Hostilities may not break out for a while, but the verdict in the Alex Salmond trial looks set to unleash a period of dramatic upheaval in the SNP. MAURICE SMITH reports
Is there any end to the controversy that has dogged Alex Salmond since his departure from Scottish politics in 2017?
Cleared last week of 13 sexual assault charges involving nine women at the High Court in Edinburgh, Salmond emerged to issue a grim warning of vengeance and recrimination.
His followers have gathered loyally on social media and newspaper websites to declare Salmond variously as a victim of the ‘mainstream media’, the establishment and even the security services.
Supporters have demanded resignations without being very clear who should resign. Some even want his accusers to be named in public in what would be a clear breach of the law regarding sex assault cases.
His own defence counsel, Gordon Jackson QC, has had to refer himself to the Faculty of Advocates after a video emerged of him openly discussing the case on a train journey home to Glasgow during the trial.
Sitting in a busy carriage, he is alleged to have named one of the women giving evidence against his client.
To complicate things, Jackson is the dean, or head, of that same faculty. He is also a former Labour politician who lost his seat in 2007 to Nicola Sturgeon, first minister of Scotland and the woman believed in some quarters not only to have been Salmond’s successor, but also his nemesis.
So far, so complex. The truth is that after more than a year of intense speculation, and an 11-day trial that acquitted the former first minister, Alex Salmond remains controversial.
Attention was something he relished for so long in a career spanning four decades; today, few would predict it might end well for the 65-year old whose best years in politics are probably behind him.
There are rumours, not denied, that Salmond has an eye on next year’s Scottish elections. The scenario is that he rejoins the SNP – from which he resigned while he fought his court case – and seeks the nomination for the Donside seat in the north-east of Scotland, previously his fiefdom since he first won the Banff and Buchan Westminster seat in 1987.
He may rejoin the party – even that is a moot point, given the revelations in court about his behaviour towards female colleagues – but to win such a nomination he would probably have to see a change of party leadership before May 2021.
Most of the rumours about Sturgeon’s supposed desire to stand down appear to stem from circles closer to the Salmond camp. The first minister has insisted she intends to lead the party into the 2021 elections.
Scotland’s political class watched Salmond closely as he emerged from Court Three on Edinburgh’s Royal Mile last week. The real world may be all-absorbed in the Covid-19 crisis and all of its implications, something Salmond alluded to as he addressed the media and a handful of supporters defying lockdown to express their backing. He could not resist a dig at his detractors, however.
Found not guilty of 12 charges of indecent assault, sexual assault and one attempted rape – and ‘not proven’ in the case of an alleged assault with intent to rape – Salmond could probably have said a lot more than he did.
He lamented that his defence was prevented from using some evidence gathered during a 2019 judicial review of the Scottish government’s initial investigation of him; a review which awarded him £512,000 in legal costs.
‘There was certain evidence I would like to have seen led in this trial but for a variety of reasons we weren’t able to do so. At some point that information, that fact and that evidence will see the light of day,’ said Salmond.
The heavy hint is that somehow Salmond and his legal team have accessed some explosive evidence that they were prevented from using during his trial.
That most likely refers to evidence – obtained during the discovery stages of the judicial review – including communications between various women whose accusations were ultimately taken up by the Crown, leading to last month’s trial.
The trial judge, Lady Dorrian, Scotland’s second most senior judicial figure, was at pains to ensure that the proceedings covered only the criminal charges. In preliminary hearings she ruled against the presentation of evidence – in the form of hundreds of communications including emails and WhatsApp messages – mainly circulating within the Scottish government.
Salmond’s defence hinted heavily at conspiracy. Defence counsel accepted the litany of accusations about kissing, groping and inappropriate behaviour. On the two more serious charges they offered different versions of events. In the case of the ‘intent to rape’ incident of December 2013 involving an alleged victim known as Woman F, a civil servant, they said that a consensual incident had occurred. Later, the then first minister had apologised to the woman involved and she had agreed the matter was closed.
On another accusation, of attempted rape in June 2014, Salmond said that the incident described by Woman H in court was based on a consensual encounter some months earlier. The defence produced witnesses who cast doubt on the allegation.
Prosecutor Alex Prentice QC painted a picture of a short-tempered, belligerent first minister prone to late drinking sessions that combined with work, often at his official residence in Edinburgh, Bute House. A procession of civil servants, special advisers and party campaigners visited or worked there, the atmosphere becoming more intense in the run-up to the independence referendum of September 2014.
‘It is about a powerful man who used his power to satisfy his sexual desires with impunity. His conduct was intimidating. I suggest that the complainers are courageous, brave women,’ Prentice told the jury.
Each victim had been between 20 and 30 years younger than Salmond at the time of the alleged incidents. All of them had felt complaints would be ignored. They felt loyal to Salmond, or to the independence cause. Some said they felt they had to protect his reputation at a time of intense political pressure.
One alleged assault was said to have taken place on the same night the Treasury had leaked details to the BBC about RBS planning to move head office from Scotland in the event of a Yes vote.
Defence QC Jackson told the jury his client’s behaviour was at times ‘inappropriate’, but not criminal. ‘He would shout and bawl – so what? He could be a bugger to work with – so what?’ asked Jackson. He quoted Woman K, who told the court the former first minister had grabbed her backside at an event. ‘She said ‘I didn’t think he was doing anything sexual at all, I thought it was a power thing’.’
Salmond supporters seek retribution. Ultimately they blame a supposed cabal of civil servants and others close to Salmond’s successor who allegedly saw a chance to rid the SNP of his legacy. Some believe Sturgeon is dragging her heels on independence.
Is there proof of such a conspiracy? Perhaps the former first minister does have some shocking evidence, a smoking gun. There is no doubt his first targets are known senior civil servants responsible for the initial investigation that led to the police becoming involved.
However, if for example a female staffer did urge others to come forward if they had complaints they wanted heard, is that a conspiracy?
This week, the nine complainers issued a joint statement that they were ‘devastated’ by the verdict. ‘Many of us did speak up at the time of our incidents but were faced with procedures that could not deal with complaints against such a powerful figure.
‘Others were silenced by fear of repercussions. It was our hope, as individuals, that through coming forward a this time we could achieve justice and enact change.’
Sturgeon is going to have to explain what she knew of those initial complaints, and why she agreed to meet Salmond and others at her own home before the probe went further. A Scottish parliamentary inquiry into her handling of the affair was delayed by the trial, and will resume soon.
Meanwhile Salmond is supposedly writing a book about his trial ‘nightmare’ and the alleged conspiracy. He will return to the screens with his TV show on Russia Today in due course. There is talk of a leadership challenge, but that seems unlikely.
His friends – people like his long-term adviser turned lobbyist Kevin Pringle – want Salmond to return to the SNP but remain in the background afterwards.
Whether he ever returns to active politics is another matter. Once an acknowledged ‘big beast’ of Scottish politics, can Alex Salmond resist a return to the limelight? The SNP is predicted to be the biggest party once again at Holyrood after next year’s elections. The last thing they want is a leadership battle, or the return of a man described – with a little understatement – by his own defence counsel as ‘a bit Marmite’.