Viewed from afar, the battle between Scottish first minister Nicola Sturgeon and her predecessor Alex Salmond might seem like a mildly diverting tiff between two people with amusingly fish-based surnames. But this is no mere scrap. It has become one of the most extraordinary political collisions in living memory. There’s friendship. Betrayal. Fury. Conspiracy. Cover-ups. Sex. Violence. It’s like an episode of Succession, if Succession had the power to influence the future of the United Kingdom.
First, we must introduce the players. The key figures here are Salmond and Sturgeon, two old friends who together took Scotland closer to achieving independence than ever before, and whose falling-out might permanently alter the Scottish political landscape.
In Salmond we have the veteran firebrand; a florid, headstrong 66-year-old who first became interested in Scottish nationalism in the 1970s, after having a fight with his English girlfriend. Always larger than life, with an obvious need for self-promotion, Salmond endured a long and bumpy rise before his Scottish National Party (S.N.P.) eventually won the 2007 parliamentary election. His stint as first minister established a political dominance for the S.N.P. that has lasted a decade and a half.
Salmond resigned as first minister in 2014, after his referendum campaign to make Scotland independent from the U.K. flopped at the polls. His successor was Sturgeon, a longtime deputy and protégé who took his place unopposed.
The transition was seamless, but this was always going to be the case. Sturgeon and Salmond had been joined at the hip for decades, and sang from the exact same hymnbook. They both wanted independence. They both wanted to shift power from Westminster. They both dabbled in populism to help them get what they wanted.
During the 1992 general election, Salmond encouraged Sturgeon to run as Scotland’s youngest candidate. She served in his shadow Cabinet. When she ran for leadership of the S.N.P. in 2004 and her prospects looked bleak, Salmond came to the rescue, returning from the wilderness so they could run—and win—on a joint ticket.
More calculating and pragmatic than her showboating mentor, 50-year-old Sturgeon nevertheless praised Salmond to high heaven on his resignation from office. “The personal debt of gratitude I owe Alex is immeasurable,” she gushed. “Quite simply, I would not have been able to do what I have in politics without his constant advice, guidance and support.” That was seven years ago. Sturgeon has since become a figure of incredible popularity, named in January as the best-performing U.K. political leader, thanks to her handling of the coronavirus crisis.
It’s like an episode of Succession, if Succession had the power to influence the future of the United Kingdom.
Salmond’s fortunes, meanwhile, have faltered. He was defeated for the first time ever in the 2017 election, and the sudden rejection seemed to do strange things to his personality. When Sturgeon called him to commiserate, he reportedly refused to pick up the phone. He started looking for new outlets for his ego; a one-man show at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe that was lambasted for including a particularly sexist joke, and a widely condemned weekly talk show on Russian state TV. And then, in 2018, he resigned from the S.N.P. altogether after accusations of sexual misconduct led to an internal investigation.
The accusations were incredibly serious. Salmond was subsequently arrested and charged with 14 offenses, including nine counts of sexual assault and two of attempted rape. In the ensuing trial, witnesses claimed that women had been banned from working alone with Salmond, given his reputation.
Outside of court, meanwhile, it was reported that female staff at Edinburgh Airport had previously complained about his “inappropriateness,” while a regrettable old photo of him feeding an ice pop to a 17-year-old girl reemerged.
In court, Salmond’s defense team—one of whom was filmed on a train describing his client as a “bully” and an “arsehole”—was forced to concede that Salmond was “touchy-feely” and capable of exhibiting inappropriate behavior. The court learned that he had slept with one of the claimants and given a “sleepy cuddle” to another. The argument, in effect, was that Salmond was a creep but not a criminal.
Nevertheless, he was victorious. Salmond was found not guilty on 12 charges, with 1 charge not proven and another withdrawn by the Crown. But rather than retreat to lick his wounds, Salmond went on to declare that the whole thing had been a conspiracy that went to the very top of Scottish government. And, as we know, the very top of Scottish government is his old friend Sturgeon.
Salmond claims that Sturgeon’s government deliberately amped up the circus around his alleged impropriety, to kill off his dreams of a political comeback that could harm Sturgeon’s authority. Sturgeon has long denied this, but her spotty recollection of events has added a deep layer of murk to the proceedings.
As part of the internal inquiry, Sturgeon originally claimed that she knew nothing of the allegations against Salmond until he asked to meet her in April 2018. However, during the criminal trial, Salmond’s former chief of staff revealed that Sturgeon had mentioned the investigation a month earlier, in a meeting that Sturgeon claims to have forgotten. That already sounded dodgy, not least because her husband is the S.N.P.’s chief executive and surely must have known that the party’s former leader had a reputation for being a bit grabby. But now it has been claimed that she knew about it even earlier.
Witnesses claimed that women had been banned from working alone with Salmond, given his reputation.
In the House of Commons on Tuesday, British M.P. David Davis claimed that Sturgeon’s chief of staff knew about the accusations in February. What’s more, he also read text messages appearing to back up Salmond’s claim that the S.N.P. had been using the accusations to conspire against him.
At first, Sturgeon refuted Davis’s claims, calling them “the latest installment of Alex Salmond’s conspiracy theory.” But then, on Thursday night, a leaked report revealed that Scottish M.P.’s will soon conclude that Sturgeon misled Parliament over her handling of the claims against Salmond. And that her actions amounted to a “potential breach of the ministerial code.” While she remains unrepentant, the plain fact is that Sturgeon is now fighting for her political life.
What we are left with is basically a governmental episode of Maury, with two old friends at each other’s throats, hell-bent on mutual destruction. If Sturgeon emerges from this intact, Salmond is done forever. But if he wins—and Thursday’s developments have certainly done nothing to harm his case—it looks more and more likely that she will have to resign in disgrace. One opposition M.P. has already declared, “We cannot set a precedent that a First Minister of Scotland can mislead the Scottish Parliament and get away with it.”
Questions remain. Would Sturgeon really have forgotten a meeting where she was informed that her closest ally of 30 years’ standing had been accused of being a sex pest? On the other hand, would so many women really choose to perjure themselves in court just to stop Salmond from running for re-election? Now that rival parties have seized on the instability, crowing about corruption and cover-ups at the heart of government, the stakes are higher than ever.
Especially since independence is now within Scotland’s grasp. Scots had been overwhelmingly opposed to Brexit and now, buoyed by the country’s pandemic response, have been pushing for a second referendum, so they can split with Britain for good and rejoin the European Union. But there’s an election coming in May, and this squabbling threatens to obscure the bigger picture.
If this causes the S.N.P. to lose its grip on government, the dream of an independent Scotland could be over for a generation.
Stuart Heritage is a Kent, U.K.–based Writer at Large for AIR MAIL