Fishy business in Holyrood
With the Holyrood inquiry being branded a whitewash, Paul Demarty asks what really lies behind the Sturgeon-Salmond feud
On the face of it, things are going just splendidly for the Scottish National Party.
Support for independence among the Scottish people is at historic highs. The relative competence with which the SNP has dealt with Covid-19 inspires envy from many south of the border. (Indeed, support for independence is also high in England, where apparently some 46% are in favour. No doubt in part they are made up of Tories, who resent the Scots for supposedly leeching off the public purse to do ‘wokeness’, but will also include substantial liberal and leftwing solidarity with separatism.) Between those things and the unfolding fiasco of Brexit, the party is on course for a crushing victory in May’s Holyrood elections - perhaps even obtaining an overall majority.
Yet things have gotten a little fractious at the top. The principal issue seems to be the relationship between present and former leaders Nicola Sturgeon and Alex Salmond, although we are rather stretching the word ‘relationship’ here: once close political allies, who made a very effective partnership at the summit of Scottish politics, at some point in the last few years they seem to have fallen out big time. That, in a sense, would be survivable, but Salmond still has his allies at the top of the SNP and so is not purely yesterday’s man, despite what we might euphemistically call his ‘legal difficulties’.
We may as well summarise those difficulties now. In 2018, accusations of sexual harassment were made against Salmond by two officials; he resigned promptly from the SNP to clear his name. It is obvious that the Scottish government’s investigation into these charges was badly bungled, and not the least of the problems seems to be Sturgeon’s maintaining contact with both Salmond and the civil servant in charge of investigating the matter. Salmond took the government to a judicial review and won substantial legal expenses (over £500,000). The figure is so high, apparently, because the procedural errors of the government were so grave.
The evidence they gathered, such as it was, was passed on to the Scottish police force, which sensationally filed 14 charges of more serious crimes - indecent assault, sexual assault and attempted rape - allegedly committed by Salmond against 14 women. This finally came to court in March last year; the prosecution dropped one of the charges, and Salmond was not found guilty of any of the others (in one case, the verdict was ‘not proven’ - a peculiar quirk of the Scottish legal system that allows a jury to indicate its belief that the crime may have been committed, but that the required evidentiary standard has not been met by the prosecution).
The whole thing, in short, was a complete fiasco, and a committee of the Scottish parliament has been trying to get to the bottom of how it happened ever since, though the high political drama of coronavirus and Brexit has rather robbed it of the front pages. Sturgeon also referred herself to the enforcers of the Scottish ministerial code - in particular James Hamilton QC, its senior external advisor; Hamilton has his own inquiry into the matter, confusingly.
The committee has complained consistently of the lack of cooperation from the government, and has repeatedly had to put people at risk of being in contempt of parliament to get access to the documentary evidence that might settle the question of the complicity - or otherwise - of Sturgeon’s clique in Salmond’s downfall.
Not that Salmond is too happy with the committee itself either. He abandoned a previous commitment to give evidence before MSPs on the basis that his evidence would not be published - clearly not acceptable to a man still fighting to rebuild his reputation. The given reasons - of protecting people’s confidentiality, as laid out in court orders during the criminal trial - rings hollow, since his evidence, slightly redacted, has already been published in The Spectator. Originally written up for Hamilton’s inquiry, the most ‘interesting’ part of the text is perhaps the preamble, in which he implores Hamilton to consider matters outside of the very narrow formal remit (he is notionally investigating only the matter of “whether [Sturgeon] intervened in a civil service process” - given that this “process” was later found to be spectacularly illegal, Salmond believes that she was duty-bound to intervene). The terms of the inquiry, then, imply an attempt by the Scottish government to make sure its result is a foregone conclusion.1
As for the parliamentary committee, it may be the case that it is losing its stomach for the fight; or, at least, the Nats on the committee are. The Scottish newspaper, The Herald, suggests that there may be less than sterling motives at work:
It is understood SNP members on the inquiry have also ignored messages from opposition colleagues in what is being seen as an attempt to run down the clock. “The SNP are in full slow-walking mode,” said a source.2
Some other matters arising in recent weeks must be considered at least partly in this light. The SNP MP, Joanna Cherry, was sacked from the front bench a few weeks ago; Cherry is somewhat notorious for her gender-critical (or trans-exclusionary, according to taste) feminist views, which are certainly not shared by the majority of the SNP leadership (including Sturgeon), but are a source of rancour within the party’s ranks, as they are almost everywhere else. The gender-critical/‘Terf’ faction, Women’s Pledge, may not be huge, but people like Cherry are heavy hitters - she has a well-deserved reputation as a parliamentary bruiser, who, being also a lawyer, is always across her brief, in contradistinction to the chinless hordes of Tories, with whom it is her duty to square up. One does not dispense with such people lightly.
The Trotskyist leader, James Cannon, is supposed to have said that there are two reasons for every split: the good reason and the real reason. The ‘good’ reason for marginalising Cherry is the trans issue, in which she finds herself at odds with probably the great majority of SNP members on an extremely controversial question. The ‘real’ reason may be otherwise; Cherry is vocally critical of Sturgeon, and pointedly demanded heads roll after Salmond’s acquittal.
