The Guardian view on Alex Salmond: putting himself above his cause | Editorial

Alex Salmond is not a member of any parliament. He no longer holds public office. Yet he remains one of the biggest political figures – perhaps still even the biggest of them all – in Scotland. As the former leader of the Scottish National party for a total of 20 years, a two-term first minister and the man who led the yes campaign in the 2014 independence referendum, Mr Salmond remains for many – supporters and opponents alike – the absolute embodiment of the nationalist cause. Unlike most politicians, he is a person of historic importance.

Following the Harvey Weinstein scandal and amid the #MeToo movement, the Scottish parliament and government were two of the many institutions that faced questions about sexual harassment of employees. After a review, Nicola Sturgeon’s Scottish government introduced a new procedure for handling complaints against current or former ministers in December 2017. In January, two complaints relating to 2013 were made against Mr Salmond. He was informed about them in March. A week ago, the civil servant in charge of the investigation, Leslie Evans, made public the fact of the complaints and the investigation.

Mr Salmond denies the allegations. But he has done so in as public a way as possible. He responded aggressively to Ms Evans’s action, launching a legal action against the process, giving repeated media interviews and launching a crowd-funding campaign to cover his legal costs, which sets several very bad precedents. As soon as he did these things, the public focus of the story shifted from sexual harassment to political confrontation. Online “cybernats” cried foul, attacked Ms Evans, blamed the UK government, and alleged that the charges were a destabilisation plot by MI5 and the “deep state”.

This shift is regrettable and reprehensible on several grounds: basic sexual politics above all, disrespect for due process close behind, lack of consideration for accusers and colleagues, and damage to public civility among them. If Mr Salmond had been a lesser figure in the SNP, he would have been instantly suspended from office and membership and would have withdrawn from the public gaze, pending the resolution of the two accusations. That’s the way other parties would now be expected to respond and it’s the way it has been done by the SNP in the recent past. It should have happened immediately here too. Mr Salmond should not have been treated differently. He should not have behaved so confrontationally. His supporters should not have embraced his cause so recklessly.

Mr Salmond has made this affair far more explosive than it would otherwise have been. The accusations are, of course, very difficult for his party anyway. But he has decided to politicise the affair by turning himself into the victim. He has demanded support which Ms Sturgeon cannot possibly give while retaining credibility. He has fanned the flames of paranoia and conspiracy theorising that lurk in parts of his party. He has therefore put himself above his party and set the SNP on a course that could split it into pro- and anti-Salmond factions. His actions threaten to do lasting damage to the SNP and to the cause to which he has devoted his life.

In the past, Mr Salmond has occasionally appeared to see himself as a latter-day Scottish equivalent of the 19th century Irish leader Charles Stewart Parnell. Both were brilliant nationalist orators, bold political tacticians and charismatic leaders with great personal support. But Mr Salmond now seems set on repeating Parnell’s mistake of 1890, when the Irish leader tried to tough out the political repercussions of a divorce case in which he had been cited. The divisions split the Irish Parliamentary Party, had massive resonances in Ireland, set back the cause of home rule, and broke Parnell.

Mr Salmond is absolutely entitled to seek to clear his name. But he can only do that by better respecting the process and those who are involved in it. Anything else involves challenging a necessary complaints procedure about sexual harassment that is the creation of and is owned by Ms Sturgeon and her government. Mr Salmond may have put his party in a position in which, win or lose, it will be politically damaged by his action.


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