Most nationalist movements wait until they have achieved independence before having a civil war over who runs the country. But Nicola Sturgeon and Alex Salmond have jumped the gun by opening hostilities while Scottish self-determination is still well over the horizon.
Could it remain an unattainable goal thanks to the open warfare between the past and present leaders of the Scottish National Party? The feud has broken the sense of inexorable progress towards Scottish independence propelled by the political skills of the SNP leadership and aided by the British government’s repeated blunders.
The British media loves a good dog fight and the melodrama of the Sturgeon/Salmond battle has swiftly promoted Scottish politics to the top of the news agenda in a way unseen since the referendum on Scottish independence in 2014.
The ill-concealed unionist sympathies of sections of the press have ensured a pro-Salmond bias and antipathy to Sturgeon, leading her actions to be compared by some to President Nixon during the Watergate scandal. “What did she know and when did she know it?” asked one commentator with relish. A breach of the “ministerial code”, though recently carried out with impunity by Priti Patel under Boris Johnson, is spoken of in awed tones as if it were a capital offence.
Much of this venom is driven by a desperate effort to damage the SNP before the May election for the Holyrood parliament in which, at the time of writing, the SNP is set to win a narrow majority. It would interpret this as giving it a popular mandate for demanding a second referendum on independence. Since the popularity and competence of Sturgeon is the SNP’s biggest asset at the polls, anything damaging to her – even if it does not destroy her politically – could stall the advance towards a pro-independence vote.
Trivial or exaggerated many of the allegations of misconduct against her may be, but to explain them to the Scottish parliament she has had to admit to serial incompetence by her administration at every level.
Suppose that the secret purpose of this process was the political assassination of Salmond, then the assassins were comically inept. Suppose, far more likely, that the purpose was simply to deal with allegations of sexual harassment against him without fear or favour, then the blundering is equally culpable.
Salmond’s claim of a far-reaching conspiracy against him is difficult to take seriously because there is no obvious motive for such a plot. He posed no threat to Sturgeon’s leadership since she is very popular in Scotland and he is not, according to the polls. A conspiracy would have had to recruit as co-conspirators the great armada of people and institutions that have played a part in the affair. The allegation that the Scottish political, judicial and civil service elite is such a close-knit group that they automatically act in concert, and there is no separation of powers, is contradicted by their stumbling and incoherent performance.
A better explanation for why Salmond was targeted simultaneously by so many – a concerted attack that he sees as proof of a deep-laid conspiracy – is that they were all running scared of sexual harassment accusations and over-eager to avoid being seen as protectors of a friend and colleague.
They would have been all the more prone to avoid this risk and make a rush to judgement as the MeToo movement got under way in 2017, heightening awareness of powerful men acting as sexual predators. Salmond, it must be pointed out, has been cleared of all 12 charges against him.
This is the heart of Sturgeon’s defence of her actions, telling the parliamentary committee that “I refused to follow the age-old pattern of letting a powerful man use his status and connections to get what he wants.” She claims that Salmond became so angry because he expected her, as his long-time political partner, to get him off the hook. In her evidence this week, Sturgeon repeatedly expressed sweet sorrow at the failings of an old friend, but kept returning to the original allegations against him.
Sturgeon may survive the attack on her, but how much damage will be done to Scottish nationalism, which has shallower and more recent roots than Irish nationalism? It was only six and a half years ago that the independence referendum unexpectedly legitimised Scottish self-determination as a credible option for Scots, even though they voted it down.
The SNP had an unprecedented winning streak in gaining public support, as England and Wales voted narrowly for Brexit and Scotland voted strongly against. The Boris Johnson government is deeply disliked north of the border and its floundering response to the Covid-19 epidemic last year compared badly with Sturgeon’s image of cool competence.
Nationalist movements past and present are usually good at surviving scandals. Recent examples of this include President Donald Trump and Indian prime minister Narendra Modi. They have been able to do this by wrapping the national flag around them and denouncing their critics as unpatriotic. This gambit becomes even easier during the epidemic, because leaders like Boris Johnson and Matt Hancock can claim that supposed wrongdoings are a diversion when they are devoting all their efforts to fighting the deadly virus.
Sometimes national leaders fall because of scandals but nationalist movements do not. In 1890, the Irish Home Rule leader Charles Stewart Parnell – “the uncrowned king of Ireland” – was cited as a co-respondent in the divorce case of Katherine (Kitty) O’Shea, with whom he had been living for 10 years and by whom he had three children. The scandal ended his leadership of his party, which split amid furious and long-lasting disputes, but the movement towards Irish independence continued.
Sturgeon does not have the same dominance of Scottish politics as Parnell once did in Ireland, but she is far and away the SNP’s greatest electoral asset. Her eight-hour grilling before the Scottish parliament showed her to be as formidable a politician as ever. Yet her own account of the missteps made by her government shows how bereft it is of capable leaders who might replace her. No wonder that unionists in Scotland and the government in London are slavering over their best chance of wounding her politically just when she appeared to be on the verge of decisively winning the Holyrood election in May.
Her problem is that she does not only need previous SNP voters to stick with her, which the polls show that they are likely to do. She needs a slice of Scottish voters – primarily the large number who voted “no” in the referendum of 2014 but “no” also to the UK leaving the EU in 2016 – to change their minds in favour of an independent Scotland.