Johanna Ross, journalist based in Edinburgh, Scotland
It has been an entertaining week in Scottish politics. Last Friday we had the pleasure of watching former First Minister Alex Salmond eloquently articulate his criticisms of the Scottish government’s handling of allegations into claims of sexual harassment against him; on Wednesday we heard current FM Nicola Sturgeon give her response to the parliamentary committee, in an equally competent manner. Both came across as genuine, capable and skillful politicians. And they are equally adept at arguing, neither giving any ground to the barrage of questioning from committee members.
It’s sad to think that it has come to this: that the duo that succeeded in dramatically increasing support for independence in Scotland in the last couple of decades have come to clash in this way. It is even more unfitting given Sturgeon’s expression of how close the two had been, as she referred to Alex Salmond as her ‘friend’. And yet Sturgeon still managed to convey some of the less savory aspects of his character in the evidence she gave on Wednesday, that he had been difficult to work for at times and that he was egotistical - ‘he believed everything centred around him’. She tried to paint a picture of herself being placed in an impossible position as she says Salmond asked for her help after he was accused by various women of sexual misconduct during his time as First Minister. She said: “As first minister, I refused to follow the age-old pattern of allowing a powerful man to use his status and his connections to get what he wants.”
As we get lost in the detail of the case, and who said what to whom and when, it’s easy to forget the bigger picture - Scottish independence. Salmond and Sturgeon take slightly different views over the path to independence. Sturgeon has a much more careful, measured approach towards calling a second referendum on independence, whereas it is said Alex Salmond, supported by the likes of Joanna Cherry MP (who recently resigned from the party, perhaps in part due to a conflict with Sturgeon) believes Scotland should take a more direct path, and not necessarily rely on another referendum, which Westminister has said it will not grant anyway in the near future.
Alex Salmond didn’t hold back last Friday from criticizing the government and specifically, Nicola Sturgeon: “Some say the failures of those institutions and the blurring of the boundaries between party, government and prosecution service mean that Scotland is in danger of becoming a failed state. I disagree. The Scottish civil service hasn’t failed; its leadership has failed. The Crown Office hasn’t failed; its leadership has failed. Scotland hasn’t failed; its leadership has failed.”
He has accused Nicola Sturgeon of ‘malice’ and believes that there was a concerted conspiracy to see him put behind bars. Sturgeon emphatically denies this of course, claiming the idea is ‘absurd’. But Salmond has obviously been driven by a sense of injustice and now wants to bring down Sturgeon in the way that his reputation was so badly tarnished during his court case.
What has not been discussed in the UK mainstream media of course, is the big elephant in the room: the role of the British security services in this case. Scottish independence is considered a threat to the Union and the British state as a whole. Alex Salmond, as the formidable SNP leader under whose tenure independence support soared, was always going to be a target for the deep state. Perhaps even more so after some of his actions post-leadership: travelling to Barcelona in 2018 to give a speech supporting Catalan independence and signing a contract with Russian television station RT to present a weekly news programme. We know from Integrity Initiative documents that the independence movement’s relationship with Russia - as if there was one at all - was a genuine concern for the UK security apparatus. Salmond has never been afraid to ruffle a few feathers down at Westminster. Sturgeon on the other hand, was very cautious in her reaction to events in Catalonia, stressing the need for ‘dialogue’, and she criticised Salmond over his decision to work with RT.
The current conflict between Salmond and Sturgeon couldn’t be more beneficial for London. And in terms of strategy, it’s the oldest trick in the book to eliminate two of your opponents by setting them up against each other. What has fundamentally been lost between Salmond and Sturgeon is trust, and what actors have led to this being lost, particularly on the part of Salmond, who believes Sturgeon has led a conspiracy against him, is not clear.
What is apparent however, is the role of the media in driving the narrative initially against Salmond, and now against Sturgeon. Both the mainstream media and British trolls of the 77th brigade - who have been very active on Twitter of late - have joined in a concerted campaign to undermine the two key figures of the independence scene. As I have stated previously, the first Nicola Sturgeon heard of any allegations regarding Alex Salmond’s behaviour was a Sky News media enquiry in November 2017. Then we have the mysterious leak to the Daily Record of the Scottish government’s decision report on the allegations into Salmond. Sturgeon maintains she was never even sent the decision report herself, and so couldn’t have leaked it, and she asserts no-one from her staff did either. The leak was significant because it exposed the names of the complainants against Salmond and brought the case out into the open.
As Salmond said on Friday: ‘Whoever leaked that document at that time caused enormous distress, certainly broke the law and certainly there have been huge consequences for all concerned as a result of that leak...My own feeling about this is ... I’m not saying civil servants leak, they seldom leak and if they do it’s not to the political editor of the Daily Record.’
The UK security services however, do regularly ‘leak’ information to UK national newspapers. And given the significance of this event in terms of fuelling Salmond’s suspicions of Sturgeon, it is not too far-fetched to think MI5 was involved in this.
We already have hints of MI5’s collaboration in Salmond’s demise from Craig Murray’s blog. Murray, an ardent supporter of Salmond, and who has faced his own court case as a result of his coverage of the case, wrote in March last year that he had ‘definite good source information on MI5 involvement in the attempt to dredge up charges at Edinburgh airport’ - referring to one of the supposed incidents of sexual harassment which turned out to be nothing more than a comment about ‘killer heels’.
He continued: ‘...I am very suspicious given the knowledge that MI5 were engaged in the witch-hunt. Which of course also begs the question that if any of the alleged incidents inside Bute House were true, the state would by now have produced the MI5 or GCHQ/NSA recordings to prove it (claiming they were sourced from elsewhere). Salmond has been considered by them a threat to the UK state for decades, and not only over Scottish Independence.’
The question is, will this fiasco have the desired effect and destroy the Scottish independence movement? Well, given the fact that 7600 new members joined the SNP following Nicola Sturgeon’s committee appearance this week, it looks as if the commotion is having the opposite effect. Scots are well versed in English Unionist tactics and games. We didn’t come down in the last shower. In the last week, Salmond and Sturgeon have given the performances of their lives, and boosted the Scottish independence movement even more. There’s no turning back now.
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