It has been an explosive couple of weeks at Holyrood (the devolved Scottish Parliament), as Nicola Sturgeon and Alex Salmond testified before a special parliamentary inquiry, pitting current and former Scottish National Party (SNP) First Ministers against one another. Representing rival factions of the party’s upper echelons, the personal break between Sturgeon and Salmond over the latter’s inappropriate conduct has had deep political implications.
The Scottish National Party have governed Scotland since 2007, under Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon respectively. Salmond oversaw the transformation of the SNP from Scotland’s fourth party to its first.
In the Blair years, the SNP discarded its old “Tartan Tory” image by standing to the left of Blair’s right-wing Labour. It opposed the Iraq war, tuition fees, prescription charges and other austerity policies. The result was SNP election victories in 2007, 2011 and 2016.
The turning point came in the 2014 Independence referendum. Although independence lost, it did so on a narrow margin of 45%–55%. Millions of radicalised workers sought a way out of the impasse of austerity and Tory government through a vote for independence.
The party grew to well over 100,000 members in the weeks and months following the referendum, as working-class voters streamed towards the banner of Scottish independence. Salmond resigned on the back of the referendum defeat, but handed a radically transformed party to his deputy, successor and protégé, Nicola Sturgeon.
In the 2015 General Election, the SNP took all but three Scottish seats at Westminster. Labour was almost completely wiped out, punished for their alliance with the Tories and Liberals in opposition to Independence.
An enormous class contradiction thus lies at the heart of the SNP, who are constantly under pressure from the mass independence movement to secure another independence referendum and prove their progressive credentials. The party is also pulled in the opposite direction however, by ties to big business and the need to protect the stability of capitalist profit-making.
This internal conflict of interests has driven the SNP into the uncomfortable position it now occupies, having made a commitment to a new independence referendum, but providing no guarantee when or how it will happen.
This question has opened up divisions within the party, which coincided with the emergence of allegations of sexual assault against Alex Salmond while he was First Minister.
The resulting scandal surrounding the accusations and how the SNP and Scottish Government handled them has been subject of a public inquiry in the Scottish Parliament. The party, government and now Parliament have been dragged into this scandal that serves as a proxy battle between the warring factions of Scottish nationalism.
Salmond and Sturgeon testify
Salmond’s appearance at the inquiry was an opportunity for him to double down on the allegations of a government conspiracy to “get him” and destroy his reputation. This argument was central to his court victory in March of last year. Beating a dozen criminal charges, Salmond’s defence hinged on allusions to a plot by the accusers and his enemies within the SNP hierarchy to devise his prosecution.
No evidence of this conspiracy was submitted to the trial or subsequently published, but the accusation was enough to sow doubt among the jury. Now Salmond is also accusing Nicola Sturgeon and others of lying to the inquiry over the timeline of events surrounding the complaints of sexual harassment made against him.
Sturgeon instead argues that Salmond tried to get her to intervene to protect him from the complaints by arranging a closed arbitration process, using the threat of his resignation from the SNP to arrange a meeting for this request. She claims that when she refused to intervene, and news of the sexual harassment complaints leaked to the press in 2017, Salmond felt personally betrayed. He then became hostile to the Scottish government, launching legal action against its own investigation into his conduct.
Those investigations were ruled to be unlawful, due to a prior meeting between the investigating officer and two of the victims. Sturgeon expressed regret that such a “very serious error” led to the women involved being denied justice.
Salmond benefitted from this Government mistake, being awarded £500,000 in legal costs. The bungling by the Crown Office over releasing and redacting evidence has also been used by Salmond to claim proof of the conspiracy against him. He touts a “deliberate suppression of information inconvenient to the government”, which is finding an echo among opposition MSPs (Members of the Scottish Parliament).
Labour, Tory and Lib Dem MSPs who sit on the inquiry committee have fought with the Crown Office and the Scottish Parliament Corporate Body over the release of evidence, accusing the Scottish Government of interference. The inquiry has divided along lines of government versus opposition MSPs over concluding that Nicola Sturgeon had misled them in her testimony.
The evidence of the conspiracy that Salmond alludes to has already been leaked to the public. It is far from the smoking gun he needs, however. Nonetheless, the institutions of Scottish devolution have been thrown into question with accusations of collusion between SNP tops, the Scottish Civil Service, and government ministers.
Scotland: a ‘failed state’?
No holds barred, Alex Salmond spoke of Scotland resembling a “failed state”, blaming a lack of “strong institutions” and the plot against him “undermining the system of government” in Scotland.
He demands that the head of the Crown Office, the Lord Advocate James Wolffe, “consider his position”, claiming bias or collusion with the government in suppressing evidence. The civil service Permanent Secretary, Leslie Evans is also an alleged co-conspirator.
Salmond asserts that the supposed plot against him shows that the line between private SNP business and public government business had been blurred by Nicola Sturgeon and her husband, Peter Murrell (the SNP chief executive). The contents of text messages and WhatsApp chats show this collusion, Salmond says, but it is not obvious from what has been made public so far.
Despite his exculpatory remarks to the effect that he blames a “failure of Scotland’s leadership” and not its institutions, the substance of Alex Salmond’s accusations have been opportunistically seized upon by the Tories.
