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The jury found him innocent, but Alex Salmond is still on trial.

There are few politicians in modern history who have been subjected to such relentless scrutiny as Alex Salmond.  He has been under almost continual investigation, one way or another,  for 30 years, since he became leader of the Scottish National Party.

A politician who has rocked the establishment, both in the UK and Scotland, the former SNP leader has been a prime target for the opposition parties and the press. Not to mention the security services who naturally kept a file on a politician dedicated to breaking up Britain and removing UK’s nuclear defence on the Clyde.

There has long been an open cheque book for anyone willing to give the press salacious details about his private life. What Alex Salmond never expected was that the most damaging attempt to destroy him as a politician and as a human being was to come from within his own party:  from the Scottish Government he led and from the Scottish National Party leader, Nicola Sturgeon, whom he mentored and to whom he bequeathed the party leadership in 2014.

Aware of this history, some in the SNP simply cannot believe it.  They think that the whole sexual harassment and attempted rape charges were confected by Mi5 and the UK “deep state”.   Such things have been known.  But not in Alex Salmond’s case.  The allegations came from senior figures within the Scottish National Party and the Scottish Government – people who enjoy anonymity but continue to promote their allegations even after they were thrown by a female-dominated jury in the High Court earlier this year. 

Alex Salmond may be a nasty person, as his defence council, Gordon Jackson QC was overheard describing him on a train. I am sure he was a nightmare to work for, as most successful, driven politicians are.   He is a bully and by his own admission has had behaved improperly in his dealings with women. But there is a world of difference, between being creepy or sleazy and being a sex criminal.

Since Metoo, this distinction has become so clouded that almost anything – hair stroking, touching, social kissing – can be construed as sexual harassment. And it doesn’t seem to matter what the justice system says about it. Juries are now regarded as rather silly people who don’t understand the foundation of the new sexual offences law: that you are guilty even when you are found innocent.  Politicians, once such claims are made, remain tainted for the rest of their lives. 

But Alex Salmond is a fighter and has a formidable track record of exoneration in court. He was found innocent of 13 charges of attempted rape and sexual assault in the High Court earlier this year. Last year he won £512,000 in costs from the Scottish Government in the Court of Session over their botched sexual harassment inquiry, which was ruled “unlawful, unfair and tainted by apparent bias”. In other words, was a set up.

That 2018 harassment inquiry, under a newly-minted civil service disciplinary code devised by the head of the Scottish Civil Service, Leslie Evans, somehow didn’t net any civil servants but it did lasso one former First Minister. This was because of a historic complaint made against him in 2013, which had been resolved under the old disciplinary procedure.

The investigating officials under Ms Evans acted improperly in contacting the historic complainant before the new disciplinary procedure got underway. The sequence of events is confused because the Scottish Government decided to kill the judicial review in the Court of Session by admitting it had acted unlawfully. That prevented much of the detailed evidence appearing in open court.

At the time, Ms Evans said: “we have lost a battle but we have not lost the war”.  The war against Alex Salmond moved from the civl service to Police Scotland who launched one of the largest criminal investigations in their history, involving 400 interviews. This included senior SNP figures who had made a raft of fresh allegations of attempted rape and sexual harassment against their former leader.

Holyrood’s attempt to investigate Leslie Evans’ war didn’t get very far. Ms Evans had already made clear that she was not going to discuss the legal advice or court papers relating to the Salmond judicial review.  This despite the First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, having promised transparency and that the inquiry would have everything it required. 

Ms Evans told MSPs that she regretted nothing. The Salmond investigation had been the “right thing to do” even if it was unlawful. She said she was on “a journey of cultural change” focussing on “equality, inclusion and wellbeing, including addressing bullying and harassment”.

Kirsty Wark was on a journey too. The Newsnight presenter had her say on the conduct of the First Minister on BBC TV. “The Trial of Alex Salmond” should really have been called the “Retrial of Alex Salmond”. It rehashed the allegations made by the complainants, even inadvertently identifying one of them, and ignored what the witnesses for the defence said.  The jury of eight women and five men, had found the latter rather more persuasive.

But this didn’t fit with Ms Wark’s unsubtle hints that Mr Salmond was Scotland’s Harvey Weinstein. It was “Britain’s MeToo trial” we were told. The only difference being that the predatory film producer was sentenced to 23 years in prison for rape, whereas Alex Salmond was acquitted on all counts. But who is counting?

So will this new Holyrood inquiry get anywhere? The investigation by MSPs is ostensibly in the civil service’s misconduct, not Mr Salmond’s. Ms Evans refused to say whether female civil servants had been advised not to be alone with the former First Minister, but she did say that she discussed his conduct with Nicola Sturgeon in November 2017. The First Minister had previously insisted that she was not informed about the sexual harassment investigation until April 2018.

There has been much speculation that Nicola Sturgeon will be bought down by this timeline. That she will be found to have had improper and unminuted contacts with Salmond and to have told less than the whole truth about her knowledge of the complaints. What did she know and when did she know it ?

But I have my doubts. Ms Sturgeon is an immensely skilled lawyer who chooses her words carefully. In politics there is “knowing” and there is “official knowledge of specific allegations”. She may have heard talk but may well not have been informed of the nature of the harassment investigation until April 2018.

It stands to reason that Nicola Sturgeon must have known about the historic 2013 complaint against Mr Salmond. Her chief of staff, Liz Lloyd, would have made sure she was kept in the loop. Ms Sturgeon unveiled Ms Evans’ new disciplinary process with great fanfare in late 2017 saying that it was needed to address a culture of sexual harassment in politics.

This was at the height of the MeToo affair when just about everyone in public life was under suspicion of improper relations with colleagues and underlings. The human rights lawyer, Aamar Anwar, had recently claimed that to his certain knowledge “women at all levels in Holyrood have been subjected to sexual harassment”. 

If so the Ms Evans’ disciplinary procedure has singularly failed to expose it.  It’s all been about Alex v Nicola.  What could damage the First Minister are the revelations forthcoming from Alex Salmond about the “conspiracy” by a group of highly placed figures in the Scottish government and the SNP to destroy him. This is the “political bubble” his defence counsel, Gordon Jackson QC, referred to in the High Court.  Nicola Sturgeon says it is “nonsense”.

The Holyrood inquiry is about to is turn into an epic struggle between the two political leaders who have dominated Scottish public life for two decades. It isn’t going to end well.

 A version of this column appeared in the Herald.

About @iainmacwhirter

I'm a columnist for the Herald. Author of "Road to Referendum" and "Disunited Kingdom". Was a BBC TV and radio presenter for 25 years - "Westminster Live" and "Holyrood Live" mainly. Spent time as columnist for The Observer, Guardian, New Statesman. Former Rector of Edinburgh University. Live in Edinburgh and spend a lot of time in the French Pyrenees. Will that do?


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