Nicola Sturgeon’s feet of clay

Nicola Sturgeon’s feet of clay

by Jill Stephenson
article from Monday 22, March, 2021

‘NICOLA STURGEON’S office trashes Alex Salmond inquiry after bombshell finding’, shouts the headline on Friday, 19 March 2021 from the Herald.  

There is something surreal about Nicola Sturgeon and her cronies crying ‘foul’ about the leaking of the outcome of the deliberations of the committee on the Salmond inquiry. For a start, there is a strong suspicion abroad that the leak came from the SNP camp on the inquiry – however much the SNP point the finger at the other parties’ representatives.  

Actually, I am going to call it the Sturgeon inquiry, because that is really what it is. Alex Salmond is not the defendant. Far from it: and he and his allies have come out fighting, to the deep displeasure of Ms Sturgeon and her Praetorian guard. Those of us who have been inquiry watchers are only too well aware of the multiple ways in which the SNP regime has tried to stymie the proceedings, with a three-line whip on civil service and Crown Office officials to keep stumm, a refusal to call important witnesses and to provide vital evidence, as well as delaying tactics of which Quintus Fabius Maximus Verrucosus Cunctator (statue, pictured) would have been proud.  

The result, and the SNP’s response to it, does, however, raise a number of questions that should be uncomfortable for Ms Sturgeon. In recent years, and especially in the past year, she has been fêted by the media as a consummate politician, a mistress of political tactics and the canniest of operators. How, then, has she managed to get into what one can only call an unholy mess, where her tenure of office is perhaps not on the line but is being questioned? She can blame Alex Salmond, or the ‘old boys’ club’ or – as some of her supporters are risibly trying to do – Westminster, as much as she likes, but the blame lies with her. It may simply be an egregious example of hubris. Ms Sturgeon had risen to such dizzying heights that she thought that she was indestructible, infallible, even.  

Yet, if that were the case, why would she have been so exercised by the spectre of Alex Salmond, a former party leader still with some following, but an individual out of public office after he lost the seat of Gordon in the Westminster election of 8 June 2017? She and her husband, Peter Murrell, the SNP’s CEO, had tied up the party’s organisation in such a way that Salmond, a mere ordinary party member, could not have exploited it or any part of it as a vehicle for any further political ambitions he may or may not have had. Still, Ms Sturgeon must have envied George VI, who was able to send his abdicated brother off to be Governor of the Bahamas during the war.  

Something about Salmond irked Sturgeon. It smacks of Richard III and ‘uneasy lies the head that wears the crown’. If she had all this power, someone somewhere must be conspiring to constrain it or even to take it from her. It couldn’t be the Holyrood opposition parties: they hadn’t a clue and were incapable of providing genuine opposition. But what about the SNP itself? Joanna Cherry, the Edinburgh South West SNP MP, who has a good conceit of herself, was a suspect. She is close to Salmond. The rather noisy Inverclyde SNP councillor, Chris McEleny, and his collaborator in trying to push Ms Sturgeon into more precipitate action than she favoured on a new referendum – and Angus B MacNeil, SNP MP, are also admirers of Salmond. Kenny MacAskill, Salmond’s justice secretary who was found no place in Sturgeon’s government in 2014, and who is now the East Lothian SNP MP and one of Salmond’s most vocal supporters, called in June 2017 for Peter Murrell to be sacked, after the SNP lost 21 seats in the general election of that month.  It began to look as if all roads led to Salmond. It would not be tragic if something happened to prevent him from regaining a position in public life. 

This may or may not have been Sturgeon’s thinking when she used the ‘#me too’ movement’s atmosphere from October 2017 to devise a new harassment code for government, one that covered retrospective peccadilloes by former ministers, although the Westminster civil service warned against including that. After all the arguments about when Sturgeon knew what about accusations against Salmond, it seems that she now admits to ‘concerns’ about his conduct in November 2017. The whole sorry story was then played out, in terms that need no repetition.  

The anger and frustration of the Sturgeonites at the apparent outcome of the Sturgeon inquiry is widespread and it is hard not to find it delicious. They are easily identifiable on social media, by their hashtag #IStandWithNicola. They thoroughly approve of Sturgeon’s attack on ‘the old boys’ club’ that she claims is behind the accusations against her. They really need, however, to turn their anger onto the incompetence that the SNP leadership has demonstrated throughout this saga.  

When Alex Salmond won his judicial review in January 2019, Ms Sturgeon’s regime established two inquiries to try to find out what had gone wrong – and why Scottish taxpayers were lumbered with a bill not much short of a million pounds, including £512,000 for Mr Salmond’s legal expenses. She assured us that nothing would be swept under the carpet – her very words (repeatedly).  

