This was first posted on Facebook on 3rd March 2021, with support from my Ko-Fi network.
Nicola Sturgeon has spent all day today at the Scottish Parliament in the large committee room, giving her evidence to the committee investigating the harassment process.
The committee meeting began at 9am. They stopped for a mid-morning break, a lunchtime break that lasted less than an hour, and a mid-afternoon break. The Convenor very strongly suggesed the committee should be through by 5pm.
I have been listening to it through most of the day, and one thing I think everyone will have to agree about Nicola Sturgeon after this: she has stamina. There are eight MSPs on the committee, not counting the Convenor, and they have all taken turns to question her. Nicola Sturgeon has literally been sitting there answering questions – many of them politically loaded questions – all day.
BBC News has claimed that Nicola Sturgeon has “seven points to answer” – let me cover them.
First of all: Did she mislead Parliament? The BBC News website makes a huge business over her having said a meeting took place on 2nd April when it took place on 29th March. Not only is it hard to believe anyone would think this was a major problem, Sturgeon’s explanation is that she got fixed in her mind that “Easter Monday” was the day she learned about Alex Salmond’s misbehaviour – and she had run the two meetings together in her mind. She spoke about the shock she’d felt at realising that the truth of rumours and gossip she’d heard about a man she admired and respected – a man who had been her mentor since she was 20 – was actually far worse than she’d considered.
The assertion that Nicola Sturgeon should have to resign because of two meetings that ran together in her mind, is bizarre.
Was there a conspiracy against Alex Salmond?
The only evidence for this is that Alex Salmond says that there must have been, otherwise wonderful him wouldn’t have ended up in court.
Margaret Mitchell, the Scottish Conservative Deputy Convenor, suggested that when Alex Salmond came to her and asked her to intervene as First Minister to move the investigation to mediation/arbitration, as Salmond had in the end won the judicial review and been found Not Guilty/Not Proven in the criminal court, Nicola Sturgeon really should have intervened as requested, wouldn’t that have been better?
This was the most bizarre argument that any of the committee made. As Nicola Sturgeon made clear, the legal advice the Scottish Government got was that there was a case to fight in Salmond’s crowdfunded judicial review – when the legal advice became “there is now no case”, the Scottish Government dropped it. It was both Police Scotland’s view and the Procurator Fiscal’s view that there was a criminal case for Alex Salmond to answer in his behaviour.
Had Nicola Sturgeon intervened against the legal advice and against Police Scotland, there is no doubt that the committee would be condemning her for that.
Has there been a cover up?
The Scottish Government has certainly only released some information when ordered to do so by the Crown Office.
Nicola Sturgeon says she has no idea who leaked the story to the Daily Record.
Those are the two points where I think you could argue the Scottish Government has been engaged in a cover-up. Someone with access to a very confidential report leaked the story to the Daily Record. I find it extremely doubtful that, two years later, the Scottish Government still has not a clue about who did it.
And while as far as I can see the Scottish Government has always had a legal defence to support not releasing the information, still: they hung on to what they could – and elements of the information were quite rightly kept confidential to this day: messages between the women molested on a Whatsapp group were seen by the committee and the committee unaminously agreed the messages didn’t confirm any conspiracy and wouldn’t be published. (Rape Crisis Scotland published a condemnation of the committee for demanding these messages.)
Has Scotland’s leadership failed?
That’s an entirely subjective question. By comparison with the leadership at Westminster, it is fairly evident that Scotland’s leadership has succeeded and that this is just what burns the Conservatives.
I would say that the fact that Nicola Sturgeon faced questioning by a Parliamentary Committee from 9am to 5pm, under oath, and after politically led questioning remained calm, focussed, and – as far as I could tell truthful – suggests strongly that Scottish leadership has not failed.
What burns the Tories, Labour, and LibDems in Scotland during the past twelve months, is that Nicola Sturgeon has briefed on COVID-19 in Scotland every day, and has done these daily briefings so well that BBC Scotland wants to treat them as if they were a party poltiical broadcast – because Sturgeon behaving well in a crisis is considered to be an advert for the SNP.
(Incidentally, as I type this, it is three minutes past five and Margaret Mitchell has demanded a closing question and the Convenor asked her to be brief and she isn’t being brief.)
What went so wrong with the harassment policy?
Well, by me, what went wrong, was that no one expected the very first person to be investigated by the ministerial harassment policy, to be the former First Minister of Scotland, and no one expected the harassment investigation to lead to a criminal case for sexual assault and attempted rape with some very senior MSPs and civil servants. The difficulty of keeping the identities of the complainants confidential has been considerable. Scottish politics is, I know my personal experience, like a village. Finding someone who could investigate the complaints of sexual harassment against Alex Salmond who was senior enough to do it thoroughly and had no connection with anyone involved, would likely have meant borrowing a senior civil servant from Westminster, which would have led to its own complications. It was difficult. Mistakes were made. But as we keep coming back: Alex Salmond really was a sex pest. The complaints were justified.
The committee ought to be looking at how this could be done better if another Alex Salmond again molests women. Not trying to take down Nicola Sturgeon because she wasn’t First Ministering during the investigation completely perfectly.
Did the government waste taxpayer money?
Did her government leak sensitive information?
This is about the identity of two of the witnesses, which Alex Salmond claims was leaked by someone else (not him). Nicola Sturgeon makes the point that these are the two witnesses whose names Alex Salmond knew himself – he told Sturgeon about them in their meeting. He knew about one witness because he had apologised to her after the “incident” happened: he knew about the other because he had worked it out by looking through the Scottish Government flickr account about who was there on what day. He knew the names, and he has previously made clear he felt no compunction about disclosing them.
Salmond also, just before lunch today, lodged a formal complaint “with the Scottish government’s top civil servant about the official who has been accused of (and has denied) disclosing the name of a complainer to Mr Salmond’s former chief of staff”.
Strange he didn’t think to do that before Nicola Sturgeon pointed out that Alex Salmond was one person who knew the names of two complainants which have been disclosed.
It was a long day. I don’t think Jackie Baillie, Murdo Fraser, or Margaret Mitchell (especially not Margaret Mitchell) managed to score the points they’d wanted to score on Nicola Sturgeon. I don’t see that she’s broken the ministerial code, and I don’t see that she has to resign.
And we’ll find out in the weeks to come whether this is going to have any effect on polling numbers in the Scottish Parliamentary election. But – from the perspective of someone who watched and listened to her nearly all day – I really don’t think it should.