Alex Salmond: No place to go for our former first minister – John McLellan

Mr Salmond is now damaged goods and a prominent role for him anywhere is unlikely, writes John McLellan

Alex Salmond faces the media after he was cleared of all charges at the High Court in Edinburgh (Picture: Jane Barlow/PA Wire)
Alex Salmond faces the media after he was cleared of all charges at the High Court in Edinburgh (Picture: Jane Barlow/PA Wire)

From the trial of the century to a few leading articles; it was always going to take something extraordinary like a pandemic to stop the aftermath of the Alex Salmond trial dominating the headlines for days if not weeks, but it happened.

For all the talk of an explosive book which will rock the SNP to the foundations, the scale and implications of the coronavirus have made even something as staggering as the allegations against everyone involved in the Salmond affair seem trivial by comparison. Of course the implications of the trial for the individuals concerned are, as many commentators have pointed out this week, far from trivial, but it remains to be seen whether the not guilty verdicts are the body blow for women’s rights in Scotland some are suggesting.

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From the explosive testimony of Woman H at the outset of proceedings, as the evidence unfolded it became increasingly difficult to predict the outcome and on that basis alone the result should have been no surprise. Without corroboration, the prosecution could only rely on the jury accepting a pattern of behaviour, but the defence had corroboration from witnesses backing up Mr Salmond’s version of events – that they either didn’t happen or were exaggerated and misrepresented – so his team made it very hard for the jury to be convinced of his guilt beyond all reasonable doubt.

For all Mr Salmond’s obvious relief on Monday, the sting in the tail came not from an accuser but from one of his own witnesses, his former head of policy and speechwriter Alex Bell, who described his ex-boss as a “creep” in his column for Dundee’s Courier newspaper. “When your best defence is ‘I’m sleazy but not criminal’, it’s nothing to smile about,” he wrote, expanding on Mr Salmond’s own pre-trial groundwork that he was “no angel”.

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If found guilty it’s almost certain he would have been granted an immediate appeal on the basis that the trial judge Lady Dorrian had prevented him leading a defence of conspiracy, but being cleared without it made the verdicts even more solid. There is a fair chance any convictions would have been declared unsafe, so the convulsions within the party would have gone on longer and the result would have been the same.

Yet talk of SNP splits may also be exaggerated, despite Mr Salmond’s cheerleaders like Alex Neil MSP and Kenny MacAskill calling for resignations and inquiries, and the longer the coronavirus emergency goes on the less likely this becomes. For all his backers might wish it otherwise, Mr Salmond is damaged goods; his supposed political invincibility was dashed first in referendum and then in defeat at the 2017 election, his barely watched Russia Today TV show might help pay the bills but has made him look desperate and in the pocket of totalitarian propagandists, and now his personal reputation has been trashed.

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At best he has had to admit to inappropriate behaviour and while some might point to Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s chequered love life for equivalence, Mr Johnson has never stood trial for attempted rape. And what Woman H meant when she said she “didn’t want to become another one of his women” was not explored in the trial.

But what of First Minister Nicola Sturgeon? Is she a conspirator who orchestrated the most dreadful of plots against the man who almost delivered independence to snuff out the threat to her leadership? Maybe when Mr Salmond reveals his conspiracy evidence it will turn out to be so, but where will her reputation be by then? As a Conservative it is not for the likes of me to spring to her defence, but the fact is that plenty of Tories openly recognise she is doing a good job in leading the Scottish response to COVID-19 in partnership with the UK, so if Conservatives are praising her then thousands of Nationalists will be too. That’s not the basis for a successful defenestration, no matter how vengeful Mr Salmond may be.

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Maybe things would play out differently in normal times, but the response to the COVID-19 emergency is changing the relationship between the Scottish Government and Westminster, and even between the First and Prime Ministers. From the frosty reception on the steps of Bute House last year, Ms Sturgeon even referred to him as Boris this week, and the enmity and one-upmanship which has characterised the Scottish Government’s relationship with the UK for over a decade has been replaced by a spirit of co-operation because that’s what the vast majority of the Scottish public demand.

There will be a hard core of unionists who will see no good in Ms Sturgeon, just as some Nationalists still seek slight in every bulletin – Angus MacNeil MP’s complaint that an STV tweet about the NHS didn’t refer to NHS Scotland being a particularly crass example – but what matters now is what works.

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The adept performances of Chancellor Rishi Sunak unveiling billions of pounds of emergency grants, loans and tax breaks to benefit the whole UK could make enough people whose support for the UK might have been wavering after Brexit think twice about the implication of abandoning the Union. Meanwhile the EU has proved divided in facing the COVID-19 crisis, with leaders squabbling this week about recovery measures and could only instruct finance ministers to come back in a fortnight with a plan. And as we all know now, two hours is a long time in this nightmare, never mind two weeks.

When it’s all over, who knows how the unpartisan middle will react to the parties getting back into their political trenches, never mind the prospect of the SNP arguing about what Nicola did to Alex, or indeed at the possibility of a return to prominence of a man forced to admit his darker side to see off criminal prosecutions. After all we’ve heard over the past fortnight few Unionists fear the return of the Great Salmondo, or another of his coterie, Joanna Cherry MP, forcing out Ms Sturgeon. Quite the opposite.

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The coronavirus is an epoch-changing event with repercussions no-one can predict, but a return to normal does not mean a return to the way things were. That Mr Salmond is a towering figure of Scotland’s recent past is not in any doubt, but as the LP Hartley cliché has it, the past is a foreign country, they do things differently there.

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