Salmond-Sturgeon Break-up Square

Looking at Salmond & Sturgeon while suffering Holyrood Syndrome

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Break-Up: How Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon Went to War – by David Clegg and Kieran Andrews

Biteback Publishing 2021 339 pages Hardback. ISBN 10 9876 54321

HEAVILY TRAILED in the Scottish media pre-publication, Break-Up details the fallout between former Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond and his protégée, Nicola Sturgeon, who succeeded him both as First Minister and the Leader of the Scottish National Party. It all played out against the backdrop of the #MeToo movement, prompted by the Harvey Weinstein case, and the Covid-19 pandemic.

For anyone who keeps a watching brief on Scottish politics the basic outline of the story is pretty well known; Alex Salmond lost the Scottish independence referendum in 2014 and resigned, Nicola Sturgeon took over, then a new Scottish Government harassment policy was implemented which allowed retrospective action. Up popped some women who complained about alleged inappropriate behaviours by Salmond whilst in office, all the while Sturgeon was in the saddle as it was dealt with. It’s a pretty tawdry tale.

The authors have chosen to tell the story chronologically, which makes sense since both were actively involved in reporting on it as it evolved and had the benefit of both their coverage and that of their friends and colleagues in the Scottish media. They struck while the iron was still hot, which gives a sense of immediacy to the book but obviously prevents any proper deep and thoughtful analysis of the events.

What does the book add to what we already know? Well, if you’re new to the saga then it’s a good place to start; if you’re already familiar with the story then it might fill in a few gaps. But those looking for startling new insights or revelations will most likely be disappointed. Most of the information is already in the public domain.

Perhaps what is most interesting is what has been missed out.

Given the closeness of the authors to some of the individuals featured in their book I was half expecting some declarations of interest, as it were, but none are forthcoming. There is also surprisingly little reference to the commentators on the Salmond criminal trial who clearly predicated their coverage on him being found guilty and whose print and broadcast plans came unstuck when he was acquitted of all charges.

They have also given the other political figures who feature, in particular those who were part of the Holyrood inquiry into the Scottish government’s handling of sexual harassment allegations against Alex Salmond, an easy ride. By common consent the MSPs involved, with only one or two notable exceptions, did not cover themselves in glory, and yet this merits the briefest of mentions. Elsewhere our elected representatives are treated with an almost awestruck reverence.

It is no secret that the calibre of elected members of the Scottish Parliament is lamentably low – just watch any televised debate from Holyrood for confirmation. So why have Messrs Clegg and Andrews been so kind towards them and held back on any serious criticism?

The answer may be that they have become so close to their subject matter that they suffer from what might be called “Holyrood Syndrome”, a close associate of the better known Stockholm Syndrome. I was an early critic of the Scottish political press corps’ decision to occupy offices in the new building’s Media Tower when the parliament building opened back in 2004. It seemed obvious to me that living cheek-by-jowl with the very people they were charged with reporting upon, attending the same committee meetings, standing in the same lunch queue, and joining them in the bar after business would militate against proper, critical analysis of the competency or otherwise of MSPs and parliamentary proceedings.

And so it has proved to be, and how could it be otherwise? It has led to a “chumocracy” in the Parliament building, where punches are pulled and pointed commentary watered down for fear of offending erstwhile drinking partners. And those who do break the mould and tell it like it is are sometimes denied further access to those they have criticised. It’s not a good look.

Despite trying to be objective and neutral in describing the Salmond/Sturgeon fallout, reading between the lines reveals where the authors’ sympathies lie. They are careful to state explicitly that they have not taken sides, but their commentary on those who supported either side of the debacle is telling. Their disdain for, and apparent dislike of, pro-Salmond bloggers like Craig Murray and Stuart Campbell tells its own story.

In parallel with Break-Up I have also been reading Jim Sillars’ biography A Difference of Opinion, so ably and recently reviewed on this site by Tom Gallagher, in which he mentions the Salmond/Sturgeon affair. Sillars states that Salmond has shown him additional material which was not revealed during the various investigations which makes it quite clear there was indeed a conspiracy to bring the former First Minister down.

All will be revealed, apparently, when Alex Salmond publishes his eagerly awaited personal account of matters. In the meantime, Salmond says he has instructed his lawyers to investigate aspects of Break-Up, stating that he considers “that the book potentially breaches the criminal law in a number of ways”.  No doubt the lawyers are already sharpening their pencils in anticipation.

Back to the matter in hand. Is Break-Up worth the effort? I would say yes, why not? It’s an easy read and all we really have until a more substantial and scholarly tome is available. And, given the amount of litigation that such publications may provoke, we may have to wait some time for that.

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© Stuart Crawford 2021

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