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Cack-handed censorship has turned the Salmond affair into a full blown scandal

Alex Salmond decided that there was little point in giving evidence to the Holyrood Harassment Inquiry today, leaving an empty chair. He clearly thought that the chair could speak more eloquently than he could under the circumstances. He may be right.

At the last minute, on Tuesday, under pressure from the Crown Office, the committee UNpublished his submission of evidence, which meant he could not speak to crucial material in it relating to meetings with Nicola Sturgeon in 2018. Now, every dog in the street knows what Mr Salmond’s submissions say because they have already been widely published in the press. They were already published in “redacted”, ie censored, form to protect the anonymity of complainants – so it is not entirely clear why MSPs had to pretend that they hadn’t seen them.

Mr Salmond claims Nicola Sturgeon did not tell the truth about meetings with him; that a senior government adviser had promised to “get him” according to a witness; and that the Scottish government had been told by its own lawyers that it would likely lose Salmond’s Court of Session judicial review in 2019. Which, of course, it did. 

The most damning claims in the 8,000 word document were not censored. Mr Salmond accuses four senior figures in the SNP and the Scottish government, including Ms Sturgeon’s husband, chief executive Peter Murrell, and her chief of staff, Liz Lloyd, of a heinous conspiracy to have him jailed. “The evidence”, says the former SNP leader, “supports a deliberate, prolonged, malicious and concerted effort amongst a range of individuals within the Scottish government and the SNP to damage my reputation, even to the extent of having me imprisoned”. 

Holyrood is still in shock from reading this thunderous charge sheet from a former First Minister of Scotland no less, and opposition politicians are intensely frustrated that Mr Salmond is not being questioned on it. But MSPs insist their hands are tied by the Crown Office who keep insisting on redactions. Now, the Crown Office, which initiates prosecutions in Scotland, is led by the Lord Advocate, James Wolffe QC. He is not a judge, but is a minister in Nicola Sturgeon’s cabinet – a political appointee. 

This farce follows Nicola Sturgeon promising to give the committee access to all the documentation it needed except, apparently, the ones it really needed. In particular the government’s legal advice about Salmond’s judicial review. Advice, which once again every dog in the street seems to know about. Indeed, every dog knows what happened thereafter. The Court of Session ruled in January 2019 that the Scottish government had behaved “unlawfully” and in a manner “tainted by apparent bias” in its investigation into Salmond’s alleged sexual misconduct. That led to Salmond being awarded costs of £512,000. If that isn’t a case of incompetence at the highest levels in the Scottish government MSPs would like to know what is.

Everyone also knows what happened after the Court of Session fiasco. Salmond was arrested by police and charged with a string of attempted rape and sexual harassment charges – charges of which he was acquitted in March last year. Many of the accusations came from senior figures in the Scottish government and the SNP. The former first minister of Scotland could have gone to jail for many years, possibly the rest of his life. And people wonder why he’s so angry.

Nicola Sturgeon, who appears before the committee next week, says that the conspiracy allegations are “nonsense” and that Mr Salmond only has himself to blame because of his disrespectful conduct toward women. She has called on him to produce concrete evidence of conspiracy – which he says he cannot because it is being withheld by the Crown Office in the form of redacted texts and messages from the four he has accused. 

No one of course knows the strength of Mr Salmond’s evidence because no one can see these messages. However, by making such an outrageous accusation about senior figures in the SNP and the government he is in effect challenging them to sue him. In that event, his defence would be that his allegations are true in fact and can be confirmed by documentation that he knows exists, has seen and can provide references for. 

At the very least, the former SNP leader has damaged the credibility of Nicola Sturgeon, the politician he believes stood in the background while her minions confected a conspiracy to destroy him. This is the “witch hunt” about which the SNP lawyer ,Anne Harvey, is now offering a sworn affidavit. She says she received “an improper request from SNP HQ in 2018 seeking to damage Mr Salmond”. 

The principal adviser to the SNP Chief Whip in Westminster, Ms Harvey confirmed what many in the party firmly believe, including the former Scottish justice secretary, Kenny MacAskill MP who has called on the Lord Advocate to resign. The Crown Office he leads has been acting in the interests, not of justice, but of the Scottish government, according to critics. Last year Mr MacAskill revealed text messages from Ms Sturgeon’s husband, and party boss, Peter Murrell, to the SNP CEO, Sue Ruddick, apparently discussing “pressurising the police” to proceed with a prosecution of Mr Salmond. 

In a further twist, Ms Ruddick last week outed herself as a complainant, accusing Mr Salmond of an “act of physical aggression” against her some years back which she reported to the police. This is denied by Salmond, and more importantly by Anne Harvey. The former solicitor said “categorically” in her statement that there was no such aggression. “I know this because the police questioned me extensively about it and…it simply did not happen as described by Sue Ruddick.” Ms Ruddick hit back saying that there was another incident.

This astonishing exchange lifted a veil on the deep hostility that exists in the SNP over Alex Salmond. He was thought by many to be a bully and perhaps a not very nice person. However, people who know him and have worked with him for decades insist that he is no sexual predator let alone a criminal. They believe the former first minister was fitted up to be Scotland’s Harvey Weinstein – only the clothing didn’t fit. For many, that is the beginning and the end of the story, whatever the Holyrood committee reports.

MSPs have been widely criticised for not getting to the bottom of the Salmond affair, but to be fair they’re not lawyers. Nor were they being asked to conduct a criminal investigation. To have got to the unvarnished truth, the Parliament would have had to call in a judge, or a special prosecutor as in the US Congress, to cut through the legal obfuscation. The SNP chief executive, Peter Murrell, has been repeatedly accused by MSPs on the committee of giving misleading and inaccurate statements.

Mr Salmond is now expected to appear before the inquiry on Friday – though the odds on that actually taking place must be regarded as slim. For months this issue had been raging below the level of public visibility, but this week it has morphed into a full-blown and multi-faceted scandal. 

It can no longer be dismissed as a personality clash between most important figures in the nationalist movement, Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon. The Conservative leader, Ruth Davidson, has claimed that the affair reveals “corruption” at the heart of Scottish democracy. The First Minister, the Lord Advocate, the Crown Office, and the government machine are now under the most relentless scrutiny and criticism. 

ENDS

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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