Dylan Brewerton-Harper explores what the allegations against Nicola Sturgeon mean for the SNP in the run up to May’s Holyrood elections.
Watching parts of Nicola Sturgeon’s eight hour questioning by the Scottish parliament on Wednesday, my mind was cast back to the 2015 UK general election. Specifically, to the first televised debate before which members of the public could scarcely identify who she was, and after which she was the most googled search in the UK. “Can I vote for the SNP?” asked millions of English voters after her commanding performance that night.
Nearly six years on from her party’s resounding landslide victory in Scotland in that election, it is clear to see that Sturgeon is still one of the most impressive politicians these isles may ever have seen. More than anyone else, bar maybe Jeremy Corbyn, on what used to be his good days, she speaks to the public in a clear, concise, and yet conversational manner as if speaking to, yes, other human beings. It shouldn’t be too much to ask of our politicians to speak to us like people, but as we all know the nature of politics more often than not makes these interactions more like a close encounter with the third kind.
Yet, Sturgeon now finds herself in the midst of possibly the most defining political and moral crisis of her tenure as first minister. The ongoing enquiry into the mishandling of complaints made against her mentor and predecessor, Alex Salmond – who was acquitted of 13 charges of rape, sexual assault, and indecent assault by nine different women in March of last year – has revealed some “catastrophic” failings on the part of her government and of the SNP as a whole.
The bungling of two sexual harassment allegations made against Salmond by appointing an official to their internal inquiry who had previously been in contact with the complainants as an “investigations officer”. Repeatedly delaying the publication of the legal advice given to the Scottish government, and then further obfuscating by withholding the details of several legal meetings from the published documents. And, possibly worst of all, providing an elusive and contradictory answer as to whether a “senior government official” had leaked the name of one of the complainants to Salmond’s former chief of staff, Geoff Aberdein, before meeting Sturgeon in her Holyrood office in March of 2018. What does all this tell us about Nicola Sturgeon and her government? Well, beneath the exterior of a leader and party flying high in the polls in the run up to the Scottish parliamentary elections on 6 May, we see a first minister grappling with the possibility of resignation and disgrace.
Now, important questions have been raised about whether Sturgeon is being made to answer for the actions of a man, or more insidiously being punished for those actions. I think it is hard not to see the gender politics at play here, and it is important to remember that dynamic before rushing to pass judgement on this incredibly complex and ongoing situation.
However, there is something bigger at play here, an age-old dynamic that the Me Too and Times Up movements have so successfully exposed – and that is power. The relationship between power and the truth lies at the heart of this crisis, as with so many others. The two parallel ongoing investigations are not about Salmond’s actions, but about those of Sturgeon and her government. The only true victims here are the women who will look upon this inquiry, and be hesitant and fearful about coming forward to report their experiences of sexual harassment in the workplace, as Kirsty Thomson of JustRight Scotland warned this past week. This is the dispiriting truth of this whole affair. After the progress of the Me Too and Times Up, which Sturgeon herself has lauded as guiding her actions, this dire saga has set us on the course of regression.
It shouldn’t have taken the threat of votes of no-confidence in Sturgeon and her deputy first minister, John Swinney, by the Scottish Conservatives to get the publication of the legal advice given to Sturgeon’s government regarding Salmond’s judicial review case – which it eventually and humiliatingly lost in January 2019 to the cost of £512,000 to the taxpayer, despite the warning contained within said legal advice that they would most likely lose.
This case can, in many ways, be boiled down to who knew what, and when. Sturgeon has already admitted to having spoken to Salmond on five occasions whilst the internal investigation into the allegations against him was ongoing, yet failed to disclose this information to the permanent secretary to the Scottish government, Leslie Evans, in fear that this would be seen as “interference”. That is exactly what it is, and it is frankly disgraceful.
We should expect and demand more of our politicians, both male and female, and if Sturgeon is found to have broken the ministerial code by making false or misleading statements to the Scottish parliament, then she must resign.