United Kingdom

Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon at war: Scotland's First Minister mocks 'conspiracy theory'

Scotland First Minister Nicola Sturgeon launched a stunning attack on her predecessor Alex Salmond yesterday as an open war erupted between the two big beasts of the SNP.

Miss Sturgeon accused her former friend and mentor of creating an 'alternative reality' to paint himself as the victim of a conspiracy. She said Mr Salmond peddled the 'wild' claims to avoid confronting his own behaviour.

The scathing intervention came after Mr Salmond publicly accused Miss Sturgeon and her closest allies of plotting to oust him from public life. 

Former friends: Nicola Sturgeon and Alex Salmond

Amid growing controversy north of the border, Mr Salmond's long-awaited evidence to a parliamentary committee was redacted on the orders of the Crown Office, headed by the Lord Advocate, a member of Miss Sturgeon's government.

Q&A 

Why was the Scottish parliamentary inquiry set up?

The Scottish government launched an investigation in 2017 after two women made formal complaints against Alex Salmond. He launched legal action against the government's handling of the investigation and won a judicial review in January 2019, receiving £512,000 to cover his legal fees. The parliamentary inquiry is examining how ministers and civil servants conducted the probe.

Is there another inquiry?

Miss Sturgeon is facing a separate independent investigation led by James Hamilton, who has to decide if Miss Sturgeon broke the ministerial code after telling MSPs she learnt of complaints against Mr Salmond on April 2, 2018. Mr Salmond's ex-chief of staff says he talked about the issue with the First Minister four days before that. Miss Sturgeon said she 'forgot' about that meeting.

What does the ministerial code say?

'Ministers who knowingly mislead the parliament will be expected to offer their resignation to the first minister.'

Did Mr Salmond face a criminal trial?

Yes. He was charged with 13 counts of sexual assault, including attempted rape, but was acquitted of all charges in March 2020.

What is the issue with Mr Salmond's evidence to the inquiry?

His submission to the inquiry was released online on Monday, but the Crown Office raised concerns with Holyrood about it, asking for redactions.

Mr Salmond claims his full testimony would show that Miss Sturgeon misled the Scottish parliament over an investigation of sexual harassment claims against him. Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson said the decision to order Mr Salmond's statement to be redacted raised 'real question marks' over the independence of government institutions.

James Wolffe QC, the Lord Advocate, last night denied any role in the decision, made apparently to prevent the identification of any of those who complained about Mr Salmond.

Former Cabinet minister Liam Fox also entered the fray, claiming the former SNP leader's allegations about Miss Sturgeon would be 'a damning indictment in a tinpot dictatorship'.

The Tory MP raised concerns in the Commons, saying the saga could bring politics in the whole of the UK into 'international disrepute'.

Yesterday's drama came after the explosive evidence Mr Salmond submitted to a Scottish parliamentary inquiry accusing Miss Sturgeon of misleading MSPs was censored. His written statement was redacted 16 hours after it was posted online after an intervention by the Crown Office, Scotland's prosecution service.

As a result, Mr Salmond yesterday pulled out of appearing before the inquiry into the Scottish Government's unlawful investigation of sexual harassment claims against him. He is expected to appear tomorrow instead.

Miss Sturgeon launched a withering attack on Mr Salmond, who claims there was a 'malicious and concerted attempt' to damage his reputation and imprison him. They involve claims of sexual harassment while he was first minister.

She accused him of promoting 'wild and baseless' conspiracy theories, adding: 'There was no conspiracy theory and I sometimes think the preference perhaps of Mr Salmond is to make those claims without ever subjecting them to the proper scrutiny of the parliamentary committee looking into them.'

'As for Alex Salmond, well maybe creating an alternative reality in which the organs of the state, me, the SNP, the civil service, Crown Office, police and the women who came forward were all part of some wild conspiracy against him for reasons I can't explain.

'Maybe that's easier to accept than at the root of all this might just be issues in his own behaviour. But that's for him to explain if he ever decides to pitch up and sit in front of the committee.'

