Salmond's fate is existential independence

24 Sep 2018

To outsiders, Alex Salmond's influence since losing his Westminster seat in the 2017 snap election has been seen as very low. When the recent news broke surrounding a sexual harassment scandal from his time as Scotland's first minister and his subsequent legal battle with the Scottish government, it was an obvious thought that the outcome of proceedings wouldn't have much to do with the campaign for a second independence referendum.


This is a naive view, and one the SNP is keen to push. The fact is that the outcome of any investigation and legal challenge involving Salmond will prove fundamental in any future independence campaign.


Alex Salmond is the original Jeremy Corbyn. Their politics are different but the unquestioning esteem their core supporters hold for them is identical. To many independence supporters, Salmond has always – and will always be – the face of their dream. His 2014 referendum got them closer than they have ever been.


And so, for a significant chunk of independence supporters, the outcome of the investigation into his conduct is about a lot more than just one man's guilt or innocence. Sadly, this is at the expense of his accusers and other women who are perhaps too frightened to come forward with allegations of harassment and abuse.


A quick read of the comments section on the crowdfunding page that Salmond set up in order to meet the costs of his judicial review illustrates the unwavering loyalty shown by his supporters. One supporter wrote: "The focus may be on the Scottish government and the SNP but I suspect Theresa May and the Westminster establishment are behind this, fight them, Alex, you have my full support!"


Sadly, the sentiment that these accusations are somehow a Westminster conspiracy designed to undermine Salmond appears frequently in these comments.


But it is more than that. For many, this issue is being used as a proxy war for influence over the party. For some time now there have been internal battles within the SNP over the timings of a second independence referendum. Unlike the Tories and Labour, the SNP are scarily disciplined and largely keep these disputes private. But they are increasingly piercing the surface.


Nicola Sturgeon and others in the Party's leadership are holding off on a second campaign until it becomes clear there is a strong chance of winning. They are well aware that another defeat so soon after the first referendum could prove fatal to the movement. The grassroots still largely in thrall to Salmond, on the other hand, feel that now is the time to call a second vote.


This disagreement is noticeably played out on Twitter. No one can deny the strong partnership Sturgeon and Salmond have shared throughout their political careers. And they have always tried to maintain this image in the public eye. However, cracks began to show when Salmond launched a crowdfunding campaign to cover the costs of his judicial review.


Many commentators were appalled by the threatening message this was sending to his potential accusers. The following day, Nicola Sturgeon tweeted her own link to a crowdfunding campaign for Scottish Women's Aid and Rape Crisis.


The timing of this is a clear indicator of the growing rift in the movement. One cynical, but likely accurate, view of these tweets is that the two politicians are marking their territory. Salmond, who could easily afford to pay his own legal costs, is trying to make the point that he still has a strong base of supporters who will back him no matter what. Sturgeon is clearly responding to this with the polar opposite message.


Then there's the issue of any possible cover-up. If the result had gone the other way in 2014, then it would be reasonable to assume that Salmond would be the leader of an independent Scotland today.


We have to ask ourselves: could these allegations come to light if such events had transpired? And indeed many will be asking how much of these allegations, and for how long, were known to Sturgeon and other senior party figures.


Just this week it emerged that Nicola Sturgeon had held undisclosed meetings with Salmond that did not appear in any ministerial diaries, going against common practice. This has naturally prompted questions about the transparency of the case. And, rightly or wrongly, it is clear that any relationships Salmond maintains within the SNP leadership are going to be called into question.


The battle for power in the SNP began long before the sexual harassment scandal, however. It first became apparent in the EU referendum when senior SNP members spoke out to leave the EU, despite the party hierarchy overwhelmingly backing remain. Further fractures developed over Salmond's continuing presence as a host on Kremlin-funded television channel Russia Today.


In combination, these disagreements pose a significant challenge for Nicola Sturgeon and the Party leadership. She has the impossible task of keeping favour with Salmond as he undoubtedly brings huge political force to the independence campaign, whilst also being careful not to alienate many who would be put off by her association with him.


But, more importantly, the support shown for Salmond in recent weeks makes it clear that independence supporters will not blindly agree with the current SNP leader's strategy, and any future disagreement between Salmond and Sturgeon has the potential to split the movement in two.



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