Sturgeon v Salmond: High drama that gripped a nation

IT is hard to remember, as the year closes with her authority unquestioned, but the start of 2021 saw Nicola Sturgeon fighting for her political life. Yet the First Minister’s position then frequently felt as precarious as Boris Johnson’s does now. 

Her would-be nemesis wasn’t Covid or chaotic government, it was Alex Salmond. 

Besides the pandemic, Ms Sturgeon also had to cope with her predecessor’s wrath as he tried to oust her from Bute House.

The arena was the Holyrood inquiry into the Scottish Government’s bungled investigation into sexual misconduct claims made against Mr Salmond in 2018.

Civil servants at the highest level had made a dog’s dinner of the process.

Mr Salmond took the Government to court and won a judicial review, showing the probe was unfair, unlawful and “tainted by apparent bias”, with taxpayers left paying £512,000 for his costs.

He then claimed the episode and later criminal prosecution (acquitted on all counts of sexual assault) were part of some swirling high-level plot to do him in.

He accused Ms Sturgeon of misleading Parliament about her actions in 2018, which would have been a resignation matter if proven.

She in turn accused him of peddling “completely baseless” conspiracies.

The Godzilla-sized battle between the pair consumed Scottish political life for the first quarter of the year, before an unexpected and wholly one-sided rematch in the Holyrood election.

January started with Mr Salmond’s written evidence to a separate, parallel inquiry into whether Ms Sturgeon broke the Scottish ministerial code.

READ MORE: How fossil fuels have saved the ‘oddballs’ of the independence cause from extinction

He did not hold back, accusing her of tricking MSPs with a “simply untrue” and “untenable” account. In particular, he said she offered to intervene when the civil service probe was in mid-flow, something Ms Sturgeon had categorically denied.

By the end of the month, a Panelbase poll found two-thirds of voters wanted Ms Sturgeon to resign if she was found to have deliberately misled MSPs over the affair.

HeraldScotland: Alex Salmond testifying before the inquiry committee on Friday

February saw Mr Salmond up the ante in rounds of written evidence to the Holyrood inquiry. He accused the Scottish Government of “systematic” dishonesty and claimed Ms

Sturgeon’s husband, the SNP chief executive Peter Murrell, Ms Sturgeon’s chief of staff and other senior party figures tried to destroy him for winning the judicial review.

There was, he wrote, a “deliberate, prolonged, malicious and concerted effort among a range of individuals within the Scottish Government and the SNP to damage my reputation, even to the extent of having me imprisoned”.

When he finally testified in person, he brought a shopping list of scalps and called for the Lord Advocate and Permanent Secretary, among a host of others, to consider their positions or get the sack. 

He had “no doubt” Ms Sturgeon broke the ministerial code, but stopped short of demanding she get the chop – that was for Parliament to decide (hint, hint). 

He said the evidence he saw of the conspiracy against him was truly shocking.  

He conspicuously refused to apologise for his conduct towards his accusers.

It looked touch and go for the First Minister, but the tide turned in March with her own eight hours of testimony.

In a far more sympathetic performance, she apologised to the women let down by the process, dismissed “absurd” conspiracy claims, and shifted the focus back onto Mr Salmond’s inappropriate conduct and failure to express regret, coming close to tears over their shattered friendship.

In a cynical coda, the SNP Government holds back some of the most damning evidence until 48 hours after the FM’s appearance, so the inquiry cannot ask her about it. It shows the Government’s external lawyers had been at their wits’ end during the judicial review over multiple mistakes and omissions by civil servants. 

The counsel said their advice about how bad things were had been “discounted”, tempting them to quit, and bringing the Government’s defence close to collapse.

It backs up Mr Salmond’s claim that the judicial review dragged on beyond the point of no return, but rank incompetence looks more to blame than malice.

On March 18, the inquiry splits 5-4 down party lines to conclude Ms Sturgeon did mislead Parliament on one point, but stops short of saying she did no knowingly. The final report is a damning picture of civil service dysfunction, but no heads roll. 

On March 22, the independent adviser on the ministerial code clears Ms Sturgeon of breaching the four aspects he checked. 

His verdict is not unambiguous – he pointedly refuses to clear her of lying to Holyrood, saying it was for MSPs “to decide whether they were in fact misled”.

But politically it is the First Minister’s salvation, killing off any prospect of her having to leave under a cloud, and dashing opposition hopes of a pre-election scandal.

