Former First Minister Alex Salmond led Scotland for seven years. During that time, the Scottish National Party (SNP), Salmond and his deputy Nicola Sturgeon came to dominate Scottish politics. The duo was known for their closeness, with Sturgeon famously saying, “He believed in me long before I believed in myself.” After Salmond’s departure, Sturgeon came to be First Minister, leading the country and the SNP post-referendum.
In January of 2018, two women came forward with sexual assault complaints about Salmond, and the Scottish government investigated. Scotland’s government had just revised its policies for how the government will address sexual assault, bobbing in the wake of the #MeToo and Times Up movement. In March of that year Salmond claimed he wasn’t given the ability to defend himself, saying the case was unfairly handled. The government still continued with the case, so he went to court with his accusations against the government. It was found that the government’s mishandling of his case was unlawful. Because he won the case, the results were never released.
In November of 2019, Salmond was charged by the police and he went to a criminal trial after he was accused by 10 women of sexual assault. He faced 14 charges, including rape and assault. He was later acquitted of all charges but two — one where it was ruled not proven and one that was withdrawn. In the end, the case cost taxpayers over £600,000, as the government was forced to pay Salmond’s legal fees, as well as their own representation.
Two inquiries were then established. Because the government was found to have acted unlawfully, Scottish parliament launched a committee to investigate. James Hamilton, Ireland’s former Director of Public Prosecutions, is responsible for the second investigation, which is looking into the potential Ministerial Code breaches.
After his trial, Salmond fell silent. For eleven months he withheld public remarks about the trial or the state of the SNP. This was out of character for the former first minister, who was known for enjoying the spotlight. Then, Salmond came bursting back into the public eye, charging his former colleagues and protégé of conspiracy and misuse of their positions. He now claims that First Minister Sturgeon is “unfit to lead” the SNP or nation. Salmond accuses Sturgeon of misleading parliament by withholding evidence, personally assembling witnesses and working to damage his reputation. Sturgeon has been accused of breaking the Ministerial Code 38 times.
Salmond released three submissions to the Parliamentary Inquiry, the most controversial being a 26-page document in which he claimed there was a “malicious and concerted effort” to remove him from his position of influence. He listed collusion and misleading parliament as some of the key indiscretions responsible for Sturgeon’s alleged breaching of the Ministerial Code.
Nicola Sturgeon has said she "fundamentally" disagrees with Alex Salmond on the Government being able to investigate complaints against former Ministers.
She believes they should; he does not.
— Paul Hutcheon (@paulhutcheon) March 3, 2021
On February 23, 2021, the Crown Office flagged his release of evidence saying it was in contempt of court. They limited what he could say as a witness, citing concerns regarding exposing the identities of the women who had accused him. The head of the Crown Office, Lord Advocate James Wolffe (who was appointed by Sturgeon), maintains he was acting under the law. Salmond says he was being silenced, as that which was redacted was some of the most condemnatory material that was submitted. They were ordered to release the evidence.
Withholding of information is what Salmond continually points to as a critical issue and further proof of the violation of the Ministerial Code. On March 1, 2021, Deputy First Minister John Swinney agreed to release the legal advice. He did so after opposition parties unified to pressure him, saying they would ensure a vote of no confidence, should he continue to withhold the information. Holyrood had previously voted twice to request the materials. Wolffe refuses to state whether withholding evidence is illegal if it was demanded via a warrant.
Salmond claims Sturgeon urged the government to pursue a civil case against him, despite having legal advice encouraging her from not pursuing the case. He says that they prolonged the case into 2019, despite gaining the knowledge that “procedure was not followed,” in October of 2018. The proceedings from December of 2018 stated that the “least worst” option would be to drop the case, a redacted source then replied and insisted that the Lord Advocate found it important that the case persisted.
Salmond says that Sturgeon held a vital meeting at a private residence with him and one of his aides that she did not disclose. There were no notes taken and she did not inform her staff of the meeting. She defended it, saying that she initially found no reason to cite what she assumed would be SNP business. She states that she “forgot” about a meeting from three days prior, but Salmond claims she had been informed three days prior in Holyrood. Salmond says she is breaking the Ministerial Code by mischaracterizing this meeting to Parliament, and for withholding messages surrounding the meetings.
