When Nicola Sturgeon called for a review of the way the Scottish Government handled sexual harassment claims in the wake of the Westminster scandal, she could scarcely have imagined that the first person to fall foul of the updated procedures would be her predecessor as First Minster.
But fate is a fickle mistress; and so late on Thursday it emerged her friend and mentor, Alex Salmond, was at the centre of two allegations of sexual harassment/assault examined by civil servants operating under the new rules on complaints against ex-ministers. These allegations had been passed on to the police.
The following morning, Sturgeon faced the unenviable prospect of publicly responding to a situation which has the potential to rip the SNP apart. The pressure must have been immense. Sturgeon’s friendship with Salmond is close and long-standing; they stood side by side throughout the referendum campaign, although the relationship appears to have frayed over the past year.
With a survey suggesting one in five people in Holyrood have experienced sexual harassment or sexist behaviour, however, it was crucial the First Minister put the rights of the women to have their complaints rigorously investigated above personal loyalty. As someone who has trumpeted her support for gender equality in the workplace near the top of her agenda, anything short of an explicit endorsement of permanent secretary Leslie Evans’ actions would have been judged as hypocrisy.
In the event, Sturgeon, though clearly perturbed, rose to the occasion. “I have been clear... that all organisations and workplaces must make it possible for people to come forward to report concerns and have confidence that they will be treated seriously,” she said. “For that principle to mean anything it cannot be applied selectively. It must be applied without fear or favour, regardless of the identity, seniority or political allegiance of the person involved.”
Her determination not to waver in the face of Salmond’s anger and the spectre of a court case was significant for several reasons. Earlier in the week, the revelation that actor Asia Argento, one of the first women to accuse Harvey Weinstein of assault, was alleged to have slept with an underage boy, prompted a mini backlash against #MeToo. With some critics exploiting Argento’s behaviour to undermine the campaign, it was good to hear a political leader reassert the importance of creating a culture of accountability.
The application of the updated procedure, with the claims investigated by the civil service and not the party, and Sturgeon keeping herself at a distance, also marked a step change from the chaos that characterised the investigation into former childcare and early years minister, Mark McDonald, less than a year ago.
The circus that surrounded his return to Holyrood as an independent, during which women at the centre of the investigation were effectively erased, created a climate unconducive to future reporting; the way these allegations have been handled may start to repair the damage.
Not that everyone was so keen on the new approach. Salmond, who vociferously denies the allegations, initially tried to gag Evans as she prepared to make them public. He dropped those proceedings, but is now seeking a judicial review over the handling of the complaints. He argues the procedures should not have been applied retrospectively (he had been out of office for three years by the time they were made) and that the investigation itself was carried out unfairly.
Salmond is, of course, as entitled as everyone else to the presumption of innocence, but his attempts to put obstacles in the way of due process is not a good look for any politician who wants to be seen as an ally to women. Nor is the frankly bizarre suggestion that resolving the matter by conciliation, mediation or legal arbitration would have been in “everybody’s best interests, particularly those of the two complainants”. Does Salmond really believe these women are incapable of judging such matters for themselves?
Outside Holyrood, there were fringe elements on both sides of the divide whose respect for due process was lacking. Some Unionists revisited the old Solero ice lolly photograph and hinted that he always seemed the type. Some Yessers insisted the allegations were part of a vast conspiracy cooked up to discredit the party and the independence movement.
Particularly worrying was the denunciation of the complainers as false accusers, with some on Facebook going so far as to suggest, again without producing any evidence, that one of them had been involved in the setting up of the new procedures.
Such behaviour lends weight to the belief, prominent among feminists, that parts of the Yes movement are infected with a misogyny that is swept under the carpet in the pursuit of independence. We recently witnessed the invective unleashed on SNP councillor Rhiannon Spear after she asked why all three speakers at a “BBC bias” protest were men. Imagine what the women at the centre of this investigation would have to endure if their identities came into the public domain.
This is especially pertinent when you consider some of the unedifying coverage yesterday. Phrases such as “sex pest” and “boozy bedroom encounter” trivialised the claims while the focus on what all this meant for Salmond was retrogressive.
What Sturgeon has done is to distance herself and the SNP from the impulse to put party unity and independence above all else, and to stress the gravity of the situation. This is not to say she doesn’t have questions to answer. The most obvious is the one Scottish Labour has been asking: why hasn’t Salmond been suspended from the SNP just as McDonald was after his accusers came forward? In an interview with the BBC, Sturgeon implied it was because this investigation was not carried out by the party and so the party was not yet privy to its findings. But if there is enough substance to merit a report to the police, then it’s difficult to see why Salmond’s treatment should differ substantially from McDonald’s.
More questions will follow if the judicial review finds the investigation was improperly conducted, although it is difficult to see how this would impact on the criminal inquiry which has already been set in motion and will surely now run its course.
Life will get even tougher if it turns out the First Minister was aware of any other claims of inappropriate behaviour involving Salmond before he informed her of these ones. But, as playwright and director David Greig said, how we respond to this situation will define our political culture for the future whether or not there is independence.
“No more throwing women under the bus for Indy, for socialism, for art or any other supposed higher goal,” he tweeted.
Sturgeon has set the right tone. For the moment, at least, she is leading by example.