NICOLA STURGEON boasted to Holyrood that she was ‘relishing’ her chance to appear before the Inquiry. Now if you are like me and you like relish, you will know relish is a cooked and pickled product. And Nicola Sturgeon certainly found herself in quite the pickle. And many of her answers were thoroughly cooked by members of the committee, much to her clear chagrin.
Nicola Sturgeon had a game-plan, to paint a picture of the rawness of deep loss. Her own.
Bridges burnt, not by her you understand; but by another. ‘Alec’; the man she repeatedly reflected as having been the closest of friends; her “bestie”, was responsible. Not her, never her. She constantly pushed the theme; nod-nod-wink-wink; that Alex Salmond was somehow guilty. All whilst emoting endlessly about her hurt. And wow, did she emote? Never you mind she spent twenty years telling us all to trust ‘Alec’.
When taken together with Alex Salmond’s testimony from Friday, the differences in approach between the two could not have been starker.
Whereas Salmond had been calm, restrained, somewhat humbled and evidence-led; Sturgeon was sharp, rushed, and quick to, well, emote. Body language closed; arms folded. Brow furrowed.
The only fly in the ointment for Nicola Sturgeon was this evidence session was all about her behaviour, and her government’s handling of a process against ‘Alec’ that was ‘unlawful’, ‘procedurally unfair’, and ultimately ‘tainted by apparent bias’. As Margaret Mitchell curtly pointed out, it was she (and her government) that was on trial, not Alex Salmond.
The whole sorry mess had all the hallmarks of a raw Jacobean revenge-tragedy. The themes were all present: dishonesty, family crisis, hypocrisy intermingling with lust, corruption, and a yearning nostalgia for a more decorous lost past.
Yes, plenty for you to “relish” First Minister; and you should always be careful what you wish for.
Problems arose for the First Minister when confronted by the questions ‘What did you know’ and ‘when did she know it?’ The First Minister claimed to parliament the first she knew of the allegations against Alex Salmond was April 2nd 2018. But Jackie Baillie MSP cast a shadow over the veracity of that claim. Ms Baillie asked if the First Minister knew about the March 9th meeting arranged by one of her senior government officials and Geoff Aberdein (Salmond’s ex chief of staff) to discuss the allegations against Alex Salmond. “No” came Ms Sturgeon’s reply. Jackie Baillie was not impressed, reflecting “so a senior member of your team had meetings that you knew nothing about”. The First Minister simply sat glaring in irritation at the Labour veteran.
Onward to the March 29th meeting. It had been arranged by Liz Lloyd (Nicola Sturgeon’s chief of staff) with Geoff Aberdein and took place in Holyrood, in Nicola Sturgeon’s own office. The First Minister, Geoff Aberdein and a complainer were present. Nicola Sturgeon accepted that Aberdein was coming to discuss complaints; “I was aware Geoff wanted to see me, and it was about Alex Salmond”. Jackie Baillie eventually pulled a further clarifying statement from a reluctant Ms Sturgeon that it was concerning “an issue around a harassment concern.”
So, the First Minister is asking us all to believe that she sat in her own office with Geoff Aberdein and a complainer, discussing ‘allegations of a sexual nature’; going on to agree an April 2nd meeting with Alex Salmond personally… but knows nothing about allegations against him before April? Aye, sure. And if you believe that I have a bridge to sell you.
“To the best of my knowledge” blended with “as I understand it” as the curious refrains running throughout many of Nicola Sturgeon’s answers. Yet it should be underscored that the former First Minister Alex Salmond did not need to rely nearly so heavily on these lawyerly ‘get out jail free’ rhetorical devices.
How is the “relishing” going First Minister?
Things did not get any easier for our rapid-fire blinking First Minister as the April 2nd meeting was discussed. Alex Salmond has claimed that in this meeting Nicola Sturgeon assured him she would intervene on his behalf in the legal process against him, in relation to the complaints. Nicola Sturgeon denied this, explaining “I believe I did make it clear that I would not intervene.” Notice the lawyerly ‘I believe’ bit; a definite sign someone is avoiding being categorical.
Except…it is not just Alex Salmond’s claims being pitted against the First Minister. This is not a ‘he said she said’ sort of deal folks. Salmond’s version of events is corroborated by witnesses, Sturgeons is not. Kevin Pringle and Duncan Hamilton QC both corroborate Salmond claims. Duncan Hamilton QC states unambiguously “We discussed mediation. My clear recollection is that her words were ‘If it comes to it, I will intervene.’”.