HeraldScotland: FALKIRK, SCOTLAND - APRIL 30: Alex Salmond, leader of the Alba Party, is seen during a campaign event at The Falkirk Wheel on April 30, 2021 in Falkirk, Scotland. Scotland goes to the polls next week, May 05, in the local elections. (Photo by Peter

Four days later, his thirst for revenge unquenched, Mr Salmond launches the Alba party, a rival to the SNP on the Holyrood list vote. He claims he only wants a “supermajority” for independence. Others diagnose a hopeless case of limelight addiction. 

In April, the UK Government refers two Holyrood Bills to the UK Supreme Court – one on incorporating the UN Convention of the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) into Scots law and one on local government – for ruling on their competence. 

The UK Government had warned for months the Bills could infringe on Westminster’s remit.
John Swinney, who called Westminster’s request for changes “menacing”, said the referral of the Bill on children’s rights “morally repugnant” . The SNP immediately attempt to weaponise the issue, leading to suspicion they had been after a fight all along. 

In a TV debate, Ms Sturgeon produces one of the soundbites of the election, and is well and truly bitten by it.

Accused by Scottish Tory leader Douglas Ross of letting Scotland down over record drugs deaths, the First Minister replies: “I think we took our eye off the ball on drug deaths.”

The theme of the SNP taking its eye off the ball on various policy issues is used by the opposition for the rest of the year.

The SNP’s manifesto says it will hold Indyref2 “once the Covid crisis has passed but in good time to decide that we want to equip our Parliament with the powers it needs to drive our long-term recovery from Covid”, meaning before 2024.

Ms Sturgeon – and it is invariably her, so completely does she overshadow her ministers – is repeatedly questioned about the mechanics of independence.

She admits the figures in the SNP’s economic blueprint for independence, the 2018 Growth Commission, are “completely out of date” because of the pandemic, and concedes that rejoining the EU could see “physical border posts” between Scotland and a post-Brexit England with “practical difficulties” for trade.

In both cases, she says more detail will follow closer to Indyref2.

Although the SNP’s Holyrood win is never in doubt, the election proves a nailbiter as counting is spread over two days because of Covid restrictions, and the importance of the scale of the victory.

During the campaign, senior SNP figures, including John Swinney, unwisely urged people to vote for the party to guarantee an “SNP majority government”.

That hubristic benchmark was missed by one MSP, with the SNP getting 64 of 129.

Arithmetically, it was an improvement on 2016, but politically it was a severe blow.

The 2014 referendum has been triggered by the SNP getting an outright majority.

Ms Sturgeon’s best hope of Indyref2 in 2023 was therefore to win another.

She came tantalisingly close, but it wasn’t the same. Nor did the election of eight Green MSPs, meaning an overall Yes majority, make much difference.

There had, after all, been a similar two-party majority for Yes in the last Parliament, and Theresa May and Mr Johnson simply ignored it.

On May 9, Ms Sturgeon spoke to the Prime Minister and ritualistically informed him a second referendum was “a matter of when not if”, but seven months on it still looks a lot more if than when.

The First Minister did have some new lines, however. At the end of the month, she unveiled “groundbreaking” talks with the Greens about joint government.

The two parties went on to strike a deal that gave the Greens their first ministers in the UK and the SNP certainty over five Budgets and an end to no-confidence votes. 

It also gave a shop-soiled Government a fresh lick of paint after 14 years, and helped burnish Ms Sturgeon’s green credentials ahead of the COP26 climate summit.

Her critics said it was temporary window-dressing, but the deal has so far held firm, despite Green ministers having to swallow some difficult compromises.

As Holyrood went into summer recess, the internet went into overdrive as Police Scotland announced a fraud probe into the SNP’s fundraising for Indyref2.

The force asked the public if they knew of any issues in how the SNP raised £660,000 since 2017 to run the campaign, then spent some of it on other things.

It revives a long-running conspiracy theory put about by Alba sympathisers, and leaves the SNP floundering. The party is not helped by the high-handedness and secrecy of its back-office operation, which only feeds the impression of something to hide.

The party later insists an “equivalent” sum will be spent when Indyref2 comes.
SNP ministers announce a new advisory council to devise a 10-year national strategy for the “economic transformation” of Scotland, to be published later in the year.

The timescale is absurdly short. A few days before Christmas, the Government will blame the Omicron variant for the work being delayed into 2022.

