Saturday 3 February 2024

Sturgeon betrayed with a kiss


There are two stories that explain the history of Scottish nationalism and devolution since 1999. One is the public story that reached its latest chapter with Nicola Sturgeon’s testimony before the Covid inquiry. This public story is of the rise of SNP from a fringe party with a few MPs to its peak in 2015 when it won nearly all the MPs and might if it had been held those few months later a referendum. That peak has now been followed by a precipitous fall that has destroyed not only the reputation of Nicola Sturgeon, but also the concept of Scottish devolution in its present form.

It's possible to come up with a history of what happened since 1999 based on what is publicly available, but it doesn’t tell us why it happened. The story of why things happened as they did and indeed why we ended up with Sturgeon crying over spilt messages is largely secret, but I think it can be reconstructed using what we do know and a little reasoning.

Nicola Sturgeon was a candidate in the 1992 General Election but lost. She stood again in 1997 but lost. She stood again for Glasgow Govan at the 1999 Scottish parliament election but lost. Under normal circumstances that might have ended her political career. She could have gone back to being not very good at law and we would never have heard of her again.

Some village-Hampden, that with dauntless breast
The little tyrant of his fields withstood;
Some mute inglorious Milton here may rest,
Some Sturgeon guiltless of her country's blood.

What saved Sturgeon’s career was that she was first in the SNP’s regional list for Glasgow. Why was she first? It may have had to do with her talent, but in the end, it had to do with Alex Salmond. He was leader of the SNP, and he would have had a say in such matters.

Sturgeon was immediately put in Alex Salmond’s shadow cabinet. So, Salmond gave Sturgeon her start. She might have remained an obscure SNP MSP but for him.

In 2000 Alex Salmond resigned. Why? He much later expressed regret over this. The reasoning given in the newspapers of the time looks insufficient. I have never read a convincing reason for why Salmond resigned.

He was replaced by John Swinney, who is nice but nobody and not even that nice. If Swinney had continued as leader the SNP would not have made its breakthrough in 2007, would not have won an overall majority in 2011 and would not have had a referendum in 2014.

Salmond became leader again in 2004 so whatever caused him to resign in 2000 no longer applied or at least he thought it no longer applied.

Nicola Sturgeon became Salmond’s depute and leader in the Scottish parliament as Salmond didn’t have a seat there at the time.

Salmond and Sturgeon were clearly close. There are pictures which suggest a closeness that would be unusual in politicians. They appear to be close friends. Salmond is Sturgeon’s mentor, and she owes her position almost entirely to him.

We then have a period that is entirely shrouded in mystery that was covered by Alex Salmond’s trial. While Salmond was resident in Bute House it is possible that he lived as a monk in his cell, but that would make what happened later inexplicable. A number of women allegedly SNP politicians and Scottish civil servants accused Salmond of a variety of sexual offences. Again, it could be that these accusations were simply made up and that Salmond the monk never misbehaved in any way. We don’t know. We were not there.

If I were to speculate, I would guess that Salmond socialised with other politicians and perhaps had relationships that were closer than they ought to have been. He used his power and his charisma in a way that men have been doing since Henry VIII. He began to think he could get away with anything, because on the whole he could. Perhaps occasionally his behaviour could be misconstrued or became such as the Queen might put it that recollections may vary.

But whatever happened in the years prior to the referendum no one thought it serious enough to tell the police, the media or the voters. If the revelations about Salmond that came out prior to and during his trial had come out in 2014 then he would have had to resign as leader of that campaign, and it is very likely that the Yes vote would not have reached anywhere close to 44%.

We can conclude that members of the SNP and civil servants considered that winning the referendum was more important than revealing whatever Salmond was or was not doing in Bute House. This is where the secrecy at the heart of the SNP really begins.

Having lost the referendum Salmond resigned. Why? I have never understood this. He clearly wanted to continue in politics as the years after have shown. He performed well during the campaign and although Yes supporters were disappointed, they had come very far very fast. Salmond didn’t have to resign. Why did he?

