Euan McColm: Party torn in two will defy laws of politics

The estrangement of the Scotland's two leaders is reminiscent of relations between Tony Blair and his successor, Gordon Brown. Picture: TSPL
The estrangement of the Scotland's two leaders is reminiscent of relations between Tony Blair and his successor, Gordon Brown. Picture: TSPL
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In different times, it would be the sort of thing to bring a political party to its knees.

Accusations of sexual harassment levelled against former first minister Alex Salmond have opened up a serious split in the SNP.

On one side of this divide are those – a great many of them if the speed with which he was able to raise cash to cover the cost of a judicial review into the way in which he was investigated by the civil service is anything to go by – who remain utterly devoted to the man who led them to defeat in 2014’s independence referendum campaign.

As far as these faithful supporters are concerned, Salmond is the victim here. Many of those who have donated to his legal fund appear to believe they are contributing to a campaign to clear the former First Minister’s name rather than to the cost of an exercise that will have no bearing on what the police do with information passed to them about what is alleged to have happened in the FM’s official residence, Bute House, five years ago.

On the other side of the divide are those who take their lead from Salmond’s successor, Nicola Sturgeon, who insists that any allegations of inappropriate behaviour must be taken seriously and fully investigated, regardless of the identity of those accused.

Make no mistake, the estrangement of Salmond and Sturgeon is now complete. There is no going back for either. There will be no reconciliation, regardless of the outcome of either the judicial review or any police investigation. There will be no happy photograph, two years hence, of Salmond – who quit the party last week in order, he said, to avoid a split in the party – returning to the fold.

And so we might expect this crisis to have an impact on the SNP’s popularity. Recent history tells us that parties divided do not win. Look at the Labour Party when tensions between prime minister Tony Blair and his successor, Gordon Brown, became unbearable for those around both men, or the Tory Party during those years of Labour government when its obsession with Europe overshadowed everything else. As those parties, in turn, engaged in civil wars, voters decided to go elsewhere.

In truth, the relationship between Salmond and Sturgeon has been fractured for some time. Anyone watching the First Minister’s initial response to the investigation into Salmond – in which she spoke of how difficult the situation was for her to come to terms with – might have thought the pair had been close right up until the moment the allegations came to light. In fact, his alpha-male insistence on loudly proclaiming on strategic matters, his willingness to host a show on the Kremlin-funded propaganda channel, RT, and his aggressive approach to political debate had all added to Sturgeon’s exasperation since she succeeded him as party leader.

Publicly, they remained great comrades in arms. In private, they had little to say to each other.

Those tensions have now boiled over and nobody can be in any doubt that the damage done to their relationship will be permanent.

Surely there has to be an impact on the SNP’s standing? Usually, there would be.

But the usual rules do not apply, here. The constitutional question – still the dominant issue in Scottish politics – will protect the nationalists.

No matter how bitter things become within the SNP (and with a number of elected members offering their support to Salmond, in defiance of Sturgeon’s position, things will become very bitter, indeed) there is nowhere else for the pro-independence vote to go.

As one strategist put it: “If you support independence, this situation is unlikely to change your mind.”

However, there is one sector of the electorate now giving SNP strategists cause for concern.

Some of those who support Sturgeon’s position on the Salmond allegations say they would not be surprised if the party lost the votes of some women in the next Holyrood election. Under Salmond’s leadership, the party made an extra effort to reach out to female voters who, they understood, tended to be more sceptical than men when it came to the SNP’s claims.

Sturgeon was crucial to consolidating that support, her calm, more thoughtful approach to politics standing in stark contrast to Salmond’s bluster.

Salmond’s crowdfunder – proudly supported by acolytes, many of whom appear to believe that those who have levelled serious allegations against the former first minister are part of a “British state” conspiracy – is pure machismo of the sort that Sturgeon hoped to consign to the SNP’s history books. It is difficult not to feel sympathy for her as she battles against a wave of testosterone emanating from supporters of her one-time boss.

The First Minister’s insistence on a culture change at Holyrood which would make it easier for women to speak up about any negative experiences at the hands of powerful men was not mere window dressing. It was – and remains – an entirely sincere desire to reverse a power imbalance.

Opposition politicians might have spent much of the past week demanding to know what Sturgeon knew and when, but efforts to catch her out display a failure to grasp how seriously the First Minister takes this case.

She has – and, yes, cynics will insist she had no choice – put the alleged victims before the best political interests of her party. Even Sturgeon’s fiercest critic would have to concede this is so.

Two processes – the judicial review of the way in which Salmond was investigated by Holyrood officials and the examination by Police Scotland of information supplied by the Scottish Government – now hang heavy over Scottish politics. It will, inevitably, be difficult for Sturgeon to focus on the day-to-day political agenda while matters remain unresolved.

But regardless of any dark twists that might come, the allegations against Salmond will not bring down the SNP, no matter how much opponents might wish this to be so. While support for Scottish independence remains strong, the Scottish nationalists will survive this crisis.