Alex Salmond may have walked away free after being acquitted of sexual harassment by multiple women but this Scottish scandal is yet to die. Rather, it is on hold amidst the ongoing pandemic. Nonetheless, once this crisis subdues Salmond has made his intentions quite clear, desiring to initiate an inquiry into what he describes as “deliberate fabrications [designed] for political purposes” made against him, putting Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP at risk of becoming the subject of an intense, public investigation.
“How we deal with this and how we are seen to respond to this will say a lot about who we are as a party and also about the country we are today and want to build for the future” said Nicola Sturgeon in the week that followed the publication of the initial sexual harassment allegations against the former First Minister, Alex Salmond. She recognised that the allegations faced by the so-called architect of the Scottish independence movement would inevitably have an impact, for better or for worse, on the party, and therefore on the likelihood of an independent Scotland. She could not have been more right. Since the accusations came to light there has been a fracturing within the party which will only be accentuated by Salmond’s acquittal this week.
The verdicts were welcomed by Salmond’s supporters, with many seizing the opportunity to call for an independent inquiry into the SNP’s handling of sexual harassment complaints. It is alleged that the code of conduct for the Scottish government introduced in 2017 by Sturgeon, which applied retrospectively to former ministers, was specifically designed to implicate Salmond and to bring an end to his ascendency as the hero of the Scottish Independence movement. Outside of the party there is also a significant appetite to see this investigated – with the Scottish Conservative opposition pronouncing it as “a national political scandal with profound questions of integrity for the First Minister and her SNP government”.
However, the general mood in the SNP was far from celebratory; many members were disturbed by Salmond’s apparent vindication. Since the 2014 referendum and Salmond’s subsequent resignation the party’s membership has more than quadrupled, making it the second largest political party in the UK. By putting pressure on the SNP establishment to take a more progressive line the new members have changed the face of the party to one that no longer welcomes the “sexist”, “slow-to-change” Salmond. On the day of the verdicts the hashtag #ibelieveher was trending as many expressed their anger and frustration at the “not guilty” and “not proven” verdicts.
One Twitter user responded to SNP MP Angus MacNeil’s statement of support for Salmond writing “I hadn’t realised you perceive Scotland’s cause as for men only, and we women are shut out – in your view – as not worth listening to or believing”.
Despite this resistance, Alex Salmond remains a revered character among many independence supporters. After resigning from the SNP in 2018 he set up a crowd funder to support his challenge of the Scottish government’s handling of the allegations. Within three days he raised £100,000, double the initial target, highlighting the allegiance many still owed him.
Moreover, the chasm within the party only seems to be intensifying with the emerging alliance between Salmond’s supporters, those who oppose Sturgeon’s ‘overly cautious’ strategy for independence, and those who have reservations about the Scottish government’s plans for transgender reform.
What does this division mean for their independence project? The SNP have been inching towards Scottish independence, or at least a second referendum for many years. Central to their method was a united front, forged by a common, unwavering commitment to an independent Scotland. Salmond’s return threatens this. After years of electoral gains, and with Brexit (which Scotland did not vote for) looming it seemed as though the party was positioning itself for another bid for an independence referendum. However, a fracturing of the party could cripple the movement just as it seemed close to reaping the rewards of its hard work.
The road ahead for the SNP will be a long, strenuous one. Edinburgh Central will be the stage for the first battle. The upcoming Holyrood contest there will be a proxy war fought between Joanna Cherry and Angus Robertson on behalf of the warring factions. Joanna Cherry, the SNP shadow Home Secretary and Justice Secretary in Westminster, has insisted that the government push for a second referendum in the courts, and following the court’s verdicts has called for Salmond to be welcomed back into the party. In addition, she has also been under the spotlight recently for her opposition to the SNP plans to bring self-identification for gender recognition certificates. Robertson, on the other hand, is a known ally of Sturgeon and a believer in the gradualist approach to independence. The result of this stand-off will be an indicator of which side will come out on top.
According to how events unfold in the coming months the prospect of Scottish independence may revert back to a fallacious dream. If Alex Salmond does not tread carefully, he may risk single-handedly pushing another referendum, and therefore Scottish independence, back an entire generation.
Image - Flickr (Scottish Government)