Alex Salmond: Did it take a new code of conduct for the complaints to be made?

Alex Salmond: Did it take a new code of conduct for the complaints to be made?

by Tom Gallagher
article from Monday 27, August, 2018

WORLD WAR I started in no small measure because of the miscalculations made by several of the Great Powers following the assassination of the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand on 28 June 2014.  They misinterpreted the mood and intentions of their rivals and, within weeks, a slaughter began that would not run its course for another four years.

Scotland is not obviously comparable to Europe in 1914, but as the fate of its biggest political figure in modern times lies in the balance, miscalculations by key players could have immense consequences for its politics.

Alex Salmond now finds himself the subject of an official investigation that he behaved inappropriately at a personal level towards the end of his seven-year tenure as Scotland’s First Minster.  Two civil servants have made complaints about his conduct in December 2013. The complaints were lodged less than two months after a new complaints rulebook was introduced in December 2017. Details have been passed to the police by the government. 

Salmond, for his part, attempted to block the allegations being made public. But his court injunction was withdrawn after the press broke the story on the evening of 23 August. He is now mounting civil proceedings against the Scottish government.

Meeting the press on 25 August, the former First Minister vehemently denied the allegations while observing “You know I’m no saint – I’ve got flaws, I understand that”.

Perhaps one of the faults was to imagine that a man with his sense of bonhomie and easy familiarity, traits that had made him so formidable on the campaign trail, could function as if the new era of political correctness didn’t apply to him. Absolutely nothing has been proven against him and I for one act firmly on the assumption that he remains completely innocent until proven guilty. But he was instrumental in paving the way for the 2017 code of conduct by turning the SNP into a clearing house for the championing of group rights. Now as an individual he finds himself on the receiving end of a serious complaint that would not perhaps have got this far if the politics of identity had remained far behind the politics of delivering economic growth and efficient public services in importance.

When news had reached him that he was entangled in a probe under legislation introduced three years after he had left office, he may have had cause to wonder how it could apply – retrospectively – to someone who was now a private citizen?

Why would the permanent Secretary of the Civil Service, Lesley Evans (who, with her two predecessors, has worked closely with the SNP government in making its constitutional agenda a priority of governance), be targeting him of all people? 

And even if the new procedures meant an inquiry had to begin, how could Nicola Sturgeon have done nothing to halt it? The leader of a party which had used discretion in all sorts of planning matters from Donald Trump’s Aberdeenshire golf course to the fate of Cockenzie power station was, it transpired, prepared to allow the man who had turned Scottish nationalism from a minor cause to a major movement, to be treated in this way.  

It is the stuff of 3am nightmares when you wake up with the dreadful feeling that you are alone, helpless and in peril. He was informed that he was investigated in March and approached Nicola Sturgeon about it in April, which was the first she claims to have known about the harassment.

The possibility of disgrace, on top of the shattering loss of his Westminster seat in 2016 and his failure to beat off criticism about his decision to front a weekly TV show on Vladimir Putin’s RT channel, are heavy blows for a politician – even one with Salmond’s legendary staying-power. 

Turning to the present First Minister, what could have been going through her mind when she made the decision to go in front of the media on 24 August and say that the charges against Salmond could not be ignored or “swept under the carpet”? Would it not have been better if she had said that given the matter was now being handled by the courts and was being looked at by the police, it was inappropriate for her to make any comment, indicating when and how she had first come to learn of the matter (and leaving it at that)? 

By the time she spoke it was clear that Salmond was challenging the state’s move against him and was seeking a judicial review of how her government had handled the complaints process. Given the long legal road that might lie ahead, perhaps silence on her part might have been more advisable than an oral statement that her “government will vigorously defend its processes”. (So far she has not been pressed about whether the police will investigate who leaked the document detailing the case against Salmond). 

Since assuming office in late 2014, she has been incautious at times. Not least over how to handle Brexit when a waiting game would perhaps have been more advisable than a full-frontal assault in which Brexit was overtly linked by her, in 2017, to staging a second referendum on independence.

Perhaps she assumed that in light of the extraordinary allegations against Salmond, silence was simply not an option. 

Her ministerial colleagues are likely to maintain discipline but with a conference due in a short time, it will be hard for her sprawling party to retain its composure.  The inner party life of the SNP was never great but if it now revolves around obsessive speculation about whether Salmond was the victim of a conspiracy or else was partly responsible for his own possible undoing, the SNP is bound to suffer. 

Senior figures who rubbed up against Salmond and disliked his informal approach to governance may find it hard to conceal their pleasure at his discomfiture. They may feel it is high time the SNP “dropped the pilot” and rallied behind a leader who is not going to act as if she (or he) is in a permanent vaudeville production. 

But it will be a rash person, or one cocooned inside the political bubble, who confidently opines that the political life of the 63-year-old Salmond is over.    

Salmond remains the alpha and omega of Scottish Nationalism for countless ordinary folk swept into the party during the two-year referendum campaign (2012-14) which profoundly unsettled a previously staid country. 

If he is subject to what the emotive mass membership may see as a Kangaroo Court, then the pressures on SNP unity and cohesion will be tremendous. Sturgeon and others will have to find the healing qualities that they have not hitherto displayed in bringing the country together in the aftermath of the 18 September 2014 result (devastating for many, a relief for even more).

She will need to up her game as a party manager in order to prevent the wrath of members who were already disgruntled by a palpable sense of drift, from capsizing the movement she currently leads. 

Clearly Nicola Sturgeon is more comfortable with the middle-class professionals who she hopes to lure into the party. Journalists, academics and other professionals collided with Salmond in 2014 but, not least due to their pro-EU sympathies, are far more comfortable with her successor.

The Scottish media may also have to tred with care. It is likely that lawyers have been advising the Daily Recordhow far it can go in publishing leaked and unverified claims about Salmond and his legal people will have been checking to see if anything that appears in the media could be said to jeopardise what might be lengthy judicial proceedings in the time ahead. 

For a range of motives, a lot of media people will be relishing the opportunity to place Salmond in the stocks. But the health of some of their publications depends on the buying power of ordinary folk who view Salmond in a more positive light than they do. 

Past political figures in France, America, Ireland and Britain have been in dire political straits because of personal allegations whether proven or quashed. I have no idea how this story will conclude but I believe that, of the various personalities in Western democratic politics menaced by scandal claims, Salmond is one of the least likely to go quietly into the night. 

I also suspect that if this essential fact about him had been more properly understood events might not have gone in quite the way they have this August. 

Tom Gallagher is a retired political scientist who has published a study of Scottish Nationalism after its major breakthrough called "Scotland Now: A Warning to the World" is available in Kindle and in paperback. His twitter account is @cultfree54

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