Mr Salmond won a judicial review in 2019 when Scotland's highest civil court found that the way the Scottish government probed sexual misconduct allegations against him was unlawful. He was awarded more than £512,000 to cover his legal fees.

Miss Sturgeon accused her former friend and mentor of creating an 'alternative reality' to paint himself as the victim of a conspiracy

He was later charged with 13 counts of sexual assault, including attempted rape. He was acquitted of all charges in March 2020.

Yesterday Miss Sturgeon insisted it was 'downright wrong' to suggest the Crown Office's intervention in the redaction was politically influenced.

One of the paragraphs removed alleges Miss Sturgeon breached the ministerial code by making an 'untrue' statement in the Scottish parliament in 2019 – which is unrelated to the criminal trial.

Miss Davidson told BBC Radio 4's World At One: 'This actually has gone far beyond Sturgeon versus Salmond... this has now got to the structure of democracy in Scotland and whether our institutions are robust or whether they have been corrupted.

'And that matters, and that should matter to everybody within the United Kingdom, whether they are in Scotland or not.'

Censorship. Bullying. Threats of jail - how Sturgeon's storm troops turned Scotland into... A BANANA REPUBLIC WITHOUT THE BANANA 

COMMENT by Andrew Neil 

These are dark, even dangerous days in Scotland. The stramash between the country's two most famous politicians, Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon, has resulted in vital public documents being censored or banned, important information being suppressed, the media cajoled and cowed, the legal system brought into disrepute, the Scottish Parliament neutered and even bloggers being threatened with jail.

The relentless twists and turns in the Salmond-Sturgeon saga make it hard to follow, not just in the rest of the UK, to which Scotland is increasingly another country, but even north of the border.

So many have just switched off. But that is a mistake because what is happening in Scotland is a clear and present danger to democratic accountability, the impartial rule of law and a free Press – an integral part of these islands.

So let us stand back from the mind-boggling detail and consider the enormity of what is happening.

A former Scottish National Party first minister of Scotland (Salmond) is accusing the current SNP First Minister (Sturgeon) of lying to and/or misleading the Scottish Parliament.

He also claims she was part of a concerted effort, involving the Scottish Government and SNP executives (including the party's chief executive, who happens to be Sturgeon's husband), to destroy his reputation, even to the extent of seeing him jailed.

These are extraordinary claims. But not as extraordinary as the official response, which has insisted that crucial evidence that Salmond thinks corroborates his claims be censored and remain unpublished. This in a democracy. In 2021.

Sturgeon, who continues to ride high in the polls ahead of May's Holyrood elections but has started to look somewhat flustered, emerged from her bunker this week to state to the cameras there was not 'a shred of evidence' to support Salmond's accusations.

Since her own Crown Office –Scotland's public prosecution service – had warned even the Scottish Parliament, never mind the media, not to publish his evidence, it was a wee bit difficult to put either his or her statement to the test.

His claims are being investigated as part of a Scottish parliamentary inquiry into why the Sturgeon Government made such a hash of its handling of sexual harassment accusations against Salmond in 2018 that it ended up shelling out more than £500,000 to cover his legal costs in a judicial review of its actions. The Government lost because the court concluded its procedures were 'unlawful', 'unfair' and 'tainted with apparent bias'.

Two weeks after the Government's case crashed and burned – at huge taxpayer expense – Salmond was arrested and charged with a long list of sexual offences, of which the most serious was attempted rape. He was acquitted on all counts by a jury last March – although that criminal trial forms no part of the current inquiry.

When the parliamentary inquiry was established, Sturgeon promised in January 2019 to 'co-operate fully' with it and to 'provide whatever material' it wants. In the intervening two years the Scottish Government has stymied legitimate evidence gathering on 60 to 70 occasions. When asked for the First Minister's diary for April 2, 2018, for instance, a blank sheet of paper was produced. It turned out to be the day of a crucial meeting with Salmond at Sturgeon's home in Glasgow, during which they discussed the allegations against him for the first time. Blank sheets were also provided for other crucial events.

