‘Who is Mr Salmond angry at? Almost everyone, it seems’
AT last, something we can all agree on: Nicola Sturgeon has done the right thing by referring herself to a standards panel over her actions during the Alex Salmond investigation, but what do the last few days tell us about the two behemoths of nationalism? Probably that some things haven’t changed – in a world of angry men, Mr Salmond is still the angriest – and that some things have: in a world of incompetent politicians, Nicola Sturgeon used to feel like the most competent. But not anymore. The SNP has now failed the two great tests of leadership. It is a surprising situation with uncertain consequences.
The first test – keeping calm – is actually one that the SNP failed a long time ago, thanks mostly to Alex Salmond. Mr Salmond has always been of the angry alpha-male persuasion; he is a kettle whose lid is constantly rattling, but even by his standards, the dark-eyed performance outside the Court of
Session last week was extraordinary. Why was he angry? Because he’s been treated badly. Who’s he angry at? Almost everyone, it seems, except Nicola Sturgeon (a public fiction that cannot last). And where’s it going to lead? Nowhere good.
The thing is, provided the allegations against him are false, Alex Salmond deserves sympathy. First, because the Scottish Government ignored the principles of natural justice by refusing to give him the details of the allegations and who was making them. And second, because the Government broke its own procedural rules. Mr Salmond is a victim of a breach of principle and procedure. No wonder he’s fuming.
However, Mr Salmond’s anger is part of a bigger problem for the SNP. The former first minister is right to be angry, but in recent years the leaders of independence, official and unofficial, appear to have been in a constant state of fury. What do we see when we look at nationalism? Angry mouths and jabbing fingers (most of them belonging to middle-aged, white, straight men like Mr Salmond). It’s extremely off-putting (especially for people who are not middle-aged, white, straight men) and helps explain why the SNP did not win the referendum and have largely stalled now. The rest of the SNP also seems to have taken their lead from the Mr Angrys, even Nicola Sturgeon.
Then there’s that other unattractive Salmond quality – the naked need for the limelight – which means we cannot rule out a political comeback. At the moment, the former first minister has to put up with standing in the darker edges of the spotlight – a street outside a courtroom or the beer tent where he talked about the allegations last August.
However, if, in time, the police investigation clears Mr Salmond and he’s readmitted to the party, there’s talk of him going for the Holyrood seats of Aberdeenshire East or Aberdeen Donside. And remember: although Joanna Cherry was the only MP to
“like” that tweet calling for Mr Salmond to lead the SNP again, there are thousands more in the party who like the idea. Many of his supporters think he could do better than his successor.
As for her position in all of this,
Nicola Sturgeon could not have made it more obvious what relations are like with her old mentor when she spoke about the court case last week. She was given a chance to apologise directly to Mr Salmond. She didn’t take it. Not only that, she said her particular regret was for the women who brought the complaints. She also chose to say the court’s ruling had no implication one way or the other on the substance of the complaints. And she hasn’t spoken to Mr Salmond in months. Their closeness, even when they were in office together, is often exaggerated, but these guys used to be friends and sympathisers.
And what of Sturgeon and the second great test of leadership: competence? Are we still sure that the First Minister passes that one? Partly, it has to come down to the ability to manage taxpayers’ money and it’s estimated the Salmond case could cost the public purse half a million pounds.
On the same subject, we also know the Scottish Government breached its own guidelines by appointing an investigating officer who had prior involvement in the case. And while the decision by Ms Sturgeon at the weekend to refer herself to the standards panel over her meetings and phone calls with Mr Salmond may be the right one, is it more controlling than competent? It means the inquiry will be private and the First Minister can refuse to answer any more questions until there’s a ruling.
It won’t end the pressure for something more public though; there’s also a theory, or hope, among unionists that the affair could lead to the first minister’s resignation or at least damage the political prospects of the SNP. But hang on a minute. As Alex Salmond was fuming outside the Court of Session and Nicola Sturgeon was referring herself to the standards panel, new opinion polls were emerging that show something interesting: support for the SNP appears to be holding steady.
Brexit may be a factor in this of course, but the resilience in the polls is probably because – despite failing the two great tests of leadership – the SNP still passes the first test of nationalism, which is that nothing matters except independence. This is why so many SNP supporters appear unbothered by the Salmond affair or dismiss it as a media or unionist plot. “Unionists are using the Salmond investigation to attack the FM,” said one. “All this nonsense will not alter my vote,” said another.
What this means in the longer term is that, even if the crisis continues to grow, there’s a bulwark against support for the SNP dropping too far: the supporters’ faith in, or obsession with, independence. However, for everyone else in the more reasonable middle, the creeping trends of the last few months – the angry men, the questions over competence, and the apparent obsession with independence – may mean something more disturbing for the SNP. Yes, there’s probably a level below which their support is unlikely to fall, but the cause of independence needs more than that. Nationalism needs a surge, not stagnation.
Who is Mr Salmond angry at? Almost everyone, it seems, except Nicola Sturgeon (a public fiction that cannot last)