Salmond also says that Sturgeon and the SNP wanted to go to extreme lengths to diminish his power, saying she used her husband, who is the Chief Executive Officer Peter Murrell. Salmond claims Murrell made staffers and Party members to file police reports. He says Murrell lied under oath, which Murrell strongly denies.
Sturgeon insists that she did not break the Ministerial Code and that there is no evidence to support the claims that she did, saying Salmond has crafted an “alternate reality.” Despite her rebuttal, there are already calls from Labour and Conservatives for her resignation. They plan to submit a vote of no confidence. Tories have released a 27-page dossier titled “The Sturgeon-Salmond scandal: Sleaze and secrecy in the ruling party of government,” which they say justifies their movement to remove her. It is in this document that they outline the 38 violations of the Code.
On March 3, 2021, Sturgeon spent over eight hours submitting evidence and testifying to the Committee. She acknowledged that mistakes were made, but vehemently denies breaking the Ministerial Code. She said that she had “no reason” to work towards Salmond’s downfall and that she was “searching for any sign at all that he recognised how difficult this had been for others too.” She also specifically apologized to the women who were involved in the case. In her typical fashion, she remained level while addressing the Committee, saying at one point, “In one of the most invidious political and personal situations I have ever faced, I believe I acted properly and appropriately, and overall, I made the best judgments I could.” Her time speaking greatly contrasted the drama of Salmond’s declarations, greatly embodying the contrast between them.
Where to go from here?
With an election in May, this Sturgeon-Salmond situation leaves the SNP in a precarious situation. The SNP has had a massive stronghold for almost a decade and a half, with Sturgeon remaining a very popular leader, especially through the pandemic. With the SNP, once seen as an unstoppable force, in a vulnerable and scandal-soaked position, unionist parties are able to potentially diminish some of their control. The SNP is turning against each other, revealing serious issues within the party whilst simultaneously the dangers of having multiple factions within the SNP.
Raw popularity with the people may keep Sturgeon afloat. However, some analysts have considered the fact that Scotland may still want to step back from the SNP. After Salmond accused the SNP of colluding and installing themselves at every level of government, Scotland may want to pull back from their SNP-loyal approach. Some suggested that this is similar to Prime Minister Theresa May’s loss of the majority during her 2017 general election, after the nation lost faith in her BREXIT election call and diminished her majority support.
The SNP was poised to hold a referendum after the election, as Scotland was seeing sustained majority support for independence, for the first time in history. Polls had the SNP far ahead, and another shot at independence looked very attainable. The strong numbers have since dipped, and anxieties are growing surrounding Scotland’s ability to break from the United Kingdom at this time. UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson would have to approve a referendum, since Sturgeon has said she would like to follow legal precedent and avoid mobilizing to unilaterally hold a referendum. Johnson has reiterated that he does not currently support a referendum, even formally rejecting a request in January of 2021. However, in 2017, Sturgeon did not take the unilateral option off the table. If the SNP were to lose, a referendum could be implausible or a dangerous risk for the SNP to take. Furthermore, if Sturgeon is found guilty of breaching the Ministerial Code, she will leave office and the SNP will likely suffer. The SNP may also move to nominate someone else at the start of the term.
Salmond did repeatedly take pains to specifically bash SNP leadership, still leaning on his career-long vision for an independent Scotland.
Political scientists have drawn a connection between Québec’s attempts to secure independence from Canada. The province tried to depart twice, and their second failed referendum in 1995 essentially shuttered the Parti Québecois’ future for the foreseeable future. Today, the comparable Bloc Québécois have only recently regained strength. There are concerns that a second failed referendum will kill the SNP’s future, though their party is much stronger than the Québecois’ at the time.
Polls from before Salmond’s time in Committee found that 39% of voters believed the government had engaged in some form of a cover up, while 50% believed that Sturgeon should resign if found to be in violation of the Ministerial code.
This scandal also leaves many women in Scotland feeling uneasy about the safety of reporting such incidents. Salmond was known for his love of the spotlight and aggressive tendencies, which reporters say was not exclusive to his public life. The lines of his irregular personal life often blurred into his political dealings, “He could be flirtatious with women, and, as someone working alongside him, you could never be entirely sure what their relationship entailed…”
If she remains in power, First Minister Sturgeon faces a great challenge. With sects of the SNP growing more nervous about the strength of the referendum, Sturgeon bares the burden of convincing her nation and Party they are ready to lead, even amidst a scandal.