Special report: Sturgeon clings to tarnished crown after inquiries ‘lift lid on the sewer’ of SNP politics

Gordon RaynerFri, 26 March 2021, 2:58 pm

Nicola Sturgeon and Alex Salmond
Nicola Sturgeon and Alex Salmond

“It’s very clear that Nicola Sturgeon is damaged goods and her days are numbered. She is by no means off the hook.”

The sort of verdict you might expect from a flag-waving Unionist at the end of a tempestuous week for the Scottish National Party. Except that those words were spoken by a former deputy leader of the SNP itself, even before Alex Salmond’s extraordinary return to politics yesterday.

The jubilation among the First Minister’s supporters after she survived two inquiries into her role in the Alex Salmond affair lasted all of three days before Mr Salmond pulled back the tarpaulin on his ultimate vengeance weapon, the Alba Party, which threatens to blow up the SNP’s chances of a Holyrood majority in the May 6 elections.https://www.youtube.com/embed/pWeP3NA1FnQ?enablejsapi=1&modestbranding=1&origin=http://www.telegraph.co.uk&rel=0

If the SNP – currently a minority government – achieves an overall majority, the party’s plans to force a second independence referendum will be rapidly accelerated.

There is a growing belief within the SNP, however, that the party will fall short of the mark, and that if “IndyRef2” does happen, it might not be with Ms Sturgeon at the helm.

The SNP’s poll rating peaked at 58 per cent last autumn, and stayed above 50 per cent for the whole of last year, putting the party on course for a majority, but that figure is now 46 per cent, according to a recent Opinium poll, suggesting the controversy has taken its toll.

The twin inquiries into the SNP’s handling of sexual misconduct allegations made against former leader Mr Salmond have exposed to public view the toxic civil war between the Sturgeonites and the Salmondites, like a manhole cover being lifted off a sewer. Mr Salmond now intends to go another round with Ms Sturgeon in a fresh court case that could reveal damaging details suppressed in the inquiries.

Sturgeon vs Salmond
Sturgeon vs Salmond

Then, at 2pm on Friday, came the unexpected announcement that Mr Salmond is to lead a new party into the elections. Its aim, he claims, is to achieve a “supermajority” for independence in the Scottish parliament, but its effect is more likely to be splitting the vote between the SNP and Alba (the Scottish Gaelic name for Scotland).

Mr Salmond said on Friday that Alba was “planting our saltire on a hill” and that “in the next few weeks we shall see how many will rally to our standard”.

In truth, he is parking his tanks on Ms Sturgeon’s lawn, driving a wedge into the split that already exists in the SNP, and calling on its members, MPs and MSPs to defect to his side.

If he is elected to Holyrood, it will be the start of an all-out war between Ms Sturgeon and Mr Salmond for the leadership, and the future, of Scotland.

Timeline which led to Alex Salmond's Alba Party
Timeline which led to Alex Salmond’s Alba Party

Jim Sillars, the former deputy leader of the SNP, said: “I was a long-term critic of Alex Salmond when he led the SNP, and he of me. I take back not a word, and I expect him to be the same.

“But Brexit, the pandemic, the failures of the SNP, the embarrassing stark lack of quality in its ranks in Holyrood, means we are in a new situation when old grievances need to be set aside. I welcome his return to frontline politics.”

He added: “People have seen a face of the Scottish government that is unacceptable. People are not stupid. They know the government has misbehaved and engaged in a gross misuse of power.

“This government is politically corrupt and the tentacles of political corruption have spread to institutions in civic society.”

One serving SNP MP admitted: “Nicola’s brand has been tarnished. I think this will have an impact at the polls because people have seen the in-fighting and the rage.”https://www.youtube.com/embed/Mko6oeGMgVE?enablejsapi=1&modestbranding=1&origin=http://www.telegraph.co.uk&rel=0

For those who have not followed the labyrinthine progress of the Salmond affair, the basic facts are these: in 2018, details were leaked to a Scottish newspaper of sexual misconduct allegations against Mr Salmond, dating to 2013 when he was first minister. Mr Salmond denied the claims, accused the Scottish government of an abuse of process in its handling of the claims, and won a 2019 court case against the government, which had to pay him more than £500,000 for legal expenses.

Weeks after winning the court case, Mr Salmond was charged by police with sexually assaulting nine women while he was first minister. He was cleared of 12 charges at a trial last year, the jury finding the 13th charge “not proven”.

Mr Salmond accused members of the Sturgeon administration of trumping up the allegations by encouraging women to make complaints against him, which the SNP has always denied.

He claimed Ms Sturgeon had known about the allegations for longer than she had admitted, and had lied to the Scottish Parliament about when she found out, a resignation matter if true.

An independent inquiry by Irish barrister James Hamilton cleared Ms Sturgeon of misleading Holyrood, though a committee of MSPs found her version of events “hard to believe”.

At the heart of the problem with Scottish politics is what Mr Sillars terms a “cult of personality” that began with Mr Salmond and was continued by Ms Sturgeon when she took over as SNP leader following defeat for the independence campaign in 2014’s “once in a generation” referendum.

