Alex Salmond inquiry is shining a light on the inner workings of Scotland's ruling cabal – Brian Wilson

The investigation into the Alex Salmond affair is exploring the blurring of the lines between political, civil service and legal roles, writes Brian Wilson

MSPs are investigating the handling of complaints made against former First Minister Alex Salmond (Picture: Jane Barlow/PA Wire)
MSPs are investigating the handling of complaints made against former First Minister Alex Salmond (Picture: Jane Barlow/PA Wire)

The Holyrood committee inquiry into the handling of allegations against Alex Salmond is developing into a trial of how Scotland is run. Let’s hope MSPs have the stomach for the task.

Whether many are paying attention is another question but when the pandemic passes and Nicola Sturgeon’s daily pulpit goes into storage – who now knows which will come first? – questions laid bare will still be around.

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In normal times, the evidence – and efforts to conceal it – would be the stuff of more prominent headlines, or at least one hopes so. Take yesterday’s revelations about messages allegedly sent by Peter Murrell to an unnamed SNP dignitary in January 2019.

The first stated: “Totally agree folk should be asking the police questions... report now with the PF on charges which leaves police twiddling their thumbs. So good time to be pressurising them. Would be good to know Met looking at events in London.”

A second read: “The more fronts he is having to firefight on the better for all complainers. So CPS action would be a good thing.”

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Pressuring police! Met looking at events in London! The more fronts he is having to fight on…! This is the language of an enforcer not a bystander while Mr Murrell is chief executive of the SNP, married to the First Minister of Scotland.

The contrast between this blunt, interventionist tone and Mr Murrell’s written statement to the committee is stark. In that missive, he was the man who knew nothing; part of a couple so attached to propriety that dynamite information, revealed in their own sitting-room, was not shared over a period of months.

Ms Sturgeon told MSPs she met Mr Salmond in her role as party leader rather than First Minister while Mr Murrell told the committee that while he knew of these meetings and that “something serious was being discussed... Nicola told me she couldn’t discuss the details”. Party leader? Party chief executive?

I am scarcely a member of the Alex Salmond fan club but there is a thing called natural justice and from the emergence of this sorry saga I have noted how it was undermined by the calculating behaviour of his successor and those around her.

Back in August 2018 when details of charges were leaked, I wrote that nobody should be subjected to “trial by allegation”. I thought it genuinely odd that Ms Sturgeon was on hand for interviews on a matter subject to due process and wrote: “As ever, the imperative lay in news management and polishing the First Minister’s shining armour.”

Then, few knew what had been going on behind the scenes. Some of that emerged when Mr Salmond successfully sued the Scottish Government and these meetings were revealed. I wrote then: “In return for our £500,000 – squandered on the civil court case brought by Salmond – we are now entitled to access every dot, comma, conversation and email leading to this week’s debacle.”

That was the last thing the mightiest in our little land intended to permit. They had 18 months to put together blocking tactics. John Swinney, the useful front-man, informed the committee that it would “not be in the interests of good government” to provide them with such crucial information.

Evidence from the Permanent Secretary in this week’s session was an insult to the committee and the Parliament. Lesley Evans could remember nothing. Those who wonder why she remained in a job after the botched court case misunderstand the nature of relationships within Scotland’s ruling cabal. They look after each other.

Since all this began, Mr Salmond has been found not guilty of the charges against him. This is not a retrial of these allegations. It is narrowly focused and, to many, involves too much old detail to make it interesting.

But for anyone who believes that the separation of political, civil service and legal roles is crucial to open and healthy democracy, it matters and MSPs should not let us down. Neither let us forget, a man’s liberty was at stake and that should never be a matter of political interference, regardless of who that man is.

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