In the autumn, the annual Government Expenditure and Revenue Scotland (GERS) figures say our notional deficit doubled to £36.3 billion in 2020/21 due to the pandemic, up from 8.6% to 22.4% of Scottish GDP; the UK’s rose from 2.5% to 14.2%.

SNP Finance Secretary Kate Forbes says Covid has “fundamentally shifted our fiscal landscape” but “strengthened” the case for independence by showing Holyrood lacks the “full levers” to cope on its own. 

The autumn also sees the start of a long run of dire A&E waiting time statistics, with new lows in the number of patients seen on time week after week. 

At Holyrood, Ms Sturgeon sets out her vision for making Scotland a “fairer, greener” country by 2026 and says she has ordered civil servants to restart the work on an independence prospectus paused the previous year because of the pandemic.

She also announces a new National Care Service, calling it “arguably the most significant public service reform” since the creation of the NHS in 1948. A previous showstopper plan for a publicly-owned energy company to cut bills is dumped.

In September, Ms Sturgeon’s name is booed by hundreds of women protesting outside Holyrood in favour of sex-based rights and against plans to let transgender people self-identify without a medical diagnosis.

A week later, Ms Sturgeon is accused of trying to shut down debate on the issue by heckling a Tory MSP who called the plans contentious and divisive.

“Shame on you!” she shouts at Murdo Fraser across the Holyrood chamber, a few days after telling MSPs: “We should all make an effort to disagree more civilly”.

She later dismisses concerns about the gender reforms as “not valid”, albeit sincerely held.
In October, the Scottish Government loses a Supreme Court case on Holyrood’s powers that suggests it cannot hold Indyref2 without Westminster’s consent.

Scottish LibDem leader Alex Cole-Hamilton says a “knackered” Ms Sturgeon will quit before the 2026 election. The SNP rubbishes the idea, but then the FM tells Vogue she and her husband might foster children in the “many years” after politics. 

Despite fears of rats, rubbish and riots, the COP26 climate summit is held successfully in Glasgow in November, although the outcome is a painful fudge.

Ms Sturgeon makes the most of it to promote the country, city and, inevitably, herself, fitting in well-publicised chats with Greta Thunberg and President Joe Biden. 

Shortly afterwards, she rips up decades of SNP thinking about the North Sea helping to pay for independence by opposing the Cambo oilfield and others.

“I don’t think Cambo should get the green light,” she says. “I don’t think we can go on extracting oil and gas forever, and I don’t think we can continue to give the go ahead to new oil fields.” The Tories immediately accuse her of turning her back on the North East of Scotland, where 100,000 jobs are connected to the oil and gas industry. Alex Salmond’s Alba party aren’t far behind in scenting a political opportunity for them too. 

On the eve of the second SNP online conference of autumn, a YouGov poll for the Times finds Ms Sturgeon’s personal approval ratings have slumped since the spring, although she remains the most highly regarded at Holyrood by far.

At conference, deputy FM John Swinney admits members are “impatient” for independence. Former cabinet secretary Alex Neil and former deputy leader Jim Sillars are scathing about the lack of progress and thinking about challenges.

“It’s not enough just to shout, ‘independence, independence, independence’, we’ve got to put flesh on the bones of the argument,” says Mr Neil.

“That means spelling out in detail the answers to questions on currency, economic policy, the oil and gas industry, and our trading relationships. “It’s not just a case of updating the White Paper [of 2013]. It needs to be completely rewritten.”

SNP depute leader Keith Brown tells conference the “future of pur planet” depends on Scotland becoming independent so it can better tackle climate change.

A more restrained First Minister announces independence campaigning will start in the spring, and she will “initiate the process” for a vote “before the end of 2023”, Covid permitting.

Again, there is no detail on economic strategy or how to overcome Westminster resistance.
The year ends with the Scottish Budget doubling the Scottish Child Payment for low-income families to £20-a-week and removing the cap on council tax increases. 

As Ms Sturgeon takes her party into its 15th year in power, she remains dogged by questions about holding Indyref2, the economics of independence, policy failures, the extreme pressures on the health service, and the worrying picture in education.

But she is also the most industrious and popular leader at Holyrood by far. Unlike Mr Johnson, and despite a tumultuous 2021, she remains the master of her fate.

READ MORE: How fossil fuels have saved the ‘oddballs’ of the independence cause from extinction

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