(Jeff J Mitchell/AFP via Getty Images)

You say it best when you say nothing at all

Nicola Sturgeon’s defence is impregnable because it concedes so little usable information

The Alex Salmond affair comes down to two fundamental issues: how did the Scottish government conduct such an expensively flawed complaint procedure against its former first minister and was that inquisition instigated (and its legal defence prolonged) because Nicola Sturgeon, and those upon whom she relied, were out to “get” him by any means necessary?

Sturgeon offered a robust defence during a marathon testimony before the Holyrood committee tasked with analysing her government’s missteps in the saga. She began her defence shortly after the breakfast tray was cleared away and ended as the attention of the less engaged was drifting towards supper. Indeed, the inquisition was so prolonged as to be counter-productive: when bowlers know that a batsman is capable of spending all day at the crease, it is hard to channel the requisite energy into every delivery. Scotland’s first minister has no known interest in Indian cricket, but on today’s showing she is gifted with the dogged mental application of Rahul “the wall” Dravid.

The most remarkable aspect of Sturgeon’s testimony, however, was that she managed to speak all day without revealing a single item of new information. Her interrogators were duly left as frustrated as they were exhausted.

As we already knew, it was true that she had signed off on the new complaints procedures applied to Salmond. But without too nakedly dumping all the blame on to her permanent secretary, Leslie Evans, Sturgeon was at pains to stress her distance from a process that judicial review has determined was “tainted with apparent bias” and “procedurally unfair.” That judgment and the resulting cost to the taxpayer (followed by Salmond’s acquittal in court on all charges of sexual assault and rape), is the reason the Holyrood committee is conducting its protracted inquires.

The most damaging accusation, which if true would explain much of the resulting shambles, is that Sturgeon and those close to her seized upon the first whiff of suspicion against Salmond to ensure he was destroyed. Changing the harassment procedures provided the means. Encouraging more complainants to come forward was the process. Had it succeeded, Salmond would now be in jail.

No matter how tiresome by 2017 Sturgeon was finding her one-time “mentor”, was she really so driven by political calculation and self-preservation as to encourage a process that would likely end in his incarceration and, besides, some difficult headlines for the party? Politics is a rough business, particularly in the cauldron of seething animosities that is the Scottish National Party. Yet, if true, it would be the greatest scandal in the nation’s history since the body of Mary Queen of Scots’ disgraced husband, Lord Darnley, was found in the grounds of Kirk o’ Field.

“I would never have wanted to ‘get’ Alex Salmond, and I would never ever have wanted any of this to happen,” Sturgeon assured the committee, continuing, “Alex Salmond has been for most of my life since I was twenty or twenty-one years old, not just a very close political colleague, a friend, and – in my younger days – someone I looked up to and revered. I had no motive, intention, desire to ‘get’ Alex Salmond.”

In Sturgeon’s rendition of events, the spur for changing the complaints procedure was a response to the #MeToo movement, not a desire to create a mechanism to trap Salmond even although she was beginning to have her doubts (supposedly thanks to a Sky News inquiry) about his alleged behaviour at the same time, November 2017. When, the following April, Salmond did seek to explain to her his account of what had transpired with a complainant, Sturgeon was horrified at what she summarised as “deeply inappropriate behaviour on his part.”

“What happened is this and it is simple: a number of women made serious complaints about Alex Salmond’s behaviour” Sturgeon explained, “I refused to follow the age-old pattern of a powerful man using his status and connection to get what he wants.” Her failure to support him is cited as evidence of her plotting his demise. But had she intervened to protect him she would be assailed for that course of action too. Damned if she did; damned if she didn’t.

In late 2017 and early 2018, Salmond was not a serving politician, having lost his Westminster seat in the June 2017 general election. As attempted comebacks go, anchoring his own show on the Russian-state-owned television channel, RT, hardly represented a clear and present danger to his successor. A suspicion that he was going to return to Holyrood in a by-election did not transpire.

Sturgeon managed to speak all day without revealing a single item of new information

Yet, there was evidence he was intent on become a nuisance to Sturgeon even without a seat, grumbling about her direction, yearning to influence events again and encouraging his acolytes in the party to see him as their guiding sage. The SNP is never far from internecine war at the best of times. Sturgeon might well have, at the very least, daydreamed that Salmond might not spot a looming uncovered manhole on his perambulations. Were the allegations a welcome gift, or simply something that turned up and had to be navigated?

It is one thing – as Sturgeon would have us believe – that she dispassionately treated him without fear or favour when the first harassment complainers came forward. But even aside from her supposedly (and surprisingly) forgetting the real, and earlier, date of when she first heard of the allegations, the behaviour of some of those around her (including her husband, the SNP’s chief executive, Peter Murrell) as revealed in WhatsApp and text messages, suggest an almost unseemly zeal to see as many daggers plunged into their ailing ex-Caesar as possible.

Not entirely plausibly, Sturgeon claims these communications “are taken out of context, misrepresented, twisted” and what the conspiracy-minded interpret as a plot to concoct evidence against Salmond “is actually people cooperating with the police at their request.” “The idea that that suggests some kind of plot or conspiracy,” maintained Sturgeon, “is actually quite offensive given the years of loyalty that the people being accused of that had shown towards Alex Salmond.” This was a loyalty that disappeared rapidly when he had most need of it. Sturgeon continues to insist that neither she nor anyone in her office leaked to the Daily Record details about Salmond’s predicament that were known to only a privileged few.

If the first minister and her circle have nothing to hide, then the methods of obstruction that have handicapped almost every stage of the Holyrood inquiry into the treatment of Alex Salmond is unfathomably self-defeating. “I don’t think I have felt quite so frustrated in my twenty-two years of being on parliamentary committees as with this one,” admitted Jackie Baillie, Scottish Labour’s deputy leader and the most successfully pugnacious of the inquiry members.

“We have waited for information from the Scottish government” Baillie simmered, but “the stuff we have received has been partial, it’s been late. The complaints’ handling phase was due in August. We received it in December.” Securing sight of the government’s “legal advice has taken two votes in Parliament and a motion of no confidence in John Swinney before we saw it, last night, at six o’clock. And let me say to you there is information missing” including the note on Sturgeon’s meeting on 13 November 2018 with her Chief of Staff, the Permanent Secretary, and legal advisers.

“We have waited till the eleventh hour for the legal advice, we get partial legal advice,” Baillie fumed, “it looks as if the government doesn’t want to give us critical information.”

To this Sturgeon responded tamely, “the government has fully cooperated with the committee and has provided information in a proper way” although “I share some of the frustration”. Baillie wondered if that was true, demanding to know, “what is the legal basis for not giving us” these documents?

It was a remarkable performance by the first minister and a reminder of what an assured and unflappable communicator she remains, albeit her articulacy is of the sort that succeeds by conveying no information that is of any use.

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