In the House of Commons, Tory backbencher and former minister Liam Fox – who once was forced himself to resign due to public corruption – compared Holyrood to a “tin-pot dictatorship”, in violation of the “rule of law” and proper “separation of powers”. Asserting that the Scottish Parliament gets its authority from Westminster – and not, as one would presume, the Scottish people – he questioned what powers they had to intervene.
Fox’s condemnations echo the leaked comments of Boris Johnson calling devolution a “disaster” due to the success of the SNP and emergence of the mass pro-independence movement. A clear trend has emerged within the ruling Conservative party that sees the institutions of devolved government as a part of the threat posed by Scottish nationalism.
The Conservatives have utilised the machinery of government in their efforts to politically combat the SNP and rising support for Independence, launching plans to brand anything funded by the UK Government in Scotland with a ubiquitous Union jack.
The plan is to effectively compete with the SNP for favour by visibly opening the UK Treasury wallet, ‘going around’ Holyrood and outspending the SNP on infrastructure and business support. Critics argue this could undermine the constitutional position of the Scottish Parliament, making it look less like the national government of Scotland, and more like a glorified local Council.
Tory denigrations of Holyrood are very much in this vein. Sturgeon has warned that Salmond is trashing Scotland’s state institutions all for the sake of a personal vendetta. Others, however, question what impact the scandal will have on the Independence cause.
No confidence in Sturgeon?
The Tories threatened to move a vote of no confidence in Nicola Sturgeon, but have been given pause by the failure of their motion against her deputy, John Swinney. The Deputy First Minister was accused of blocking the release of evidence related to the Salmond civil suit, despite repeated requests from the Parliament.
The Greens, who prop-up the Government majority in the Scottish Parliament, voted to save the Deputy First Minister despite initially signalling agreement with the move against him.
The Greens have also said, however, that they will wait for the results of a separate inquiry into whether Nicola Sturgeon broke the Ministerial Code. The First Minister is alleged to have broken the Code by misleading the Salmond inquiry, and if found ‘guilty’ she will be expected to resign.
If Sturgeon is found to have broken the Ministerial Code, and does not resign, the Tories will likely demand a no confidence vote. If the Tory motion is heard, the Greens' decision would either save or collapse the SNP Government – two months from an election.
Nicola Sturgeon may not even be able to rely on her own camp being united, however. Many SNP figures have spoken publicly in defence of Alex Salmond and have become highly critical of Sturgeon’s leadership of the party. Angus B MacNeil MP and Joanna Cherry MP have both said Salmond should be welcomed back into the SNP, and have backed his version of events.
Some have even lent credibility to the accusation of a conspiracy against Salmond. Were the First Minister to be found in breach of the Ministerial Code, and be defeated over the confidence motion in Parliament, we may ask if they will break ranks and add to calls for Sturgeon’s resignation.
MacNeil and Cherry are also both seen as figureheads of a ‘Plan B’ for independence. They point out the dead-end of simply requesting a referendum from the Tory Government, knowing it will be refused. Instead they propose that the Scottish Government should begin planning for a referendum regardless, or propose another path to declaring Independence (a demand the SNP leadership have been forced to make concessions to).
Joanna Cherry was demoted to the SNP’s Westminster backbenches last month over her connection to transphobic campaigns against reform to the Gender Recognition Act, though she and her supporters claim it was an attempt by Sturgeon to silence her.
The SNP conference last year was also marked by a rising oppositional trend, with the left-wing Common Weal Group (CWG) candidates nearly taking an absolute majority of places on party committees, displacing Sturgeon loyalists like Alyn Smith.
A politically heterogenous trend, some of those elected (which includes Joanna Cherry) take the side of Salmond against Sturgeon, who is viewed by them as a more ‘radical’ leader for the independence movement.
Sturgeon still maintains enormous popularity in Scotland, however, especially among SNP members. In contrast, Salmond is viewed almost as negatively as Boris Johnson according to a YouGov survey. Polling doesn’t show the inquiry having a significant impact on support for the SNP or Independence, either, despite misleading reports in the unionist press.
The class character of this civil war in the SNP is that of a split in the party’s bourgeois leadership. Gathered into separate and increasingly hostile cliques, the respective followers of Salmond and Sturgeon among the party grandees differ only incidentally on the question of how to lead the campaign for independence.
The relative ‘caution’ or ‘aggressiveness’ of the two camps is based on fundamentally the same bourgeois interests: of Scottish independence on the basis of capitalism and the austerity programme of the Growth Commission. The independence movement must reject this programme and refuse to side with either wing of bourgeois nationalism, instead putting forward the interests of the working class. Our call is for a Scottish Workers' Republic.
Whatever the outcome of this scandal for Sturgeon or Salmond, we can expect the Tories to use the situation to further argue that the SNP and the Scottish Parliament are a failure.
Westminster and Holyrood are already on course for a constitutional clash once the SNP achieve their fourth election victory in May. This will be claimed as a mandate to hold a new independence referendum, whether Boris Johnson agrees to it or not.
The Tories maintain that such an act would be illegal, raising the prospect of a crackdown similar to the repression in Catalonia after the October 2017 referendum. Independence movement leaders and ministers were arrested or exiled, and the Catalan government was suspended for a period of direct rule from Madrid.
Ruling class sources have openly considered this option, which would serve as an enormous provocation and attack on democratic rights. The independence movement would have to be prepared to fight back against this on a class basis, with strikes and mass demonstrations, and an appeal for solidarity from workers across Britain.