The coming SNP civil war

Alex Salmond is planning his revenge as soon as Coronavirus passes

It ain’t over yet. Not whether Alex Salmond sexually assaulted nine women – that issue is settled. The High Court in Edinburgh has determined his innocence with his acquittal on the 13 charges against him. But the political implications of Salmond’s trial have already decisively shaped British politics in the last six months and they threaten to shape the future direction of Scottish politics just as soon as Coronavirus permits it. That is the sense in which the consequences of the Salmond trial have yet to settle.

The Salmond trial has already fundamentally changed British politics. There would likely not be a Johnson government with its 80-strong majority without it. Instead, the prime minister would be struggling to deal with the virus without a majority and with all the paralysis of executive action that we have so recently seen a hung parliament bring.

In October 2019, Nicola Sturgeon feared that the forthcoming Alex Salmond trial – whatever the verdict – would involve day after day of damaging headlines. Not only might unwholesome details about Salmond’s personal conduct be primetime news, there could, perhaps, be uncomfortable scrutiny about who knew what and when. Why were some meetings not properly documented? What paper-trials had puzzling missing links or intriguing dead-ends? In such circumstances, even emails that have been innocently deleted can appear – or be made to look – suspicious.

There would likely not be a Johnson government with its 80-strong majority without the Salmond trial

Despite the Fixed Term Parliaments Act, there was in the autumn of 2019 a widespread view that Boris Johnson was destined to have one of the shortest tenures in Downing Street’s history. Without a majority, irrevocably alienated from rebels in his own party and with a Speaker who delighted in frustrating the executive, it seemed doubtful that he could struggle on without a majority beyond the Spring of 2020. Such timing appeared disastrous to the SNP, as it would involve going to the polls in the midst or immediate aftermath of the Salmond trial.

So the SNP’s leader at Westminster, Ian Blackford, connived with the Liberal Democrats to find a way around the Fixed Term Parliaments Act and ensure a general election as soon as possible. Jo Swinson was guided by a self-belief that she had given her party clear definition on Brexit for a general election that would be fought on that issue. The Lib Dems would pick up scores of seats and be kingmakers in the resulting Parliament which would, at the very least, call a second Brexit referendum. The SNP’s calculation was one of damage limitation, predicated on the wisdom of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, “If it were done when ’tis done, then ’twere well it were done quickly.”

Labour did not want a general election. And but for the SNP’s calculation, married to the hubris of Jo Swinson, there would have been no general election.

As we now know, what the SNP leadership feared last autumn would happen because of the Salmond trial has proved almost as removed from reality as the delusional counsel that propelled the Lib Dems into destroying their best chance of kiboshing Brexit. Firstly, Coronavirus has ensured that the Salmond trial has not dominated the news. Secondly, the trial did not cause collateral damage to other leading SNP politicians (as recently as February, seasoned pundits were speculating that Sturgeon might have to stand down as First Minister because of the trial’s wider ramifications). Thirdly, Salmond has been acquitted.

Thus a decisive gamble on the likelihood of a succession of events happening this March caused a general election to happen last December. That is the sense in which the Alex Salmond trial has been central to British politics.

But only those blissfully unaware of the animosity between the rival courtiers of Salmond and Sturgeon can imagine that Salmond’s acquittal is where the matter will rest, politically. It may be submerged for a few weeks or months whilst all sensible people give Sturgeon the space she needs to coordinate Scotland’s response to the pandemic attacking it. Anyone – within or without the SNP – who thinks this is the moment to deflect her from her duty will find themselves quickly told where to go. Yet, the initial reaction from Salmond and his SNP allies makes clear that vengeance will come, be it swift or be it delayed.

Given Salmond’s acquittal, there is no political capital that Scotland’s opposition parties can make out of the trial that will not look grubby. But they don’t need to get dirt under their fingernails, for this is going to be a civil war within the SNP.

If you want to get a sense of how bitterly Salmond’s allies believe their man has been traduced by those loyal to the Sturgeon wing of the party (or at the very least in the procedures by which they allowed the allegations to be heard) imagine the mutual recriminations that would have torn the Conservative Party asunder if John Major had looked the other way whilst some officials either in the civil service or the Party had managed to bring Margaret Thatcher to trial on charges of war crimes in the Falklands or human rights abuses in Northern Ireland. That is the scale of the loathing that now severs one wing of the SNP from the other.

this is going to be a civil war within the SNP

The first act in the coming drama will be who gets selected as the SNP candidate in the highly winnable Scottish parliamentary constituency of Edinburgh Central – where the Salmond cheerleader, Joanna Cherry MP, will go head-to-head against the former SNP leader at Westminster, Angus Robertson, who does not share her admiration for his old boss.

The mood within the Scottish Nationalist community may be gauged from the SNP MP, Joanna Cherry’s instinctive response to today’s judgment. No sooner had the High Court acquitted Salmond than she tweeted, “there should be an independent inquiry into how the SNP dealt with these allegations.” How much Sturgeon would welcome that opportunity to settle scores may be imagined. And settling scores will be the primary motivation. For, as another pro-Salmond MP, Kenny McAskill, proclaimed today, “some resignations now required.” Teasingly, Kenny declined to name whose decapitated heads he looks forward to admiring in Edinburgh’s historic Grassmarket but he used the plural.

Ominously for Sturgeon, Salmond intends to stand in the Scottish Parliamentary elections next year. Imagine, if you will, the weekly, sometimes daily, pictures being printed and broadcast of the First Minister addressing the Holyrood chamber with the eyes of her predecessor boring relentlessly into the back of her skull. She wants that about as much as David Steel wanted his predecessor Jeremy Thorpe (then awaiting trial and subsequently acquitted) to play a leading part in the Liberals’ 1979 election campaign. But there Thorpe was, always just in range, always irresistible to the newspaper picture editor.

As it prepares for the bloodletting that will follow the passing of the Coronavirus crisis, the SNP should keep in mind a different duo of past Liberal leaders. Fuelled by personal animosity, the schism between Herbert Asquith and David Lloyd George destroyed the Liberal Party one hundred years ago. Political differences were compounded by personal animosity so that when Lloyd George moved against Asquith (in 1916), the Liberals were the main party of government and within a few years they were two rival camps united only as the also-rans of British politics. Scotland can dump the SNP as quickly as it raised it up – particularly if the post-Corbyn Labour Party gets its act together.

The triumph of the SNP in the 2021 Holyrood elections? Scottish independence within a year thereafter? That remains the aim. But it may now be not what the other parties do to the SNP but what it decides to do to itself. Salmond is acquitted. But politically, it ain’t over yet.

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