If current opinion polls are to be believed, the First Minister Nicola Sturgeon enjoys the trust of the majority of the Scottish people as a consequence of her leadership throughout the Covid-19 pandemic.
In parallel, political support for the SNP has risen, as indeed has support for Scottish independence. If a leader is trusted, then the voters are more likely to have confidence in the policy platform that they put forward.
We saw something similar in the run-up to the independence referendum in 2014. The performance of the SNP in government in the period from 2007, in contrast to that of the Labour-Lib-Dem coalition which preceded them, led to a growth in support for independence.
This ran in tandem with substantial public approval of Alex Salmond as First Minister. Folk who wouldn’t previously have given the prospect of an independent country a second thought were much more open to it. The supposed trustworthiness of those making the pro-independence case was the significant factor in driving the vote up to 45 per cent, well above where support for separation was polling just a few years before.
It is precisely because trust in politicians matters that the latest salvo from Salmond in connection with the handling of harassment complaints against him is so significant. For, in his submission to the independent reporter investigating alleged breaches of the ministerial code by Sturgeon, Salmond has presented a version of events totally at odds from those of the current First Minister.
To be blunt, he has damned her as a liar to Parliament. This is rejected in robust terms by Sturgeon and her allies, with the Deputy First Minister John Swinney describing Salmond’s claims as “absolute nonsense”. To them, it is Salmond who is the liar.
The two individuals at the heart of this are not just fringe players in Scottish politics. Both have led the SNP, one is the serving First Minister, and the other her predecessor in office, and they have been close political allies for the best part of three decades. The joint leadership they presented was key to winning trust and building support for Scottish independence in the lead up to the 2014 referendum.
Which of them is right in their stories is something that time will tell. Ultimately, it will be up to James Hamilton QC, the independent reporter, to make that determination, if that is deemed to fall within his remit. It must, however, be significant that Salmond claims that his version of events can be corroborated by at least three other individuals. It is unclear, at this stage, who is able to corroborate Sturgeon’s version of events.
The stakes could not be higher for the First Minister. If she is found to have breached the ministerial code by misleading the Scottish Parliament, then she has to resign her office. Helpfully, that point was confirmed on Friday night on the BBC’s Any Questions by the SNP Westminster leader, Ian Blackford.
In 2001, commenting on the difficulties that the then Labour First Minister Henry McLeish had got himself into on the much more minor matter of failing to properly declare rents he received, Swinney, at that time SNP leader, said: “The conduct of the First Minister of Scotland must, however, be beyond reproach.” Expect to see these words quoted back at him endlessly in the event that there is a finding of misconduct on Sturgeon’s part.
Bad news for the SNP
But Sturgeon’s – and Swinney’s – position is that she has done nothing wrong, and this is all an invention by Salmond. It is worth considering for a moment exactly what this means.
The man that Sturgeon, Swinney, and (by implication) other senior SNP figures such as Fiona Hyslop, Angus Robertson et al now denounce as a liar and a fantasist is the same man who they asked us to trust in 2014 to lead the country to be a new independent entity. They expected us to believe his promises at that point as to what this new state could be like – promises around currency, economics and finance, which were barely credible, but which were vigorously defended by all these individuals.
They are now saying that this man simply cannot be trusted. But if they made such an error of judgement then about his character, as the people who worked closest with him over many decades, how can we know that they are not making a similar misjudgement as to the character of Sturgeon today? And how can the Scottish people ever again trust a single word that this cabal tells them?
At the heart of this whole sorry affair are women who made complaints about inappropriate behaviour on the part of the former First Minister, who have been badly let down by a flawed complaint process that was declared illegal by a Scottish court. How they feel about seeing this bloody battle to the death between Scotland’s two most significant political figures of the last decade can only be imagined.
They will not be the only casualties. Either Salmond, or Sturgeon, or perhaps both, will have their reputations ruined by this affair. It is very bad news for the party that they led jointly over the past two decades, and for the wider campaign for Scottish independence. The public will rightly ask: “If they are lying about this, what else are they lying to us about?”
The lasting impression will be that we have here a party headed by duplicitous charlatans who will lie and cheat their way to achieving their political objectives. That will be the real legacy of this sordid affair.
Murdo Fraser is Conservative MSP for Mid-Scotland and Fife