Why the Alex Salmond controversy matters beyond politics

Gerry Hassan

Scottish Review, August 29th 2018

There has only been one story in the last few days in Scotland; that of Alex Salmond.

The substantive allegations and Alex Salmond’s response and denial of any wrong-doing have been amply catalogued. The whole controversy covers many issues – alleged wrong doing, how to deal with such sensitive subjects, the role of the media and wider politics, and how justice is done and seen to be done, including how we treat those accused as well as their accusers.

Given there has been so much media coverage, instant comment and judgement I want to look at the big picture, and specifically two areas – how people have responded, and what, if any, wider consequences may flow from this.

Take the reactions of Salmond supporters. First it should be acknowledged that the vast majority of pro-independence and SNP opinion has publicly been very respectful and careful in what it has said. Nicola Sturgeon has set an important direction in what is a test of her leadership and clearly a difficult issue for her.

For a small minority of uber-believers Salmond can do no wrong and they will stand with him seemingly unconditionally. The range of responses this has brought has been telling, from social media images of ‘When I was in trouble … Alex stood with me … Until I hear differently, I’m with Alex’ to much more.

There has been the portrayal of Salmond as the victim of a Unionist establishment conspiracy out to get him at all costs. Leslie Evans, Permanent Secretary in the Scottish Government, responsible for the process of looking into allegations of wrong doing, has been accused of not being ‘one of us’ because she is non-Scottish and hence not trustworthy; being born in Northern Ireland.

It was not helpful that Noel Dolan, previously a senior Sturgeon adviser, waded into the controversy, proclaiming his belief in Salmond’s innocence, and that if this was proven Evans would have to ‘consider her position and resign’. Similarly, some conspiracy theorists have awoken to the idea that the civil service in Scotland is part of the UK-wide civil service – and thus part of a gigantic plot to undermine the cause.

From the opposite point of view some see Salmond as the devil incarnate: the man who nearly succeeded in breaking up the union to further nothing but his own personal vanity. Step forward, in terms of inappropriate and ludicrous remarks, Scottish Labour’s Rhoda Grant who called for ‘the creation of safe space for any other survivors to come forward’ in response to the Salmond allegations, as if he were some industrial scale Donald Trump sex pest.

There are fortunately numerous voices – whether pro or anti-Salmond or neither of these – who believe such issues are too important to be reduced to simple binary politics. They take the view that natural justice, following due process, and having complaints and legal systems that can arrive at a considered view in time, is critical. They may even note that increasingly different interpretations of actions has become a hallmark of modern societies, and we have to live with this and adjust to it.

Such sensitive issues reflect how a society conducts itself and how it respects not just legally but culturally different interpretations of the same event. The playwright David Greig got this right when he said on Friday:

This is an important moment for Scotland. How we respond to this will define our political culture for the future, independence or no. No more throwing women under the bus for Indy, for socialism, for art or any other supposed higher goal. The goal is justice.

Justice needs to be done and seen to be done, and this entails more than due process and any legal proceedings. Dismissive comments about the women taking time to make their allegations shows that part of Scotland hasn’t been paying attention to the #MeToo movement. And that sadly, some men and some women in our country still live in a pre-Harvey Weinstein environment.

Greig’s comments touch on a Scotland where down the years the cause and the calling have been all-consuming for some, whether it be the Kirk, socialism, or more recently, independence. That kind of abstract mindset puts some kind of mythical country and salvation, one which is always near but just tantalisingly out of reach, ahead of reality and how we respect each other as fellow human beings. And it is in moments like this of controversy, not the easy times, that we find out some fundamental truths about ourselves.

This whole episode throws uncertainty into the Salmond-Sturgeon relationship. For years she was his junior, while he was seen as her mentor. There was always complexity in their partnership, for example, when Salmond belatedly at the last hour entered the 2004 SNP leadership contest, reaching an agreement with Sturgeon by which she withdrew from the main contest and repositioned herself in the deputy contest. Some subsequently tried to portray this as a Salmond-Sturgeon ‘deal’, similar to the infamous Blair-Brown ‘deal’ in 1994 at the Granita restaurant, which gave Blair a clear run for the leadership, contributing to Brown’s subsequent simmering resentments.

That was always a wrong interpretation: a typical Westminster watcher guide of seeing everything through such eyes. Salmond and Sturgeon were a team who worked: in opposition, in office as First Minister and Deputy Minister, and as campaigners in the indyref. But the differences were always self-evident: Salmond’s inherent risk taking and alpha-maleness compared to Sturgeon’s straight-dealing character and caution.

This relationship changed post-2014 with Sturgeon becoming First Minister. Salmond bereft of the restrains of ‘Team Salmond’ has struggled to find an appropriate role and voice. There has been the Edinburgh Fringe Show, the Russia Today programme, and the consistent advocacy for a second independence referendum as soon as possible.

As well as this there has been the continual implication from Salmond post-2014 that victory in the indyref was stolen from him by establishment forces – the BBC in particular. Maybe in the quiet of the night Salmond reflects on what might have been and what he could have done better, but he has not shown any public contrition. None of this has helped Sturgeon get on with the day job or remake the independence offer.

That brings us to the prospects of any future indyref. This now looks even less likely in the here and now: the tiny prospect of a poll before the next Scottish elections in 2021 reduced to a slither. But what, if such a poll does happen in 2021 or after, would be the role of one Alex Salmond? It is near nigh impossible to imagine any such campaign without a prominent role for the architect of the first referendum, but stranger things have happened.

Make no mistake this controversy matters on many levels, not least that for the women accusers and Alex Salmond, justice is done. But as much as this the episode has thrown an uncomfortable light on how we interact and relate to each other in public and how we judge what is appropriate public and private behaviour.

It is much too early and a cheap shot to write off Alex Salmond as some have already done. He has already experienced several political comebacks as well as setbacks. And critically we have to remember that loving, liking or loathing Salmond is not the issue here.

What is important is that we are big enough, mature enough and reflective enough of what it is to be human to deal with such difficult issues. And to recognise that honesty and ethical behaviour are when it comes down to it more important than abstracts and politics. For without these we are truly lost in a wilderness with no route back.