Sturgeon under scrutiny for handling of Salmond complaints

In recent weeks, the Scottish government and current First Minister (FM) Nicola Sturgeon have come under intense scrutiny for their handling of sexual harassment allegations made against former FM and Scottish National Party leader Alex Salmond.

TW: sexual assault allegations

The dispute has irreparably damaged the relationship between two long-term political allies and advocates of Scottish independence, with some pundits even suggesting Sturgeon could be forced to resign.

Yet, whilst this narrative has been focalised between Salmond and Sturgeon, it cannot be isolated from its broader context. Fourteen sexual assault allegations were made against Salmond, all of which failed at trial. The initially not-guilty verdict, and subsequent polarised political dispute, is not encouraging for victims of workplace harassment or sexual assault. Indeed, one of Salmond’s own accusers found it “really traumatic” to experience her complaint becoming a political football.

It’s important to chart exactly how allegations of personal misconduct made against Salmond in 2018 have ballooned into the corruption inquiry we see today.

The present dispute finds its origins in January 2018, when the Scottish government first received formal complaints about Salmond’s behaviour and began to investigate internally. In August of the same year, 14 allegations of sexual abuse against Salmond were made public, dating throughout his tenure as First Minister from 2008 through 2014. Although the alleged survivors remained anonymous, they reportedly included Scottish civil servants, an SNP politician and a member of party administrative staff.

At the time, Salmond decried the claims as “patently ridiculous” but resigned from his party regardless, stating he would re-join after being proven innocent. Following a lengthy investigation and a bitter court battle, Salmond was cleared of all counts of sexual misconduct in March 2020. However, it would be the Scottish government’s handling of the investigation into Salmond’s conduct that triggered the political furore we see today.

One significant debate has surrounded the new rules regarding sexual harassment complaints implemented by Holyrood in March 2019, in the wake of the #MeToo movement, which allowed the Scottish government to look into Salmond’s behaviour, despite the alleged offences being historic in nature. Supporters of the former FM argue that the extension to older complaints was implemented simply to persecute Salmond. Sturgeon refutes this, arguing that their viewpoint “ignores what was happening globally at the time” and that Salmond “has a tendency to see most things as being about him.”

Salmond quickly took legal action against the Scottish government, alleging it had broken its own regulations when pursuing the claims made against him. His camp argued that the case’s investigating officer had previously made contact with the initial accusers, thereby breaching government regulations intended to prevent a conflict of interest. Following a judicial review in 2019, the Scottish Court of Session concluded that its government had behaved unlawfully, ordering it to pay Salmond’s £500,000 legal fees.

In early 2020, after Salmond was found not guilty of sexual harassment on all counts, two separate inquiries were launched into the Sturgeon’s and Scottish government’s handling of the investigation. The inquiry into Sturgeon, led by James Hamilton QC, is evaluating whether or not she broke the ministerial code, a set of rules dictating what ministers can and cannot do.

A significant point of contention in Hamilton’s inquiry surrounds when the First Minister initially learned of the complaints against Salmond. Sturgeon originally told the Scottish Parliament that she was first warned about the allegations during a meeting with Salmond at her home on 2 April 2018. She later revised this statement, admitting she met with his former chief of staff four days earlier on 29 March, which she claimed to have “forgotten.”

Salmond argues that Sturgeon misled parliament and gave evidence to the ongoing inquiry that was “manifestly untrue,” amounting to a significant breach of the ministerial code which, if found guilty of, may carry heavy political ramifications. Sturgeon denies she misled parliament, suggesting her predecessor’s supporters promoted “false conspiracy theories,” confirming she would “refute [Salmond’s claims] vigorously” when she appeared at the inquiry.

The second inquiry, investigating the broader Scottish government, has also made headlines. Whilst giving evidence, Salmond named several individuals he believed orchestrated a campaign to ruin his reputation “even to the extent of having [him] imprisoned.” The former FM directly accused Sturgeon’s chief of staff Liz Lloyd, and SNP chief executive officer (and Sturgeon’s husband) Peter Murrell, calling for their resignation. Despite alleging she contravened the ministerial code, Salmond stopped short of demanding his successor’s removal.

The Scottish government has also faced complaints of obstructive behaviour. In early March, they agreed to release aspects of their legal advice during the judicial review after opposition parties voted 63 to 54 in favour of demanding its release on threat of a vote of no confidence in Deputy First Minister John Swinney. Swinney had previously refused to release the documents, arguing the advice was confidential in nature. Upon release, documents showed that the Scottish government’s lawyers had warned that they were unlikely to win the judicial review, yet they continued regardless. The Scottish government’s lack of transparency surrounding the Salmond case could lead some to suspect what else they might be hiding.

The public response to the ongoing controversy has been polarised, particularly within the SNP itself. There is immense strength of feeling in each camp – Salmond was able to crowdfund £100,000 from over 4,100 donors back in 2018 to finance his legal defence, demonstrating how many in the party are still loyal to its former leader. In addition, the online reaction has been regularly abusive, particularly among supporters of Salmond, targeting his accusers to such an extent that some posts have come close to breaching their anonymity.

Sturgeon and her team are adamant that she will not resign, despite calls for a vote of no confidence from the opposition. Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross proposed a vote of no confidence in the First Minister, arguing the “weight of the evidence” implicating her was “overwhelming.” Sturgeon refuted Ross, stating it would be “irresponsible” to hold a vote of no confidence in the midst of the Coronavirus pandemic response, and especially before she had been able to give evidence at the inquiry. Sturgeon currently enjoys high approval statistics for her handling of the pandemic: 74% of Scots believe she dealt with Coronavirus well, particularly when compared to Boris Johnson, something that could reduce public support for her removal.

However, a wide-reaching and internally divisive political battle calling the SNP leader’s integrity into question could not have come at a worse time. Holyrood elections are scheduled to take place on 6 May and the party have banked on returning to power with a significant majority, going so far as to stake a second independence referendum on it. The ongoing controversy may well reduce confidence in Sturgeon and the SNP, but its material electoral impact remains to be seen.

It is also unclear to what extent the dispute might damage the case for independence. Before the debacle made front-page news, opinion polls suggested that support for independence within Scotland had risen to a sustained majority for the ‘Yes’ campaign for the first time, reaching 56% in November. However, four months later, when Salmond asserted that the present Scottish leadership had “failed” and was unfit to lead the country to independence, an Ipsos MORI poll suggested support for ‘Yes’ had slipped back to 52%. This perhaps indicates growing disenfranchisement with the SNP and its leadership of the independence campaign.

Ultimately, this story is one of a sexual harassment investigation descending into an uncomfortable political tit-for-tat. Kirsty Thomson, director of Just Right Scotland, described the “chilling effect” the Salmond inquiry was having on women’s confidence in Holyrood’s harassment policy; implying that, in future, victims of Scottish politicians may be less likely to report abuses. Adding to this, Salmond spent months referring to his alleged victims’ claims as “exaggerations” and “deliberate fabrications,” something his supporters have picked up and run with online – accusing them of lying and much worse.

In anonymous interviews, Salmond’s accusers have described their time in the public spotlight as arduous. One considered the experience of her complaint becoming a political football “really traumatic,” and another described reading insulting social media comments “an act of self-harm.” A third admits that they were reluctant to go to the police, finding the prospect of an “adversarial” court battle and a disbelieving jury “unbearable.” Many have since been offered extra security to ensure their protection. 

We may not know for some time how much damage has been done in Scotland, but it is highly likely this will serve to discourage victims of Scottish politicians from reporting sexual abuse incidents, after learning of the vitriol endured by Salmond’s accusers.

header image credit: Express