IN FAIRNESS TO the Holyrood inquiry into the mishandling of complaints against Alex Salmond, it has never been predictable. From court battles over evidence to rogue magpies, every week brings new twists. It now appears that Salmond’s evidence will be submitted to the inquiry. Probably. And that should clear the way to Salmond himself appearing before the inquiry next Wednesday. In theory. The whole affair is grotesque and carnivalesque, a funhouse hall of mirrors where nothing is really what it appears.
What happened yesterday appeared decisive – and so far, it has been reported as such. Previously, a majority on the inquiry committee had refused to consider Salmond’s evidence, citing legal concerns, particularly around the anonymity of complainants in sexual offence cases.
However, many experts (including four of five inquiry members) questioned this interpretation. The controversy peaked with Lady Dorrian’s court ruling allowing the Spectator magazine to publish Salmond’s submission. As such, while the inquiry continued its stance, it referred the matter to a higher power, the Parliament’s Corporate Body. That group has “collectively agreed that on balance it is possible to publish the submission”.
That seemed to be that. But still, as of last night, chaos reigned – on social media at least. Andy Wightman MSP, the independent and possible “swing voter” on the inquiry, tweeted, “To be clear. Today, the SPCB told the SGHHC Committee that ‘on balance it is possible to publish the submission’. No-one, however, has yet taken the decision to publish the submission”. Perhaps he was insisting on a technical nicety; perhaps he knows something (the whole affair is a gift for wearers of tinfoil hats). Given events so far, best practice is to take nothing for granted.
If you fight back through the thickets, and adopt the maximum of good faith, you may still find a defensible rationale for Nicola Sturgeon’s Government. Complaints of sexual harassment were made; they needed to be addressed; they were addressed. If you leave aside the bungling and the failed prosecution and the alleged factional motives, an optimist could cast it as honourable. But even if you accept that, behaviour towards this inquiry has been so obstructive that it will fuel conspiracy theories for years, quite apart from the dedicated band who believe that Salmond was the victim of calumnies from the beginning.
In that sense, from Sturgeon’s perspective, publishing Salmond’s evidence may prove the smartest move. Without it, this would have been widely seen as a whitewash – and not just by Salmond supporters. Even now, that risk remains given the farcical proceedings so far.
Sturgeon will still hope to ride this out, with her perceived strengths on the pandemic and discontents at London rule rewarding her with a big election win. After the election, who knows. At the risk of repeating myself, Sturgeon and Murrell’s bigger problem is running a powerful, hugely centralised, highly expectant independence movement without a believable plan for independence. Even the happiest possible conclusion to this inquiry simply postpones reckoning with that other elephant in the room – or magpie in the conservatory, if you’re naughty.