Jim Sillars says it’s going to be nasty and brutish but the independence movement can and must survive
Alex Salmond was cleared of serious sexual charges by a jury of eight women and five men. They saw and heard all the evidence against him, and watched and heard the accusers under cross-examination. In addition, they saw and heard him in the witness box, and similarly with his defence witnesses. Those salient facts should be borne in mind when, as has been attempted, doubts have been expressed about the verdict.
As a result of the jury’s decision, the newspaper headlines had to be shelved. Those documentaries that had been so carefully researched, ready for transmission on TV the night of the trial’s verdict, had to be canned. The Scottish Government Permanent Secretary was comprehensively defeated in her ‘war.’ Those waiting to put the boot into a ‘fallen hero’ had to put it unused back on the ground.
They had reason for all their hopes. Two Scottish judges had, at preliminary hearings, declared as inadmissible evidence of a political conspiracy, when that was the basis of the accused’s defence. Judges get upset when anyone outside the academic and legal profession criticises their judgements, but they are not Gods or infallible. They are paid by the people to serve the people in delivering justice. And, the people are entitled, nay, it is essential, that the people express opposition to their judgements when justice may not have been done.
No one can say that the trial itself was other than fair. But was it the fairest trial that Alex Salmond could have had? Preliminary hearings are held to sort out legal matters when, for example, the judge decides whether evidence is admissible or not. In the Salmond case, unknown to the public, because the press cannot report on the legal arguments, evidence supporting the basis of his defence, that he was the subject of a political conspiracy, was rule out by the trial judge, and when she was unable to take a second preliminary hearing, ruled out by one junior to her. That was a major impediment in his defence.
Yet, despite the police service devoting substantial resources (a senior officer and 22 others), some 400 interviews in a wide trawl and the Crown Office deciding to prosecute with their best man sent in to nail the accused, there was a collective failure thirteen times to get a conviction.
The trial of Alex Salmond did not produce the outcome so many wanted and had planned for. His QC, Gordon Jackson, handicapped by those judicial decisions on what was admissible, had to resort to euphemism in his final address to the jury – ‘it stinks’ – to signal that conspiracy it was. It is a fair conclusion to say, from the verdicts, that the jury agreed.
Alex Salmond did not emerge from the court proceedings unblemished, to say the least. His character and personality were turned inside out, with all the flaws exposed and the folly of the cult of personality laid bare. His conduct towards female civil servants was deplorable; and while his defence admitted ‘inappropriate’ conduct with them, it did not give an inch to his SNP accusers – ‘fabrication’ was the description of their evidence. Another euphemism.
The criminal trial of Alex Salmond may be over, but the trial of the SNP both at party and parliamentary level is yet to begin. It is unavoidable. There is much talk about a Salmond camp and a Sturgeon camp. From all I have written critically over the years during the ‘rule’ of both, I can claim to be in neither camp. I did not believe Salmond, self-explained as ‘no Saint,’ was guilty of criminality, and saw much of the evidence of the conspiracy before the trial. The book he is writing, with the material he was not allowed to produce at trial, but which has all the authenticity of Scottish government and SNP party documents, will be like a volcano going off underneath some people. Some whose identities I and others know, but cannot name, must tremble at the prospect of what is to come. There could be another police investigation, this time not into Alex Salmond. But it is for other people, who have the evidence complete and in full detail, to decide whether or not to submit a complaint to the police.
For the rest of us, it is the effect of that coming volcanic eruption on the SNP as a party, as the electoral wing of the independence movement, that matters. There have been public appeals to Alex Salmond and his camp not to seek revenge and to reach out for reconciliation. The Alex Salmond facing huge legal bills, whose personality has been thrashed and trashed for all the world to see, and whose legacy as the most successful nationalist politician of all time has been tarnished, would have to be the Saint he says he is not, to refrain from writing his book and nailing those who would have happily ruined him, and his wife Moira, and listened with glee as the cell door clanged.