The fact that Salmond did resign suggests strongly that he did not think whatever had happened in Bute House would be a problem. If Salmond had remained First Minister there would have been no investigation by the Scottish government into his alleged behaviour, there would have been no gathering of witnesses, because there would have been no Nicola Sturgeon.

Now here we begin to see something of the duplicitous nature of Nicola Sturgeon. Salmond must have been confident that he was leaving the independence movement and his own life in good hands. He could not have foreseen in any way how Sturgeon would betray him.

It could have been Alex Salmond who was leading the SNP when it won nearly all the seats in 2015 and it was really his victory, but it was Nicola Sturgeon who took the adulation and had enormous crowds at the Glasgow Hydro treating her as the second coming of Roberta the Bruce.

But what caused her to turn on Salmond? She didn’t have to. All of this is secret. Was Salmond really such a threat to Sturgeon that she thought it necessary to eliminate him. But in what way was he a threat? Again, we don’t know, and it is hard to imagine. Salmond has had no power at all since ceasing to be First Minister.

From being a reasonably normal party in 1999 and even up to the years prior to the independence campaign, the SNP and especially Nicola Sturgeon by the beginning of the pandemic have become so secretive that we know next to nothing about the inner workings of the Scottish government or the SNP.

Scotland in 2020 was neither run by a parliament nor by a government nor by a cabinet, it was run by Sturgeon and her husband with the help of some senior civil servants. We know what was decided, but we don’t know why. We know that large numbers of messages were deleted, but we don’t know what they contained and indeed why they were deleted.

It would have been embarrassing for Sturgeon to be heard swearing or being flippant or talking about how it was necessary to be different to England to help the cause of independence, but none of these things would have been as damaging as what did happen, admitting she lied when she said she would make the messages available when she knew they had already been deleted.

So, it is reasonable to assume that there was something so bad in her private messages that it was worth it to risk deleting them. What could be that bad?

We then have Sturgeon’s resignation. Again, we don’t have reasonable explanation for why she resigned or what connection if any it had with the subsequent revelations about SNP finances. What we do have is Sturgeon saying the SNP finances were fine when they were not. We are forced to conclude that the SNP’s Treasurer was like the SNP’s Finance Minister (Kate Forbes) and Health Minister (Humza Yousaf) just there for show. Sturgeon ran everything and ran everything secretly.

If you were to do an experiment on Scottish devolution from 1999 to 2024 you would have to conclude that it has failed. We ended up not with devolved power but rather power concentrated in one person Nicola Sturgeon who ruled with absolute power and in absolute secrecy. Everything on the surface, the historical record, was merely for show, what really went on happened behind the scenes.

It is an indictment not merely on Nicola Sturgeon it is an indictment on the Labour Party that set up Scottish devolution and it is up to the Labour Party to fix the mess that it created as no one else can.

There are different ways to do this, but above all get rid of “national” parliaments unless you want to fuel nationalism. Make clear that devolution is a form of regional government rather than a substitute for independence. Don’t try to appease Scottish nationalism by giving it ever more power and pretending it gets it parliament back from 1707. Appeasement has given us this.

The two major figures since 1999 are Salmond and Sturgeon each have faults. Salmond’s major fault may have been to be too trusting and unable to see the duplicity inherent in Sturgeon. Our only judgement on his behaviour in Bute House must be the jury’s. He was acquitted. But I’m afraid we have to put Nicola Sturgeon in the category of betrayer.

There is a special innermost circle of hell where Dante puts the great betrayers of history. There they are trapped in ice so far away are they from God’s love that the sun cannot reach them. Right in the middle is the man who betrayed with a kiss. 

But Sturgeon is not even a great figure of history. She failed in everything she tried and what she tried was of small consequence to history. Was it worth it?

What shall it profit a man, if he shall gain Scottish independence, and lose his own soul?

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