Alex Salmond has launched a judicial review of the Scottish government’s handling of sexual harassment allegations against him. The first few days after the news broke were marked by a curious reticence on the part of both the commentariat and the political establishment in Scotland. We can speculate as to the causes, although I think both shock that a colossus such as Salmond could be struck down by the #MeToo movement, and a complete lack of surprise about what insiders whispered was ‘an open secret’, played their paradoxical parts. Doubtless there was also a sense of ‘there but for the grace of God’ for some people; and for the other political parties, a fear that #MeToo might open the door on their own skeletons. One party even told some of its councillors to refrain from commenting on the allegations on social media because Salmond was so litigious.
’Since then Salmond has prosecuted a consummate social media campaign, seizing the agenda and casting himself as the victim of an ‘unfair’ process, as his hashtag #forFairness proclaims. He also aligned himself and his fate unequivocally with the independence movement. At the end of a statement, posted on Twitter, in which he resigned from the SNP to avoid causing ‘substantial internal division’ and launched a crowdfunder to pay for the judicial review, he wrote: ‘It is a rare thing to be devoted to a cause more important than any individual, it is a rare thing to cherish it and my intention now – as it has always been – is to protect and sustain that cause.’
The crowdfunder was spectacularly successful, crashing through its £50,000 target a few hours after its launch and prompting Salmond to close it when it hit £100,000. No one thought it was about the money – judicial reviews are prohibitively expensive, but not for a celebrity politician with five pensions and a media career. It was about the message it sent.
The message wasn’t just for Salmond’s former protégée Nicola Sturgeon, who signed off the code that prompted the original allegations, and has repeatedly reacted to Salmond’s complaints by stressing that the allegations must be dealt with ‘without fear or favour, regardless of the seniority of the person involved’.
It wasn’t just for Leslie Evans, the Scottish government’s permanent secretary, responsible for investigating the allegations against Salmond, and the subject, according to the general secretary of the association of the UK’s senior civil servants, of ‘nasty, vindictive and deliberate’ attacks by the former first minister.
And it wasn’t just for the two women who made the allegations in January, both reportedly civil servants, one still in post, the other not, who must already have been quaking at the outpouring of misogynist bile on social media.
Salmond’s crowdfunder was, as commentators across the political spectrum agreed by the end of the weekend, a vulgar and intimidatory display of power aimed at anyone minded to challenge him. First and foremost, though, it’s aimed at women – from Nicola Sturgeon down to anyone else who might have been thinking of making an allegation. The first minister recognised this when she spoke to the BBC about Salmond’s actions last Thursday: ‘Whatever any of us do and say in the context of this very high-profile case, we must absolutely make sure we don’t make it harder for – or discourage – women from coming forward in the future.’ She then tweeted a Women’s Aid fundraiser.
For the moment, the jury is out on whether Salmond has dodged a fate as Scotland’s Harvey Weinstein. The condemnation of his crowdfunder and the determination of his successor to stand her ground notwithstanding, no further complainants have come forward – or not publicly. Even telling anecdotes – the flotsam and jetsam of commentary – have been strangely absent, beyond one from an ex-aide about his ‘fierce temper’.
So I will end with two of my own. In 2014 I attended the SNP autumn conference in Perth where Salmond formally handed over the reins to Nicola Sturgeon. I was there as a lobbyist on the stand of Scotland Against Spin, an organisation committed to reform of the Scottish government’s wind energy policy. You would never have guessed that Salmond and the SNP had just lost the independence referendum, such was the celebration and optimism, focused above all on the leader who was treated like a rock star. When Salmond began his traditional promenade through the charities’ and lobbyists’ stands, women swirled around him, desperate for selfies, embraces, kisses, with the great man happily obliging. As he approached our stand, I shrank back but my colleague stepped forward to question him on current wind policy. Laughing, he swept her up into his arms and kissed her on the lips, before proclaiming his unstinting support for unbridled wind development, and processing on to the next stand.
My second anecdote is secondhand and dates from a couple of years earlier, when I met a senior member of the Scottish Labour Party, who agreed with me about the incoherence of the SNP’s flagship policy of turning Scotland into the Saudi Arabia of wind energy. He described how he had once confronted Salmond about the policy, arguing that it was impossible on engineering, energy-systems and financial grounds. Salmond had looked deep into his eyes, called him by name and said: ‘Believe. You just have to believe.’