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by Mandy Rhodes
28 March 2021
Old Girls' Club

Old Girls' Club

It’s been a hellish year for Nicola Sturgeon. A hellish year for us all.

And I have no doubt that the experience of leading a country at a time of a pandemic has taken its toll.

It will have shaped her, made her reassess priorities, put her in touch with painful, raw emotions and, as she has already said, changed her perspective on politics. 

Death does that. The horror, the lack of control and the sheer finality of it all. 

Death, funnily enough, turns out to be life-changing – for those left behind.

And I don’t envy her. That burden of responsibility. That grim roll call of Scots who have perished from this virus acting as a daily and very public reminder of the enormity of the task that sits on her shoulders and exposes the failings in an approach that is self-evident in the numbers of dead.

That’s not a job anyone would wish for.

And while sympathetic to the intensity of the moment, nothing, though, can absolve her of the mess that her government has made of its handling of harassment complaints against her predecessor, the former first minister Alex Salmond. 

And with the publication over the last week or so of three reports, the Dunlop review into the process followed by the Scottish Government, the Hamilton report into whether the First Minister broke the ministerial code and finally, the report produced by the Committee on the Scottish Government Handling of Harassment Complaints, Sturgeon found herself in a confused world where, on the one hand, she has been cleared, and on the other, soundly damned.

The much-anticipated Hamilton report into whether the FM had broken the ministerial code and would subsequently herald her resignation was due to be published at 4pm on Monday. 

And while the minutes ticked away past the deadline, journalists waiting for the report to be posted on the Scottish Government’s website had become bored of constantly refreshing the page and started tweeting about an obscure government publication exploring Scotland’s porpoise population.

Sturgeon, Salmond, dolphins, as if things couldn’t get any more surreal. 

And then the report was live. 

The FM was, in her own words, vindicated. James Hamilton concluded she had not broken the ministerial code.

And while there was much in the report for her to celebrate, there was plenty more of concern, not least that he talked of her government’s “saga of failures” around the decision to defend the legal case brought by Salmond and which ultimately cost the taxpayer upwards of £500,000. 

He said that the FM’s explanation for not remembering a particular meeting at which complaints about Salmond were discussed would “inevitably, likely… be greeted with suspicion, even scepticism, by some”, but he said her version of events was “not impossible” and concluded she had made no breach of the code.

In contrast, the MSPs on the cross-party committee set up to explore the Scottish Government’s handling of the complaints against Salmond concluded that the process had been seriously flawed, developed too fast in the wake of #MeToo.

There had been a catastrophic failure by government to produce documents that led to spiralling legal costs, and crucially, the women had been seriously let down.

There have been recriminations, slurs, and accusations on all sides here, but in the final analysis, it is the words of the two women complainants at the heart of this that should hang heaviest on the FM’s conscience.

They told MSPs: “We went through the entirety of the police investigation and the criminal trial with next to no contact from the Scottish Government, let alone any kind of support... it felt as though we were just left to swim.”

Left to swim. How chilling is that? Women brave enough to come forward and attempt to hold truth to power and then sidelined.

Women who were told they would be supported but left abandoned. Women who said they did not want their complaints to be taken to the police and who were ignored. Women who may well wonder why they ever spoke up.

Women left to drown.

And all the more grotesque because this has been framed as a feminist crusade.

But where is the outrage from Scotland’s so-called feminist organisations about the way these women have been let down? Are they too in thrall to what they perceive as a government’s progressive agenda to see the wood for the trees?

This has been a chronicle of despair. A series of epic failures that, for me, reached its sorry peak when Rape Crisis Scotland mistakenly identified one of the complainants to the press. It’s shocking.

And when I saw that woman’s name on the statement issued on her behalf but with her name meant to be hidden, I was amazed.

In normal times, you would have read about this in a newspaper.

But we don’t live in normal times and journalists, like the rest, feel cowed by the pile-ons that come with criticising anything remotely attached to the FM’s cause. 

The reports published over the last few weeks may have helped put to bed grand conspiracy theories and rumours of Machiavellian machinations on both sides of the Salmond/Sturgeon divide, but stripped bare, this is about two women.

Two women let down by a government not just led by a woman but supported by women in almost every single one of the senior civil service roles involved.

And as yet, no one has yet been brought to book.

The First Minister points to the ‘old boys’ club’ that would have previously pushed any complaints under the carpet, protected its protagonists, but she is in danger of replacing that archaic power structure with one rooted in the same kind of cronyism, where its membership is so myopic that it only speaks to itself, and where criticism is seen as heresy.

The only difference is, it’s an ‘old girls’ club’ instead of a boys’.

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Read the most recent article written by Mandy Rhodes - Nicola Sturgeon leaves office with one in four children in poverty

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