The First Minister told the committee that she did not believe that either Mr Hamilton or Mr Pringle were lying… but at the same time refused to accept their accounts. How does that work?
The only way I can fathom it, is for Mr Salmond, Mr Pringle and Mr Hamilton all suffered the same inadvertent mis-impression at the same time. Now I do not know about you, but my credulity can only be stretched so far.
Of course, never one to skip a beat, Nicola Sturgeon made a dig at her predecessor claiming that ‘Alec’ had made ‘admissions about his personal conduct’ in private. To her. Alone. Where nobody else was present, and thus no corroboration can ever happen to prove or disprove the claim. How very convenient!
Moving to the disastrous Judicial Review process; Nicola Sturgeon’s typical ability to wax lyrical seemed to disappear into a vortex of flannelling. Here was a procedure found to have been unlawful, unfair, and tainted by apparent bias. It cost taxpayers more than half a million pounds. She expressed ‘anger’ and ‘regret’ at the serious mistakes made. But then why has nobody ever been sacked? Why has nobody ever resigned? Indeed Leslie Evans (permanent secretary to ScotGov) who presided over the entire debacle was given a pay rise and a contract extension!
So much for Ms Sturgeon’s ‘regret’ and ‘anger’.
But one of the most spectacular moments of shiftiness from the First Minister was to be had regarding the leak to the Daily Record. An official – as yet unknown – took it upon themselves to leak a confidential report about complaints to the Daily Record newspaper. Sturgeon’s government had been planning a press release which was only stopped under threat of legal action. But this abortive planned press release was conveniently followed by this appalling leak to the Daily Record. When taken together, appears like a determined effort to splash the Salmond allegations to the public: come what may. Never mind the complainants wishes.
Jackie Baillie asked the First Minister “why wasn’t it [leak to the Daily Record] reported to the police?” Nicola Sturgeon’s reply unbelievably was “I don’t know”. So, a highly confidential report, involving complainants was leaked. And no action taken. Nicola Sturgeon does not know why, by whom, and does not know why she did not try to find out.
Make of that what you will.
But last, we really need to focus on another leak. This one involved the leaking of the name of a complainant to Alex Salmond. Geoff Aberdein states under sworn testimony that the name of one of the complainants was passed to him by a senior government official. Nicola Sturgeon explains that she asked this ‘senior government official’ if it was true, it was denied, and this apparently satisfied the First Minister.
Nicola Sturgeon says, “government has a duty if it thinks criminal acts have been committed to act on them.” So why was literally no action taken here regarding this leak? It is beyond belief that such a breakdown in trust could happen. Somebody needs to explain to Nicola Sturgeon that it takes more than warm words to stand up for women. How on earth is it protecting women when Ms Sturgeon fails to investigate the leaking of a complainant’s name to the person she complained about?
Ultimately the First Minister’s performance was replete with caveated answers and hedging. I lost count of the number of times she referenced #metoo, before going on to talk about her ‘pain’ and ‘anguish’ that Mr Salmond had not shown any regrets for his alleged conduct. Never mind that he was found not guilty in the highest court in the land, and this inquiry is not about a retrial. But this disingenuousness from Nicola Sturgeon needs to be called out. For all her touting the #metoo movement as cover for the ‘unlawful’ procedures she presided over; she failed to explain away the evident policy and procedural failings of her government with regards to women. But it should be pointed out that this is a First Minister who says mediation is not allowed for former ministers – where there is no power imbalance with regards to women employed; yet it is allowed for current ministers – where there is a power imbalance in relation.
In the great Jacobean play ‘The Changeling’ by Middleton and Rowley there is the scene where the lady cries “Vengeance begins,” before muttering ominously, “Murder, I see, is followed by more sins”. And the murder we have here is the murder of separation of powers. The death of the lines dividing ‘party’ and ‘government’. After 14 years of this SNP government, the fundamental principles of good government and probity in public life have died. And ‘yet more sins’ have proven to be women complainants utterly failed. Failed by processes and people who are systemically compromised. Scotland deserves better than this sorry Jacobean revenge-drama consuming Salmond and Sturgeon.
A new government is something I for one most fervently “relish.”
Dean M Thomson graduated with a MSc in Development Studies from the University of Glasgow, going on to lecture ‘Anglo-American Society and Culture’ at Shangdong Agricultural University, Peoples Republic of China. Being fully TESOL qualified Dean has taught English for Academic Purposes and modules in critical thinking in Wuhan and Xian Ning, Hubei.