The advance billing suggested that in Scottish terms it would be the trial of the century. At its centre as a former first minister of Scotland – the man who secured a referendum on independence, thought the stuff of fantasy not many years before. This was the man who had led his party to a majority government in the Holyrood parliament in spite of a proportional system designed to prevent any such electoral outcome.
And then, five and half years after he resigned, Alex Salmond found himself in the dock in Edinburgh’s high court, accused of 14 sex-related offences, including nine charges of sexual assault and one of attempted rape. In the event, one charge of sexual assault was dropped, and he was found not guilty by a majority verdict of all but one of the remainder. The final charge received the Scottish third verdict, of not proven, thus acquitting Salmond of all charges. (Scottish courts have 15 jurors – though only 13 were there on the final day – and require a simple majority to convict.)
It was his second legal victory. In the first, a year ago, he successfully won a case against what had once been his own government when it admitted mishandling the investigation into his conduct. But this week’s proceedings, and the verdict, are of much greater consequence.
In one sense, the collateral damage may be rather less than first anticipated. Inevitably, the coronavirus pandemic has wiped most other news off the front pages on both sides of the border. Nevertheless it is not a small political earthquake.
The outcome has divided the feminist community as well as the political one. Organisations such as Rape Crisis Scotland issued a statement of support for complainants who appear in court, and noted an increase in calls to its helpline during this high-profile case. Some older women, however, often with vivid memories of different cultural times, considered a number of the allegations relatively trivial.
Alex Salmond and his successor, Nicola Sturgeon, were once the closest of allies, and genuine friends. She once stood aside when he indicated he would like to return as Scottish National party leader. Both worked together on the 600-plus page white paper published in advance of the 2014 independence referendum. And when that vote was lost by 55% to 45% Sturgeon tried to persuade him not to resign.
Inevitably, that relationship was to break down. Not least because some of the women who made allegations against Salmond were close to both Sturgeon and the SNP. And, indeed, all of them operated within the Scottish political village. Further, Salmond became openly critical of Sturgeon as pre-trial battle lines were joined.
The trial also highlighted – some would argue promoted – divisions between those who still hankered after the bullish style of a Salmond leadership, and those thankful for the more cautious, measured tones of his successor.
Some fretted about SNP tactics on other matters – waiting too patiently, as they saw it, for permission for a second independence referendum against which the prime minister had set his face; and in the process losing the momentum of a Brexit scenario where almost two-thirds of Scots had voted to remain in Europe. Others argued that any such poll held without specific legal underpinning would lead to mass abstentions by unionist voters, and a disputed result.
When both Joanna Cherry, the SNP’s justice spokesperson in Westminster, and Angus Robertson, the party’s former Westminster leader, recently threw their hats into the ring to contest the same Edinburgh seat in next year’s Scottish elections, these rival camps became more vociferous.
Cherry, the QC who helped derail the proposed five-week prorogation of the Commons in September, and Robertson, the strategist behind many SNP electoral victories, were often characterised as proxies for Salmond and Sturgeon. Both are now seeking the SNP nomination for the seat won with a tiny majority by Ruth Davidson, one-time leader of the Scottish Tories. She is not standing again, and seems likely to go to the Lords at the invitation of Boris Johnson. Who will get the SNP’s nod is meant to be decided next month.
Following the Salmond verdict, there was also much talk of several inquiries thrown up by the court case and its denouement. The Scottish Tories, predictably, talk of a political scandal and seem set to pursue questions as to what Nicola Sturgeon knew of the allegations and when.
The Holyrood parliament seems likely to want to query the role of the civil service, given that some of the accusers were from its ranks. And there will inevitably be questions over the strength of the prosecution case given that none of the charges brought resulted in a conviction.
However, none of the above are high on the Scottish political agenda right now. If there is one thing that the first minister of Scotland and her predecessor agree on today, it’s that the country suddenly has much more grave problems to resolve.