With opinion polls consistently predicting a majority for the SNP at next May’s election, independence support at an all-time high, and Nicola Sturgeon’s personal approval ratings sitting at an eye-watering 72 per cent, it seems an odd time to claim she’s having a bad time.
But torn apart at FMQs by Ruth Davidson, batting off questions about her husband’s messages about police investigations into Alex Salmond, her own sketchy evidence to the Salmond inquiry revealing some explosive gaffes and gaps on matters of national import, and then an unexpected tone of interrogation on a UK Sunday political show that would normally be so kind.
She looked flustered, sounded rattled and in a terse response to persistent questioning about what she had or hadn’t done as regards her predecessor, we got a tired old trope from the First Minister, reminding those that hadn’t noticed, that this was all about a man.
She suggested that it benefited the former first minister for the focus to be on conspiracy theories rather than on his conduct, and she told Sophy Ridge on Sky: “This is age-old here, that a man is accused of misconduct against women and often it’s a woman who ends up answering for them.”
That may be an easy line from a woman looking to find some sympathy in a tight spot, but it doesn’t hold true here and from a self-described ‘life-long feminist’, it was a cheap shot that does us women no favours.
The FM isn’t being asked as a woman to answer for Salmond’s misconduct – she is being asked perfectly valid questions as the woman who heads a government whose catastrophically bad mishandling of complaints made by women led to the taxpayer footing a half a million pound legal bill and left those women potentially exposed.
That is the nub, and no amount of flam about men and their power and how they abuse it should deter from a forensic interrogation of what she, as first minister, potentially got wrong.
Sturgeon, by her own considerable talent, experience and political graft, has earned the right to be at the top. It’s her ability, not her sex, that got her there. And so, despite any efforts to argue to the contrary, that’s where the buck stops. With her.
So, forgive me for being a tad irritated that she would now play the ‘woman’s card’.
What’s the point in a woman breaking through the glass ceiling if she then delegitimises her own achievements by blaming a man simply to deflect the questioning of her?
Salmond’s behaviour, and it was undoubtedly dreadful, has been picked over endlessly during a court case where a jury examined the 13 serious charges that included sexual assault and attempted rape, and acquitted him. And while Sturgeon is right that his wider behaviour was found wanting, in this examination, it is not the issue.
But the behaviour of her government is.
So, indulge me in a touch of levity by saying she now needs to man up and not go throwing Salmond shaped dead cats on the table.
Sturgeon has a gold-plated reputation for empathy. It’s what has earned her plaudits, particularly during this pandemic. But claiming to know that Salmond is “angry” with her when he has said nothing; to insinuate he was looking for her “collusion” in a “cover-up” without giving evidence of that; to assume his “distress” as justification for the questionable pow wows with him during her government’s investigation; and to dismiss tales of conspiracy as laughable fantasy when the facts are now chipping away at the once seemingly improbable – is a long list.
It’s disappointing to see Sturgeon, a role model for women’s equality, to now be belittling her own hard-won status by bleating about something that she is not actually being blamed for.
And it smacks of a cynical attempt to wriggle out of her responsibility as the head of a government that bungled a complaints process that has already been judged “unlawful” and “tainted with bias”.
The remit of the parliamentary inquiry, set up to investigate the circumstances that led to the government’s botched investigation, was never expected to bring Sturgeon down. But it is in her own inconsistencies that doubts are mounting.
Sturgeon met with Salmond three times while he was under investigation by her government. She took his calls, answered his texts, made room in her diary.
This, say some, is evidence of a compassionate woman who wants to do right by an old, if now former, friend. Well, that’s fine, but let’s not forget her responsibilities as leader and her potential for ruthlessness when it comes to ambition and for cutting off friends. Let’s just say, ‘Roseanna Cunningham’ and leave it there. You can Google the rest.
And let’s also not forget where we all were between November 2017 and March 2018: in the grip of #MeToo; allegations raised by a prominent human rights lawyer about a catalogue of abuse within the Scottish Parliament; the fall-out from Mark McDonald’s resignation as a minister over complaints of sexual misconduct; a media enquiry about an alleged sexual incident at Edinburgh airport involving Salmond; Sturgeon harbouring “lingering concerns” about the behaviour of the former first minister; and her government engaged in an acceleration to redesign its procedures for dealing with historic complaints against former ministers.
That was the backdrop to those meetings, those texts and those calls. And yet she made them.
And amid that toxic soup, Sturgeon, known for her attention to detail and acute political antennae, says she simply forgot a meeting she had with one of Salmond’s former aides who first told her about the Salmond harassment complaints.
Some argue, none of this matters. That Sturgeon should be forgiven for any mistakes, or errors of judgement, if they were done in good faith. But, sorry, that just doesn’t wash.
We can all claim to do things fuelled by good intention but that’s no excuse if things go horribly wrong. It’s about accountability. And if we have travelled anywhere in terms of equality, then surely, it has to be to a place where women answer for their own actions and don’t try to blame or divert them onto some man with the justification that, historically, that’s what they’ve always done to us?