The SNP has not had a leadership election since 2004, such has been the dominance of Salmond and his former protege, but as one long-standing SNP member complained: “Any political party should be much bigger than one figure, because people always turn out to have feet of clay.”

A cult is the opposite of a democracy, and the charge sheet of undemocratic behaviour by the SNP is growing. The party’s opponents cite the role of the Crown Office, the equivalent of England’s Crown Prosecution Service, which was able to exert considerable influence – some say malign – over the two inquiries.

In most democracies, the principle of the separation of powers means that prosecutors and politicians operate independently, as with England’s director of public prosecutions. But in Scotland, the Crown Office is headed by the Lord Advocate, who is also a member of the Cabinet, meaning the person who ultimately decides who does and does not face prosecution is a politician loyal to Ms Sturgeon (currently James Wolffe).

As the former Brexit secretary David Davis pointed out in Parliament last week, “that leaves him conflicted and compromised, with his department’s independence undermined”.

When the two inquiries’ reports were published this week, large sections were redacted on the orders of the Crown Office; Mr Hamilton himself complained that the redactions meant his own report “presents an incomplete and even at times misleading version of what happened”.

Evidence given by Mr Salmond was redacted to protect the identities of complainants, according to the Crown Office, but Mr Davis, and others, have claimed the redactions did not identify the women and were designed only to protect Ms Sturgeon.

Nicola Sturgeon - Getty Images Europe
Nicola Sturgeon – Getty Images Europe

Meanwhile, the somewhat toothless committee of MSPs which carried out the parliamentary inquiry complained that key evidence it requested from the Scottish government arrived with widespread redactions, with some documents “almost completely blank” and others with “pages and pages of fully redacted text”. The committee complained: “We did not know the basis on which redactions were being made.”

Mr Salmond, ominously for Ms Sturgeon, has a plan to get that evidence out in the open. On Wednesday, he announced his intention to sue the Scottish government’s Permanent Secretary, Leslie Evans, whom he blamed for “catastrophic failures in this matter”.

He pointed out that the courts would have “all the proper powers of recovery of documents” which the parliamentary committee lacked, and friends of Mr Salmond have confirmed that he believes those documents will implicate Ms Sturgeon’s office in what he sees as a conspiracy against him.

He has also made a complaint to Police Scotland about the leaking of a story about the complaints against him in 2018, which could further embarrass the SNP if it proves to have come from someone close to Ms Sturgeon.

“This could go on for a long time and could yet bring Nicola down,” admitted a senior SNP source.

Amid the fevered anticipation of the inquiry reports, another potential time-bomb for Ms Sturgeon went largely unnoticed last weekend. Three members of the SNP’s Finance and Audit Committee resigned, reportedly because they had been denied full access to the party’s books by SNP chief executive Peter Murrell, also known as the husband of Nicola Sturgeon.

Profile - who is Peter Murrell?
Profile – who is Peter Murrell?

One of the departees, Cynthia Guthrie, was announced yesterday as an Alba Party candidate.

The SNP has not reported or even confirmed the resignations, let alone the reasons for them, and party sources have told The Telegraph they are “having a hard time” getting to the bottom of the matter.

Questions about management of the SNP’s finances are not new: the party raised £600,000 for a second referendum campaign which it claimed was “ringfenced”, but only had £97,000 in the bank in its most recent accounts, and members now report being asked for more donations for a referendum “fighting fund”.

A spokesman for the SNP said three people had resigned from its finance and audit committee following concerns about leaks to the media, and denied Mr Murrell had failed to provide access to the accounts. It said the £600,000 raised for a referendum “is allocated to our 2021 budget and will be spent in this financial year”.

Despite the whiff of scandal that has hung over Auld Reekie for the past three years, relatively few public figures have dared to speak out against the SNP, such is the culture of fear its power and electoral dominance have engendered north of the border.

Jack Perry CBE, the former chief executive of Scottish Enterprise, the national innovation and investment agency, has witnessed it at first hand.

“The SNP party machine is good at intimidation,” he said. “It’s implicit that if you oppose them or offend them, you won’t get much business in the future. I have been at business events where every single firm is anti-independence but when an SNP minister turns up not a single person challenges them because they are afraid to.”

Glasgow-based Barrhead Travel faced calls for a boycott from nationalists when it backed the No campaign in the independence referendum. Tunnocks faced similar threats when it branded its teacakes “British” rather than Scottish south of the border. Other businesses have learnt to keep quiet for fear of a fight with the so-called “cybernats” who launch attacks via social media.

Alex Salmond with independence supporters
Alex Salmond with independence supporters

Earlier this week, it emerged that former Manchester United football manager Sir Alex Ferguson, not normally regarded as a shrinking violet, had turned down entreaties to help front the pro-Union campaign in the 2014 referendum because “the people putting their heads above the parapet were getting shot at”, according to Alistair Campbell’s latest diaries. Sir Alex feared “dog’s abuse” for standing up for the Union, in which he is a passionate believer.

