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Burning down the house

Salmond during the marathon committee meeting Picture: PA

Burning down the house

Scotland is a small country with a big footprint on the world. A proud and innovative nation of intellect, words, and principle.  

We Scots punch above our weight and we sit on the shoulder of giants where being Scottish has always meant something, a tangible value, a nod of the head, a knowing about what it means to belong. A communal conscience. A collective good. A solidarity and a greatness about just being Scottish. 

But for all that, I can feel us shrinking. We are being cut down to size by the daily twists and turns of a political scandal that is chopping away at our very foundations and exposing a tangled web of interconnecting interests that leaves our democratic institutions open to accusations of cover-up, cronyism and corruption. 

Scotland is losing its integrity, people. How has this come to pass? 

How has the optimism of devolution, the halcyon days of finding Scottish solutions to Scottish problems, of rolling up our sleeves and getting things done, of learning how to govern with probity and righteousness, how has that been diminished in such grubby, short order, and ironically, by a battle royal between two political protagonists that at their core had always wanted the best for the country that one once ran and the other still leads? 

And why should it even matter? 

Well, when our parliament is threatened with legal action by the Crown; when our politicians are barred from getting to the truth; when censoring the truth becomes state sanctioned; when scrutiny is nigh impossible; when journalists are frustrated in their investigations; when our parliament is exposed as being weak and our committee process censored, supine and structurally shown to not be up to the job – and when even our prosecution service is accused of wrongdoing – it matters because it is about how we are governed, how we manage our affairs. 

It’s about how we carry ourselves. How we speak truth to power. And how we wear our independence with pride. This was about devolution and how we make this work. 

But these feel like end days. Worrying, dark and disturbing days. Days spent waiting for the explosion to come. 

And that time could be now.  

Without rehashing all that has been said here before, Alex Salmond has little left to lose. And while facts have become mangled with myth, conspiracy bound up in half-truths and social media amplifying all the extremes, there are now two polarised camps, Sturgeon vs Salmond.  

Some would like it as a clear binary choice between the key players. If you support one, you don’t support the other, if you believe him, you don’t believe her, but it is more nuanced than that and behind it all is a complex party soup of longstanding ties, loyalties and secrets, a collective belief system, which all makes for difficult interpretation for any outsider looking in. 

But what is clear is that this began with two women making historic complaints about the former first minister in the wake of #MeToo. 

Encouraged by a sympathetic civil service keen to be at the fore of the global movement exposing injustice rooted in the inequality of women and the power of men, these women were the first to test-drive a new complaints process designed by the Scottish Government, signed off by Sturgeon and her advisors, and which included for the first time, and against the advice of Whitehall mandarins, complaints raised against former ministers. 

And it is somewhere in that morass that this all went wrong. And those women were let down. 

As the record now shows, the process was unlawful, Salmond took the government to court, won the case and the taxpayer footed a bill of more than half a million pounds. 

And that was just the start. 

The head of the civil service, Permanent Secretary Leslie Evans, handed over the findings of the internal investigation straight to the Crown – against, it must be said, the wishes of the women themselves. 

A massive police investigation ended in the former first minister being charged with 13 cases of sexual assault against nine women. 

And, if you believe in the conspiracy theories, this should have ended with him in the nick, Sturgeon a #MeToo heroine, and the Scottish Government lauded as a world-leading beacon of progressive harassment policies that dealt with complaints without fear or favour. 

But he was cleared. And a parliament inquiry was begun into how the Scottish Government got it all so wrong.  

The committee has been mired in difficulties, bound by legal strictures, played by the politics, and often plunged into farce. 

This week was no different, with the Salmond 26-page submission eventually published on the committee’s website. It was then removed following a letter from the Crown Office which its head, the Lord Advocate, claims not to have seen or sanctioned.

Regardless, the submission was redacted, reposted, and we are all meant to ‘unsee’ what we had already seen. 

And there were shocking accusations. Not least that Salmond points the finger at the FM’s husband, her own chief of staff, the Permanent Secretary, and various other unnamed persons for their part in a process which, he says, could have seen him ultimately imprisoned. 

Sturgeon dismisses his claims, says he needs to “put up or shut up” and has accused him of living in an “alternative reality”.  

And now, Salmond has had his say during a marathon six-hour evidence session in front of the parliament committee.  

He said he was appearing “under the explicit threat of prosecution” and that people should stop and think for a moment about the implications of that. 

He said: “The truth is that those who now demand to see evidence have invested a great deal of time and public money in attempting to hide that evidence.” 

He said that the collective behaviour of the Scottish Government had “shed a light on a government whose actions are no longer true to the principles of openness, accountability and transparency, which are the core principles on which this Scottish parliament was founded.” 

And said: “Scotland hasn’t failed; its leadership has failed.” 

Next week, the leader of the Scottish Government, and of Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon, will be questioned by the committee on her role in the handling of harassment complaints made against Salmond and while he was legally prohibited from speaking to some of the more damning claims he has made, for his successor that might yet prove to have been a good thing. 

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