At one stage the search function of the Scottish Government's Freedom of Information website stopped producing results for certain contentious documents.

The Scottish Government has refused to publish relevant legal advice to shed light on why it persisted in fighting the judicial review case, even when it knew it was heading for defeat. But the most egregious attempts to stop relevant evidence from being published happened this year. When Salmond made his submission public last month the Scottish media was wary of touching it, given all the legal threats flying around.

The Spectator magazine, of which I am chairman, was not subject to any warnings and posted it online anyway. The Scottish Crown Office, the legal arm of the Sturgeon Government, wrote to complain and demanded we take out at least one paragraph. We complied and left the rest online.

The Spectator then went to court in Edinburgh to establish that there was a legal basis for publication. The court agreed. The Crown Office did not object. The Scottish Parliament, after much faffing about (as is its way), decided it could publish the Salmond submission too, thereby paving the way for the former first minister to testify before it. So, all good. Democratic accountability restored.

Not really. The SNP decided to ramp up the argument that publishing the Salmond submission could lead to identifying the women who complained about Salmond's behaviour, and whose anonymity was rightly guaranteed by the court.

It was all nonsense. Anonymity was never at risk. But the Crown Office had used the same argument in the past and it was wheeled out again, oiled by those who had most to gain from it. A group of women who claimed to work for the Scottish Parliament posted identical 'spontaneous' tweets asserting, with no evidence (they hadn't even seen the submission), that publication would enable identification of the complainers. They turned out to work for the SNP, not Parliament, so it's not difficult to work out who was behind that cack-handed pile-on.

The Crown Office dusted off its old arguments and joined the chorus for censorship. In a craven act of surrender, Parliament decided to pull its publication of a submission it had only just posted, then repost it with major redactions as dictated by the Crown Office, shredding what credibility the inquiry had left in the process.

It is no coincidence that the censored bits go to the heart of Salmond's claims about Sturgeon's honesty before Parliament. To mislead it is a resigning matter under the ministerial code. What did she know and when did she know it? That was the crucial question in the Watergate hearings. The chances of the inquiry asking it are now slim.

Salmond cannot now be questioned about these bits of his submission. Nor can Sturgeon when she appears. Nor can the inquiry take into account anything it has not published when coming to its conclusions. So, job done for the Sturgeon camp. The lengths to which they have gone to redact and censor would shame North Korea.

Democratic accountability and transparency in Scotland are choked in a Kafkaesque fog.

The Crown Office, which is meant to be independent, has become the 'lickspittle arm' of the SNP Government, says Alistair Bonnington, former professor at Glasgow University's School of Law. It operates 'at the direct command of the cabal currently at the head of the Scottish Government'.

The Crown Office is in crisis. In a recent case involving the famous Glasgow Rangers football team it was forced to admit to a 'malicious prosecution' – legalese for proceeding with a prosecution even though you've been advised that you don't have enough evidence to secure a conviction.

It's already had to pay out over £20million in compensation and legal fees. The final bill could be close to £100million.

Nobody has been sacked. Nobody has resigned. Perhaps becoming the legal shock troops of the Sturgeon Government in its dealings with the Salmond insurrection is a way to ensure survival.

And to a compromised legal system we must also add a supine press (the Scottish Daily Mail being an honourable exception). The broadcasters are especially compliant, often little more than Sturgeon TV, while Scotland's once powerful big-city newspapers are shadows of their former selves.

They no longer have the editorial resources to hold government to account or the funds to stand up to legal bullying. The Scotsman, for example, now barely sells 10,000 copies a day. The fact it took The Spectator to go to a Scottish court speaks volumes for the sad state of the Scottish media.

If Scotland was Texas, the Justice Department in Washington DC would have sent in the Feds by now to investigate the various breaches of first amendment rights, which guarantee free speech and protect a robust Press.

But Westminster stands by powerless as rights meant to be UK-wide – independent law officers, a parliament prepared to hold government to account, a press strong enough to speak truth to power – are trammelled by the power of a near one-party state.

Scotland's destiny was surely never to resemble a banana republic – without the bananas.

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