should give thought to what Westminster’s proper role should be in ensuring good government in those areas it has chosen, for now, to delegate to Holyrood and Cardiff Bay.

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Henry Hill is New s Editor of ConservativeHome.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.