One of the inquiries, the investigation into whether Ms Sturgeon broke the ministerial code, undertaken by the Irish QC, James Hamilton, has yet to report. It too has apparently had various obstacles placed in its way by the SNP regime. For detail on this see ‘A complete waste of time’ on Ian Smart’s blog for 14 March 2021. 

The other, trying to get to the root of what went so wrong with the Scottish government’s handling of the accusations against Salmond, is about to report formally. If it really has found Sturgeon to have broken the ministerial code, and/or to have been economical with the truth in her reports to the Scottish parliament on the matter, then she has only herself to blame. 

The SNP has been in sole charge of mechanics of the Holyrood inquiry. The Holyrood committee’s composition and terms of reference were set by the SNP government. Opposition parties could nominate members to serve on it: one each for Labour, Liberal Democrats and Greens and two for the Conservatives, but the SNP chose the mechanism of a Holyrood committee, rather than the instrument that seemed more suitable to many: a properly constituted judge-led inquiry, with the relevant sanctions for skulduggery. The SNP then decided that the committee should be convened by veteran SNP MSP Linda Fabiani, who had been Minister for Europe, External Affairs and Culture in Alex Salmond’s first government, from 2007. In February 2009, she was replaced by Mike Russell, returning to the back benches. It is worth noting, then, that the convener of the Holyrood committee to inquire into the handling of the Salmond case had been sacked from office by Salmond. Further, Maureen Watt, SNP MSP, another SNP member on the Holyrood inquiry committee, was sacked by Mr Salmond from her post as schools minister, also in February 2009. Pure coincidence, no doubt, that two of the SNP members of the committee, including its convener, had been sacked by Ms Sturgeon’s opponent in this case. The other two original SNP members, Alasdair Allan and Angela Constance, are very long-standing friends of Sturgeon. Constance was replaced when she became a minister in Ms Sturgeon’s administration in December 2020, by Stuart McMillan, SNP MSP. 

There is a nice irony in the choice by Ms Sturgeon of friends of her own and those with a grudge against Salmond to sit on the Sturgeon inquiry committee. Enveloped in this haze of cronyism, she now talks about an ‘old boys’ club’, with Salmond having cannily enlisted the help of his old friend, the Conservative MP David Davis, who recently gave Salmond’s side of the story to the House of Commons, using parliamentary privilege. As Mr Davis pointed out, parliamentarians in Edinburgh would not have been able to do such a thing without incurring the wrath, and – on recent form – threats of contempt from the Lord Advocate, James Wolffe. There is no parliamentary privilege in Scotland. 

The other committee members were chosen to reflect their parties’ strength at Holyrood. With four SNP members plus a Green (and given the Greens’ history of voting to give the minority SNP government a de facto majority) including an SNP convener – and four members from other parties – the result should have been a slam dunk for Sturgeon. She had counted, however, on the Green alliance holding. But on 18 December 2020, Andy Wightman, MSP, a committee member, resigned from the Green Party.  

Lorna Slater, Green co-leader, dismissed this as less than a little local difficulty, saying it was not a big issue and ‘most people have no idea who he is’. That slur on the man known as perhaps the most principled MSP now looks like hubris. Wightman has apparently cast his vote with the opposition parties and Sturgeon does not have the majority she presumed was hers. 

How could such an allegedly clever politician as Nicola Sturgeon have found herself in this position? Her insistence on including past ministers in her new procedure on harassment at Holyrood – against advice – was a tactical error. Holding meetings with Salmond without diary entries or minutes was a strange breach of rules. Persisting with defence against Salmond’s judicial review was reckless – not a word anyone has associated with Sturgeon before. Handing over flimsy evidence to the police set in motion a case that was always weak. But there was much more. Allowing – or encouraging – senior civil servants and law officers to be evasive and obfuscatory before the Holyrood inquiry through government-funded training. The withholding of vital evidence and having the Lord Advocate threaten MSPs if they published material that was already in the public domain. And using her own lengthy appearance before the committee to bat away questions without giving meaningful answers. 

These are not the actions of a person who is in charge of proceedings. 

Ms Sturgeon will not resign this week, whatever the two reports due to be published then say. She will hang on. But, as I predicted weeks ago, she will emerge from this process as damaged goods. I now wonder whether, even if she weathers the outcomes of these inquiries, she will not, in a few months, wonder whether she has the stomach for an indefinite future of trying to lead a fractured party when she has been shown to be so flawed. 

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Jill Stephenson is a former Professor of Modern German History at the University of Edinburgh. 

Photo of statue of Fabius Cunctator (Quintus Fabius Maximus Verrucosus) Schlosspark Schönbrunn, Vienna, by Herzi Pinki - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=62361820 

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