Separation showdown looms
With Nicola Sturgeon in the clear, a battle between Holyrood and Westminster over Scottish independence is very much on the cards, argues Paul Demarty
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the crisis in the Scottish National Party is how little difference it seems to make.
In the last week, Nicola Sturgeon has faced the release of the Scottish parliamentary committee report into her government’s handling of sexual harassment allegations against her predecessor, Alex Salmond - officially on March 23, but with selective and damaging sections leaked to a hungry media on March 19. The committee concluded that Sturgeon had indeed misled parliament on the question of what she knew and when - vindicating Salmond on several technical points, if not on his overall thesis that this is a fit-up job.
Yet Sturgeon remains in post. Only a further report, from the former director of public prosecutions in Ireland, James Hamilton, seriously threatened an upset; he was the ‘independent’ investigator into the allegations that Sturgeon had breached the ministerial code. On March 22, Hamilton concluded that she had not. Sturgeon has been damaged, but only lightly, and at this point is more or less certain to lead the SNP into the May elections. Opinion polls, with a couple of outliers, put the SNP on 45-odd percent, which is down from their mid-50s peak, but still far ahead of their rivals. Support for independence has also dipped slightly during this scandal, with polls in effect putting the ‘yes’ and ‘no’ camps neck and neck. If the objective is to do to her what the British state did to Charles Stewart Parnell in the 1890s, and turn individual scandal into political disaster, it is not working.
The committee report, if anything, underlines the weaknesses of the opposition. Its finding that Sturgeon had misled the Holyrood parliament was endorsed by a straight party-line vote: the four nationalist MSPs voted against, but were outvoted by the five other committee members - two Tories, one Labour, one Liberal Democrat and an independent.1 This is one indication among many that, for now, Sturgeon has the support of her party. SNP activists tend to view Salmond as a wrecker, who has put his own reputation above the nationalist cause - an assessment with which it is difficult to argue. The average Nat seems to think that the vote shows up all these investigations and inquiries to be low, partisan manoeuvring by unionists to undermine historic levels of support for Scottish independence. Great Grampian mountains have been made out of molehills.
So, while Scottish Tory leader Douglas Ross can complain that “Henry McLeish, Wendy Alexander and David McLetchie resigned for far less than the charge sheet facing Nicola Sturgeon” (which is rather pushing it), this is more likely to reinforce the existing polarisation than change the balance of forces. For the same reason, the no-confidence vote - insisted on by Ross and his cronies - was doomed from the outset, as soon as the Scottish Greens started signalling that they would support the government. By the time the Hamilton report dropped, it was clear that only the Tories were interested in proceeding: for Labour and the Lib Dems - essentially squabbling over the same ‘progressive’ votes as the Salmond-Sturgeon version of the SNP - pursuing the vendetta further would be unwise, seeming to side with a man still widely suspected of sexual misconduct among the electorate, despite his success in court.
That is not to say, of course, that the case against Sturgeon was meritless. History will look on all this as a huge, unforced error which might have derailed the SNP’s project at a crucial moment. On the most charitable reading of things - indeed, on the account Sturgeon gave in her own testimony to the parliamentary committee - her interventions denied both Salmond and his accusers a fair crack at justice.
Salmond was, after all, censured for his conduct in the initial proceedings against him; proof of the unfairness of the process does not necessarily exonerate him in the public eye, especially since, in the course of that and the subsequent criminal case against him, he was forced to concede that he had made the beast with two backs (and three chins) with many women in his professional orbit. If he is innocent of all charges of harassment and assault, he is nonetheless presumably guilty of exploiting his power to service his sexual appetites - as is very usually the case when middle-aged toad-like men in senior management succeed in bonking their way from one end of the office to the other.
As for the two initial complainants, we will never know if a fair process would also have found against Salmond or exonerated him. They, and the additional criminal complainants, have been dragged into a political battle which is not really about them.
That battle is, of course, over independence. And, for all Sturgeon’s self-inflicted calamities laid out before the Scottish parliament and Hamilton these past few months, it is by that yardstick - progress towards the cardinal objective, the new era of Scottish self-government - that Sturgeon will be judged. The solidity of her support, and the relative ease with which she marginalised Salmondista opponents, must reflect - in part - the reality that May’s election represents an historic opportunity to put independence on the immediate agenda, and therefore the SNP can ill-afford a leadership contest between two (or more) viciously hostile factions just now.
The Nats have already chosen to fight the election on the independence issue. The increasingly obvious failings of Brexit, which, of course, most Scots opposed in 2016, has boosted the separatist cause, and provided a pretext for a fresh vote on independence (2014 settled things for a generation, but not if the wider constitutional situation was dramatically changed). Even beyond Brexit, however, the dynamic is towards separatism. It is not at all clear to ordinary Scottish folk what the union is worth to them, when it merely delivers endless Tory governments on English votes - each more hostile to the other home nations than the last.
A worse, messier outcome of the present case might have taken a new referendum off the immediate agenda. Hence our assessment that this was a lucky escape, and hence - we take it - Douglas Ross’s insistence on a vote of confidence in Holyrood on Tuesday, despite the inevitability of heavy defeat. Boris Johnson’s hard-line attitude against independence dovetails neatly with Ross’s relentless attacks on the nationalists’ fitness to govern, their cliquery and corruption.
Nationalist, or merely liberal and leftwing opinion in Scotland will no doubt find a great deal of amusement in Ross’s assault. The Covid-19 pandemic has shown the Tories at work in their full glory: huge contracts doled out to old room-mates, contempt for their own rules, and (lest we forget) tens of thousands of avoidable deaths at the very least. It is a poor thing indeed if - as is alleged - junior aides and party staffers had to suffer the former first minister’s advances in silence, and then had their complaints bungled into oblivion. But nobody died. £500,000-odd of Scottish taxpayers’ money went to cover Salmond’s legal fees - about half the amount of money a well-connected luxury dog food entrepreneur cashed in personally from the government’s emergency PPE procurement effort.
The Tories and their friends get away with this because they ride a wave of chauvinist sentiment that sweeps many a shore today. The deal is not openly stated - or at least not often openly stated - the exception of course is Donald J Trump, who flexed his corruption as evidence that he was ‘smart’ and capable of making ‘good deals’, unencumbered by the moral veneer so valued by his enemies. Johnson never goes anything like as far, though he too plays on his vulgarity and insensitivity to his opponents’ feelings (‘Thou shalt own the libs’ is the greatest of all the commandments of modern populist conservatism). Both are, nonetheless, playing the same game. For a certain atomised population in declining provinces, all hope is lost of real improvement in their lived existence; the only pleasure left is to pull the hated metropolitan liberal elite into the same trough of despair. Why worry about Tory corruption, when ‘they’re all corrupt’, but only the Tories offer you the semblance of revenge?
The short-term result of the collapse of the case against Sturgeon will, presumably, be the stabilisation or recovery of the SNP’s polling numbers, and perhaps the restoration of the separatists’ consistent lead in opinion polls on independence. What lies the other side of the May elections depends on many details, but if the SNP governs, the pressure will be great to make good on their promise of a fresh referendum; and the temptation will be quite as great for Johnson to play hardball, to renew his support elsewhere in the UK.
A showdown looms - and observers of Spanish politics in recent history will know that such showdowns can get ugly fast. What is needed is a united working class attack on the monstrous constitutional arrangements of this country. But, with the Labour Party in Westminster and Holyrood under the firm control of ‘sensible’ unionists, and what passes for the wider left almost entirely corrupted by petty nationalism, it is difficult to be optimistic.