Fallout will damage SNP but not derail independence demands

Unionist wishful thinking

The Salmond-Sturgeon rift has given hope to anti-independence forces, writes Paul Demarty. But the national question is not so easily dealt with

Since we last had cause to comment on the feud between Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon, things have hardly calmed down.

Last week, after much back and forth, Salmond - leader of the Scottish National Party when it obtained and narrowly lost the 2014 independence referendum - finally delivered evidence to the parliamentary inquiry into the Scottish government’s handling of sexual misconduct allegations against him. He used the platform, as widely expected, to allege that he was the victim of a fit-up job, in which Sturgeon - the current first minister and once a close ally of Salmond - was very much implicated. As we shall see, Sturgeon got her opportunity to hit back on March 3.

Those allegations arose at the peak of the ‘Me Too’ moment, and it is hardly surprising that the SNP and Scottish government wanted to place clear blue water between themselves and Salmond as a result. The manner in which they did so, however, was marked by catastrophic bungling and abuses of process: Salmond won a judicial review of the proceedings, but evidence was passed on to the police, who managed to produce 14 criminal charges on behalf of 10 women. Of those charges, he was found not guilty of 12 (one other was ‘not proven’), while the last charge was dropped by the prosecution during the trial. The question before the parliamentary inquiry is how these allegations were so spectacularly mishandled. There is, separately, an investigation into the specific question of whether Sturgeon breached the ministerial code - by convention a resignation matter. This is being conducted by James Hamilton - a QC and former Irish director of public prosecutions, hired to act as the Scottish government’s ‘independent’ investigator of such breaches.

Salmond’s evidence contained repeated assertions that the code was, indeed, breached. Sturgeon misled parliament as to when she learned of the allegations against him, and he has witnesses to prove it. Permanent secretary Leslie Evans, whose job it was to organise the initial investigation, communicated improperly with complainants before they had formally complained. These facts were hidden from police even in the face of a warrant. The identity of one of the complainants was leaked. And so it goes on.

This week’s MacGuffin was the fabled legal advice given to the Scottish government on the Salmond case by barrister Roddy Dunlop - long understood and now confirmed to have suggested that Salmond’s judicial review was highly likely to succeed; in that case, what the hell were Sturgeon and co up to? The committee has demanded this advice be published repeatedly, and has been stonewalled by deputy first minister John Swinney - only the credible threat of a vote of no confidence forced him to back down. Even now, records of several legal briefings are missing - much to the frustration of Labour and other opposition MSPs.

All of which set the scene for Sturgeon’s performance on March 3. She dismissed as “absurd” the idea that there was a conspiracy to destroy Salmond’s reputation: “Alex Salmond has been for most of my political life, since I was 20, 21 years of age, my closest colleague,” she told MSPs. “He was someone I looked up to, someone I revered. I would never have wanted to ‘get’ Alex Salmond.” She nonetheless had to own up to “catastrophic” errors in the handling of the initial allegations, particularly assigning Evans to investigate, when she had already met the complainants, with the result that, as she said, “Two women were failed and taxpayers’ money was lost [in costs and damages to Salmond]. I deeply regret that.” Nonetheless, she denies any of the specific charges that would raise the question of her resignation. For now, the ball is back in Hamilton’s court.


There is never a good time for your party’s two most prominent personalities to develop a murderous enmity - it is not immediately obvious whether this is a relatively good or bad time for it.

The polls ahead of this spring’s Holyrood elections have in general barely budged, and that is good news for the Nats, who hover in the 50-55% range. Sturgeon’s approval ratings remain high and Salmond’s remain low. There are dangers, however. Hamilton is supposed to report back in mid-March; the parliamentary committee is under pressure to do so before the end of the parliament and the beginning of campaigning. If either one should result in Sturgeon’s resignation, then the SNP will be in a very sticky situation; assuming a caretaker leader can be found quickly enough to avert a split, it will nonetheless be damaging on the campaign trail.

The dangers are most reassuring, of course, to the pro-union establishment parties and their apologists. Martin Kettle, the Blairite Guardian columnist, represents the trend fairly well, in an article of February 25 headlined ‘The feud between Sturgeon and Salmond could derail Scottish independence’. In addition to the nightmare scenario of Sturgeon being forced out, he considers various other signs of weakness: “internal discipline has been breaking down … Salmond’s pushback against the SNP’s chief executive, Peter Murrell, who is married to Sturgeon, has wider sympathy.” Furthermore,

the SNP is not governing Scotland as well as it pretends. It has been in power for 14 years now, and it certainly shows. If the feud becomes an SNP civil war - and there are signs that it may - the electoral damage could be more rapid than some suppose. Only a small slippage of support for the SNP would change the political landscape significantly.1

Finally, if an SNP victory is to provide a mandate for a second referendum, turnout must be high enough to justify it. The feud, even if it does not drive voters to the Tories and Labour, may merely disengage people, creating ambiguity on this point.

