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by Mandy Rhodes
17 January 2021
What about the women?

Nicola Sturgeon and Alex Salmond campaigning during the general election in 2015 - Image credit: Andrew Milligan/PA Wire/PA Images

What about the women?

Scots could start a fight with their own shadow, but never has the paradox of our political perversity been as stark as in the first few days back after the parliamentary recess.

On the one hand, we have another poll showing a majority for independence, the First Minister’s popularity ratings at an all-time high and further solid predictions of an SNP landslide under her leadership at the next election in May.

But on the other, there are calls for her to resign, with claims by the former first minister Alex Salmond that she has lied to parliament, broken the ministerial code – indeed, is a repeat offender – and ergo, must go.

So, while she is at the top of her game and apparently unassailable, Nicola Sturgeon’s position is also extraordinarily unstable.

And with what has been described by Professor John Curtice as one of the most important elections ever to be held in the history of the Scottish Parliament, and with it being fought out against this busy backdrop of an ever-moving political psychodrama – Richard Leonard has just quit – it is sometimes difficult to reconcile ratings with reality.

But strip it all away and this is about two people: Nicola Sturgeon and her former ally and mentor, Alex Salmond.

The two really big beasts of Scottish politics, once on the same side and now locked in a bitter battle that neither of them controls, and which could destroy them both and all that they have achieved.

Salmond has little left to lose. Having been cleared of sexually assaulting nine women while he was first minister, nevertheless, he has emerged from the bruising court case a damaged man with his reputation tarnished and his life exposed.

Facts have since been mangled with myth. Conspiracy is bound up in half-truths and falsehoods are fuelled by the anonymity of social media and a conveniently polarised support that falls into two camps, Sturgeon vs Salmond, which allows for the fast acceleration of opinion, news and mischief-making.

Some would like to paint this as a clear binary choice. If you support one, you don’t support the other, but behind it all is a complex mix of longstanding party relationships, loyalties, secrets and debts to be repaid, which all makes for difficult interpretation for any SNP 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 that was exposing alleged wrongdoing and speaking truth to power, these women were to be the first to test drive a new complaints process designed by the Scottish Government, signed off by Sturgeon, and which included for the first time, and against the advice of Whitehall mandarins, complaints raised against former ministers.

And that’s where the machinations began.

As the record now shows, the process was unlawful, Salmond was forced to take the government he once led to court to prove it and when the Scottish Government eventually conceded the case, the bill to the taxpayer was already in excess of half a million pounds.

And that was just the start.

The head of the civil service, Permanent Secretary Leslie Evans, had unusually handed over the findings of the internal investigation straight to the Crown and against the wishes of the women themselves.

A massive police investigation subsequently ended in a lengthy charge sheet against the former first minister, shocking in its scale and breadth and including other women who had come forward during the exercise.

And, if you believe in the conspiracy theories, this should have ended with Salmond in prison, Sturgeon a #MeToo heroine and the Scottish Government a world-leading beacon of progressive policies that had proved itself in dealing with harassment without fear or favour.

Instead, Salmond was cleared, the Scottish Government put under parliamentary investigation for its mishandling of the complaints and the First Minister has referred herself to an independent inquiry over whether she has lied to MSPs about her dealings with Salmond.

And that is where we are.

He blames her, she blames him.

And what of the women?

They are shockingly absent in this. Two women let down by a complaints process that was meant to support them and the only time they get a mention is when it is politically convenient for the First Minister or her spokespeople to deflect criticism from her and back onto Salmond.

I am heartily sick of hearing Sturgeon repeat the poor woman playbook that she is being punished for the behaviour of a man.

I am offended by her batting off attempts at scrutiny over whether she lied or not with a reminder that this is about Salmond and not her.

I am appalled by the claim that her chief of staff allegedly revealed the name of one of the complainants to someone who used to work for Salmond but at the time was no longer in government, never mind politics.

I am flabbergasted by a permanent secretary who didn’t consult the women complainants about mediation, took their case to the Crown over their heads and presided over a ridiculously cursory investigation into who, among a very tight circle of names, could possibly have leaked the details of the complaints against Salmond to a tabloid newspaper, potentially opening the women up to exposure.

And I am angry that a parliamentary committee that seeks to get some justice for complainants, by getting answers as to why this all went so horribly wrong, is frustrated in its attempts to scrutinise the key protagonists by obfuscation, memory loss, legal privilege and accusations that they are the ones exploiting the complainants for “political purpose”.

If this was about the women, who is actually thinking about them?

Read the most recent article written by Mandy Rhodes - Editor's Column: The Blame Game

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