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The Salmond/Sturgeon saga drags on: What could it mean for the SNP and for Scottish independence?

By Fraser Raleigh
24 February 2021

By Fraser Raleigh

The twists and turns of the long-running Alex Salmond saga have become almost as confusing for seasoned Holyrood watchers as for the Scottish public to follow, with his long-awaited appearance before the Scottish Parliament once again cast into doubt this week. 

At its heart is the complete collapse of the relationship between the two biggest figures in Scottish nationalism – Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon- who between them took Scotland to the brink of independence in 2014 but are now locked in a political battle from which only one of them will be able to emerge unscathed.

The initial catalyst was the Scottish Government’s mishandling of harassment allegations from two civil servants made in 2018 against the former First Minister, which led to him receiving a taxpayer-funded payout of over £500,000 in 2019. The following year, Salmond was acquitted in a criminal trial of thirteen charges of sexual offences, after which he and his allies hinted at a political plot from within the SNP to bring him down and prevent a comeback.  

Salmond has also accused Sturgeon of misleading the Scottish Parliament about when she first knew of the original harassment claims against him. Since then Sturgeon has come under intense scrutiny for a series of meetings and calls with Salmond and his team about the allegations that were not recorded as official government business. Sturgeon has referred herself to a separate investigation into whether her actions broke the ministerial code, something she has denied. Under any normal circumstances, a conclusion that Parliament was misled would be a clear-cut resignation issue, particularly as former First Ministers and Scottish party leaders have gone for far less. 

A number of key political and civil service figures are also in the spotlight, with pressure mounting on Permanent Secretary Leslie Evans and SNP Chief Executive Peter Murrell (who is also Sturgeon’s husband) following their evidence sessions before the committee investigating the Scottish Government’s handling of harassment claims. Sturgeon has said she is keen both to appear before the committee as soon as possible and – significantly – for Salmond to do the same so he can make his claims under oath rather than in the press. 

The battle goes far deeper within the SNP than just Salmond and Sturgeon, with the party engaged in a series of internal disagreements over its policy on reform of gender recognition legislation, internal elections to the SNP National Executive Committee last year, and how radical the SNP should get in its tactics to force indyref2. Those divisions were laid bare in Westminster last month following the sacking of Joanna Cherry from her high-profile frontbench position and have been played out publicly with a number of SNP MPs and MSPs taking swipes at each other on social media. With the SNP having been in government since 2007, opponents have tried to paint a picture of a tired party that has been in power too long and has run out of ideas. 

Yet that picture has had almost no impact on the polling for the SNP or for independence. Sturgeon remains personally popular, bolstered by her daily appearances at televised press conferences which have presented her as the single political face of the Scottish Government’s COVID-19 response, in contrast to the UK Government, whose media rounds have put forward different ministers for different aspects of the pandemic. The SNP too, is comfortably ahead and, while the potential remains for the Salmond inquiries to blow up the election campaign, the most common question isn’t whether the SNP will come out on top, but whether they will secure a majority and, crucially, what happens next.  

Gaining a majority (either outright for the SNP or with other pro-independence parties) is essential to the party’s recently outlined 11-point ‘Route to a Referendum’ roadmap that would see the Scottish Government demanding a second referendum from Westminster and, when that is rejected, trying to legislate for one through the Scottish Parliament, something that would inevitably lead to a high-profile legal battle with the UK Government given the constitution is explicitly reserved to the UK Parliament. 

With that ultimate prize of independence seemingly in reach, then the greatest danger to the SNP reaching the promised land could turn out to be the SNP itself.