TODAY’S HEADLINES ARE dominated by a leak from the inquiry into the mishandling of complaints against Alex Salmond. It even makes the front pages of most English broadsheets and tabloids, which suggests, if nothing else, that the issue has “broken through”.
For all the fuss, the revelation itself is no smoking gun. MSPs on the inquiry have concluded, by a majority of five to four, that Sturgeon gave “an inaccurate account of what happened and she has misled the committee on this matter” which is “a potential breach of the ministerial code.” Serious stuff, yet to all but the purest Sturgeon partisans, not really news. Her account was undeniably marred by factual bloopers. The real questions are about their relevance in the grander scheme of things; and, most of all, about the intent lying behind inaccurate statements.
In that sense, there is a gulf separating “misled” from “knowingly misled”. As Alex Massie rightly says, “The difference between an unwittingly incomplete account and a knowingly inadequate one may seem arcane but it is the difference between an offence that is embarrassing but survivable and one that is traditionally considered a resignation matter.” Plausible or not, Sturgeon’s defence has centred on having forgotten details (including whole meetings) under the emotional pressure of events. Nothing leaked from the committee directly contradicts the absentmindedness defence.
Assuming, therefore, that these are the report’s most serious findings, sufficient grey area remains for Sturgeon to manage this without resignation. However, it does raise three further questions.
Firstly, it may anticipate the findings of another inquiry into this debacle, from James Hamilton, former director of public prosecutions in Ireland. That report, also due soon, will be non-partisan and thus less easily shrugged off. It will centre on whether Sturgeon’s memory lapses amount to breaches of the ministerial code; theoretically, it could recommend resignation.
Secondly, is this beginning to seep into public consciousness? For many months, the investigation was a matter for political trainspotters. However, polls have shifted downwards as we approach pre-election squeaky bum time. Of course, there is every risk of exaggeration here: the SNP could still win the type of majority that was supposed to be impossible under the Parliament’s setup. Nonetheless, by the looks of election leaflets, the SNP is struggling to articulate any popular message beyond Sturgeon herself, and as she becomes more embroiled in allegations of sleaze, risks are mounting.
Thirdly, what does this all mean for the future of Sturgeon within a movement for independence? Her leadership brought the mass, populist Yes movement of 2014 in house, making the SNP one of Europe’s largest per capita political forces. The whole operation was increasingly centred on Sturgeon’s stage-managed persona: to critics, a cult of personality, orchestrated within a tight faction led by the leader’s husband.
Let’s leave all moral judgements aside. The technical problem with such arrangements is their brittleness: everything depends on maintaining the leader’s popularity. What happens if the leader loses heart or inspiration? What happens if the leader becomes embroiled in events beyond her control? What happens when the leader’s husband becomes the story? The whole model of Sturgeonism starts to look extraordinarily fragile.
Conversely, insofar as the SNP’s internal critics based their hopes on Salmond, this has also been an error. Deeper problems of independence strategy, party democracy and the domestic record have been lost in personal intrigues. This has made it harder to articulate a critique of Sturgeon, who has been licensed to pose (plausibly or not) as the honourable voice of #MeToo against the old boys network. More damagingly, it means that opponents have lost the thread of a positive alternative.
This affair has cast an ugly light on the SNP, Sturgeon’s regime and what passes for Scottish democracy. And let’s be clear, under seven years of Sturgeon-Murrell rule, policy achievements are notable by their absence. But hopes for an alternative rest on a pro-independence majority in May. Afterwards, it’s time to move beyond Sturgeon and Salmond, and rediscover the autonomous spirit of 2014.