Some additional reassurance may come from the fact that independence opinion polls, having consistently given the ‘yes’ side a comfortable lead in recent months, are tightening, with one even finding a lead for the ‘no’ side for the first time in almost a year. Anas Sarwar’s victory in the Scottish Labour leadership contest, meanwhile, rules out obtaining any support from that quarter for a new vote on independence, as mooted by Sarwar’s opponent.

It is certainly possible that the accumulation of such difficulties will delay immediate steps towards a confrontation over independence. So far as a political difference between Sturgeon and Salmond is discernible, it concerns the strategy for getting to a second referendum. Sturgeon, the story goes, is more cautious, and favours preparation of an unassailable case that will force the hand of, if not this Westminster government, then the next. Salmond prefers a bolder, more impatient approach. The victory of an embattled Sturgeon in May will, presumably, tend to accentuate her cautious instincts; some of the urgency will thereby be drawn from the matter.

Yet Kettle and the like should not take too much comfort from that. They are perhaps too prone to view politics in terms similar to Carl Schmitt, rather than Karl Marx (Kettle’s own Eurocommunist youth notwithstanding). Schmitt’s interpretation of the business of law and politics in terms of crises of decision and the importance of individual actors in such crises made him the perfect jurist for Nazi Germany, but has peculiarly also provided him with a strong posthumous reputation among bourgeois liberals, whose apologetic method increasingly involves a mysticism about ‘leadership’. From that point of view - just maybe - taking Sturgeon out of the game will mean that the crucial moment passes.

There are two kinds of objections to that kind of logic. Firstly, on its own terms, it is too optimistic. If the next Scottish government (assuming that the SNP will in fact prevail) fails to push for a new referendum with sufficient vigour, there is the risk of a crisis of expectations. That may set the scene for the return of Salmond or, failing that, some less toxic advocate of Salmondismo; a defenestration or two later, and we may be heading for the very showdown ‘sensible’ establishment types are trying to avoid.

The other kind of objection requires us to drop one Carl in favour of the other. Marxism teaches us to pay close attention to the underlying tendencies playing out between large social groups, including nations and most especially classes: historical periods have a certain structure, and the aforementioned crises of decision cannot be understood apart from that. From that point of view, the strength of separatist opinion in Scotland is not the result of individual genius and incompetence (the craftiness of Salmond, combined with the stupidity either of Brexit or devolution, according to taste), but historic shifts that created a constituency for independence.

These shifts are various: the defeat of the labour movement in the 1980s and 1990s; the prior emergence of North Sea oil as a somewhat plausible basis for an independent Scottish petro-state; the vicious attacks on municipal power by central government under Thatcher, Major, and - with the singular exception of devolution - Blair; and, yes, devolution itself, which made the Holyrood regime the Scots’ only meaningful prophylactic against British political dysfunction and what appears to be a built-in Toryism.

Federal republic

Against such a background, the constitutional structures holding the UK together are, as such, manifestly unjust. It is not untrue to complain that a political-financial elite geographically concentrated in London and south-east England has progressively expropriated the political power of everyone else. That national framing of that phenomenon is misleading: the cities of northern England suffer no less (never mind the deprived coastal towns of the south-east, living cheek-by-jowl with the very same elite). Any worthwhile resolution to all this must involve the destruction of the state regime called the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and its replacement with constitutional arrangements with real legitimacy among the mass of the population.

Of course, once we look at things through the Marxist lens, the conclusion must be that the division of the kingdom into its constituent parts is not an adequate replacement. The dream of Scottish independence is just that - a dream. Even if the new Scottish state were able to grab all the remaining oil from the rump UK - and, leaving aside the environmental considerations, mere possession of the resources buys you little (just ask the Venezuelans) - one needs access to the structures of global finance and commodities markets. That access comes at a price, and moreover a steeper price for small states than larger ones. (Even before ‘independence day’, this contradiction is weirdly obvious, in that the current justification for ‘taking back control’ from London is … to hand it back over to Frankfurt and Brussels by rejoining the European Union.)

Resistance to those global structures of power demands a social basis that can stand united against it; the nation-state by definition is no such basis and, so long as the world is divided into states, those states will be driven into ‘beggar thy neighbour’ activities. In fact it demands a united international class movement of the proletariat, which shall hardly come into being in Britain so long as national sectionalism reigns in Scotland and national chauvinism in England.

A federal republic with full national rights ought to be our immediate objective. This represents the only real response to the power of nationalist fantasies north and south of the Tweed.


  1. theguardian.com/commentisfree/2021/feb/24/sturgeon-salmond-scottish-independence-first-minister-politics.↩︎