Scots rely far more heavily on their government for employment than the English: the public sector accounts for 21.8 per cent of jobs in Scotland, compared with 16.4 per cent in England, meaning “a lot of private companies are reliant on public sector contracts”, Mr Perry said.

He added that quangos which were once headed by independent-minded patrons ready to challenge the government and improve policy were now all too often populated with unquestioning SNP supporters.

Even the education of Scotland’s children is up for grabs when it comes to promoting the nationalist cause, critics say. In December, Education Scotland finally withdrew a timeline of Scottish history after Sir Tom Devine, the country’s leading historian, described it as “arrant propaganda”.

Among its false claims was that Sir Winston Churchill “dispatched English troops and tanks” to stamp out a major protest by striking workers in Glasgow in 1919 while locking up Scottish soldiers in barracks. Other errors included a suggestion that Flower of Scotland – written in the 1960s – dated as far back as the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314.

Academics had raised the alarm almost two years before the timeline – “clearly designed in the cause of Scottish independence”, according to one history professor – was eventually removed.

Nor is the supposedly politically neutral civil service immune from the SNP’s iron grip. A taxpayer-funded Scottish Government video released at new year described the Brexit trade deal as “a bad deal for Scotland” that would cause “greater risk to national security”, prompting accusations that the civil service was being used to create party political broadcasts.

While the SNP is ruthless in targeting its opponents, it reserves its most sinister threats for those within its ranks.

Joanna Cherry said she had been threatened with 'corrective rape' by an SNP party member. - PA
Joanna Cherry said she had been threatened with ‘corrective rape’ by an SNP party member. – PA

Joanna Cherry, the SNP MP for Edinburgh South West, was sacked as the SNP spokesperson for home affairs last month following a row over transgender law reform (Ms Cherry QC believes the SNP is going too far in simplifying the legal process for changing gender). She later revealed she had been subjected to “an 18-month campaign of abuse” culminating with “a threat of corrective rape from a party member”. Other SNP members had bombarded her with abuse, calling her a **** , while friends said she had been subjected to “bullying, lies and smears” from her colleagues.

“It has become an anti-free speech party,” said one Sturgeon critic within the SNP. “Anyone who dares to depart from the party line and suggest new ideas is pretty much crushed.”

Fraser Nelson, the editor of The Spectator and a proud Scot, has also faced apparent attempts to intimidate him after his magazine went to court to fight for the right to publish Alex Salmond’s evidence in full (opposed, inevitably, by the Crown Office). Trisha Marwick, the former presiding officer (Speaker) of the Scottish Parliament tweeted: “We see you Fraser,” with sinister overtones of “we know where you live”.

Douglas Ross, leader of the Scottish Conservatives, said: “Sturgeon is clearly suffering from hubris. She is not out of the woods. Neither she nor any other person has been held to account for this litany of scandals.

“Most people are rightly repulsed by this unedifying feud and her scorched earth approach has undermined public faith in Scotland’s parliament.”

As a senior member of the SNP told The Telegraph: “If I didn’t depend on the SNP for my employment, I would have cut up my membership card by now.”

A recent survey found that only 8 per cent of Scots rank independence as one of the top three most important issues ahead of the May elections, with Covid recovery, jobs and healthcare their more pressing concerns.

For Ms Sturgeon, independence is a useful megaphone to drown out any discussion of her failures, which are numerous. Under her watch educational attainment is down; drug-related deaths have more than doubled (to three and a half times the rate for England, and by far the worst in Europe); life expectancy has decreased in some areas, and even before Covid, Scotland was running a deficit which was proportionately seven times higher than the rest of the UK.

The SNP also has no answers to key questions around what an independent Scotland would look like – what its currency would be, whether it would have its own armed forces, how it would pay its way without its current subsidies from Westminster – with one SNP MP blaming “intellectual laziness” within the party for its failure to come up with a plan.

Despite such failings, after 14 years in power, the SNP seems certain to be the largest party yet again on May 6, either with a majority (for which just four more seats out of 129 are needed) or as a minority government backed by the pro-independence Greens.

It will leave the SNP defying political gravity by retaining power for at least 18 years by the time of the 2025 election, a record matched only by the Conservatives during the Thatcher and Major era.

What then? Ironically, the issue of independence is likely to present a threat to Ms Sturgeon from within her party. She will face significant pressure from the radical wing of her party to call an indicative referendum straight away (which would not be legally binding without consent from Westminster), capitalising on Boris Johnson’s unpopularity in Scotland.

Ms Sturgeon, however, is by nature more cautious, preferring to build support for independence until the polls suggest a virtually guaranteed win, which at the moment they do not.

Were Ms Sturgeon to succumb to activists’ wishes for a quick referendum but fail to win it, she would lose not only the leadership, but very possibly her hopes of breaking up the Union for decades to come.

Whether she even gets to make that choice could yet be in the hands of Mr Salmond.

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