If so, the picture painted of Scotland under apparently perpetual SNP rule is hardly attractive (though it was no more so under the complacent, bureaucratised Labour regime it replaced a decade and more ago, never mind England after 11 years of dismal Tory misgovernment). There is nepotism (the significant role played in all this by Sturgeon’s husband, Peter Murrell, who is also the party chief executive - small world … ), prima facie evidence of interference in legal proceedings, inter-factional backstabbing: the full works.
What there is not is any evidence that it is coming to an end, regardless of how things shake out. There may be political differences between Sturgeon and Salmond - he has grumbled that she failed to press the advantage after the 2014 near miss and 2015 Westminster landslide - but they do not appear to be anything serious enough to cleave the party down the middle if things should really kick off. And that is what would have to happen for the SNP to have any chance of defeat in May’s elections.
Problems short of that - Sturgeon’s forced resignation for breaches of the ministerial code, say - may deny it the outright majority that looks possible just now. But there is no evidence at all that the fall of the house of Sturgeon will dent the historic support for independence registered in current polling. The enthusiasm displayed by Labour, Tory and Liberal Democrat members of the Holyrood committee on the Salmond scandal for pressing the advantage suggests that they think cutting the head off the snake will be enough - or else a desperate clinging to any hope of averting a serious constitutional crisis in the near term.
‘Desperate’ is probably the word. Leaders with their backs to the wall tend to start fights. The important thing is, as the modern business jargon has it, to ‘change the narrative’. The trouble for the British nations is that we have two such leaders: one in Westminster and (if the scandal develops further) one in Holyrood. It is the stuff standoffs are made of. The background to the Catalonia crisis of a few years ago was very similar - an unpopular regional government ratcheted up separatist rhetoric and called an illegal referendum; a Madrid government embroiled in corruption scandals opted to crush the Catalans for chauvinist brownie points in the rest of Spain.
That is one possible outcome for the Scottish question - an escalation that results in the suspension of devolved government at gunpoint, and a return to direct rule from Westminster. It is not the least probable scenario either. Boris Johnson is in dire need of a change of narrative, as we reach the first anniversary of Britain’s failure to get on top of coronavirus in its early stages, and the true impact of his signature policy (‘Get Brexit done!’) is unveiled. He is also a long-standing opponent of devolution, who has suffered Freudian slips on the matter in recent months, and - so far as he has any approach to statecraft - is certainly a Bonapartist-centralist. He and the SNP both know that a second referendum is in the gift of the queen (that is, Boris). He can therefore more easily dictate the pace of the battle.
With any major escalation of the independence issue, Salmond (or someone else of his stripe) would be able to repeat his old trick, and fight for a more militant separatism in response, displacing the incumbent leadership. He would have the support of many angry SNP rank-and-filers, but also more or less the entire Scottish left, such as it is. It may be, ironically, that he is the victim of his own success in legal battles hitherto - for this saga looks like it will play out in the relatively short term, one way or the other, and has so far left Sturgeon’s popularity relatively unscathed, while approval ratings for Salmond are lower even than for Johnson.
Bad for them, good for us?
It is nevertheless a reminder that there is nothing superhuman about the SNP. It has displayed considerable cunning in its exploitation of the waning legitimacy of the governing establishment - a process of decay that became irreversible with the one-two punch of Iraq and the Lehman Brothers. It has managed the transition to the natural party of devolved government well. But it is still a bourgeois party, running (part of) a bourgeois state, and thus displays the usual bourgeois improprieties - corruption, cliquery and backstairs double-dealing.
Not a new political era, but the same old political defects await the Scots on the day after independence, should they wrestle it from the grip of Her Majesty’s government. Their alienation from the centres of power will turn out to be no more the fault of Westminster than the poverty of fishermen was down to the perfidy of Brussels.
It is therefore all the more unfortunate that the far left is almost entirely beholden to the same illusion (that is where it does not promote independence on the nihilistic basis that any misfortune to befall the British state is to be welcomed - presumably those who make such arguments are thoroughly enjoying the pandemic). Either way, the SNP wins.
The nihilists - who my comrade, Jack Conrad, recently called “destruction socialists” - cannot make that argument openly before the masses, so are reduced to repeating the SNP’s propaganda. The ‘naive’ left nationalists, meanwhile, usually begin by contrasting their vision of an ‘independent, socialist Scotland’ with that of the SNP; but, when it comes to the crunch - in a referendum vote, for instance - they must face the reality that the word ‘socialism’ is not on the ballot paper, and therefore their propaganda efforts are driven to support SNP-style bourgeois independence, since they must convince their followers that independence is worth having, even if it is an SNP-ruled Scotland waiting for them on the other side. By and by, they sooner or later convince themselves.
The tragedy is that, in the light of coronavirus (and Brexit), the absurd defects of the British constitutional setup are clearer than they have been in a long time. Repeatedly over the last year English regions have been denied the power and resources to take decisive action for public health. We English have no more control over an unchallengeable Tory majority in Westminster than Nicola Sturgeon. It is no wonder that most Scottish people want to jump ship under the circumstances - but one of those circumstances is the total abandonment by the left of any constitutional critique whatever (except that which rides on the coat tails of Scottish and Welsh nationalists).
Urgently necessary, instead, is the recovery of the democratic, republican critique of bourgeois constitutionalism. The break-up of Britain is not in the interests of the working class - but neither is its continuation as a sclerotic monarchy permanently beholden to City financiers and little-England reactionary prejudices.