Not being in the Salmond camp, but in the SNP, and having devoted the major part of my political life to the cause of independence, I see a need for a complete clear-out of the highest levels of the party before it is again fit to lead. The cult of personality, the obsessive desire of leaders for complete control of the membership and parliamentarians, the growth of a clique of acolytes, one-person rule, – there has been a rot growing at the heart of this organisation for years.
The trial was based on Alex Salmond’s conduct between 2008 and 2014, with Ms A claiming to have been the first victim. There was allegedly a policy to prevent him being with a single woman civil servant at a certain time at night. Did Ms. A not tell others? If not, why not? If there was that policy, who made it; who knew about it; was the present leadership involved in making it; or ignorant of his alleged conduct? What did they know, when did they know it, and what did they do, if anything, to rein him in? Why did Ms A not challenge him with sexual misconduct?
Or is it, as the jury seemed to accept, all fabrications coming from within the highest levels of the party, Scottish Government, and special advisers? If that is so, then rot there is.
The independence movement is not just the SNP, but the movement as a whole has much invested in the party as the instrument to achieve democratic success. As the rot is uncovered, the temptation – already being thought of by some – will be to set up something new, untainted, in its place. That might need to be done if the damage to come proves fatal. I hope not, because it is not easy to replace and fill the electoral space of a long established organisation. I speak from experience of an attempt to do so in the mid- to late 1970s with the Scottish Labour Party. It is better to cleanse a sword than to discard it, in the hope of finding another. But if the sword cannot be cleansed enough … well … we shall see. There is enormous strength, and ability, in the independence movement. Whatever direction is taken, it will eventually succeed.
‘Enormous strength and ability’ is not a pious ‘give them hope in dark times’ message. The road to independence has been a long one, often rocky, often dispiriting. The years 1979 to 1988 were dark ones, when the very idea of independence was widely mocked and the SNP dismissed as ‘Tartan Tories’ guilty of letting Margaret Thatcher into government. There were no lottery winners then. We had just one relatively modest bequest to pay for by-elections, and enough from other income for a small number of over worked, loyal staff. But despite the problems, there was a tenacious belief that Scotland could only flourish to its full potential with full sovereignty, and determination to achieve it.
That belief still pertains, but times have changed. That great democratic educational experiment called the 2014 referendum, with its big attendance at meetings, was a national teach-in about our nation, and its result is that today’s independence movement has grown in strength and depth to a degree that cannot be conquered. The resilience that was there in the SNP in those earlier times is there in abundance in the movement today. It will be needed.
What is to come in the wave of revelations denied us in the Alex Salmond trial will gladden unionist hearts. How could we be so misled, the unionist papers will yell from the front pages, and their columnists will have a heap of dirty clothing to poke around in. A tempest of scorn will sweep down on and over on the independence movement, and part of its destructive power will come from within the nationalist ranks as defensive fences are built around the leadership, and that leadership is assailed by those with cause, with some spurred by egos in pursuit of ambition.
But all tempests run their course, whether it be the awesome ones that lash the seas and devastate the land, or the ones that sweep through politics. Calm does return, and that is what the movement should now be preparing for. The consequences of Covid-19 crisis and Brexit will see profound changes in the economic structures, social policies, and politics in Britain, the EU and world economic relations. The old structures and verities will not hold against the shock delivered by the pandemic.
There will be no immediate opportunity to rush for an independence referendum. Time is required to carefully consider the changes that are to come, some swiftly, some in a later time scale. We may have forgotten it, but Britain is due to finally leave the EU on 31 December 2020, and the final deal, too will have to be examined, because it is from the combined (British) single market and customs union from which we shall have to extract Scotland – and that will require a different set of policies to achieve the objective from those set out in 2014.
But all that examination and analysis does not mean a temporary paralysis and no action. A mass demonstration in September would be a show of strength and commitment. But that is not policy. What is required now is to create a single national organisation, with funds, staff, and policy groups – all aiming to put together, and promulgate, the new case now required to build the independence vote to such a level that even a purblind Westminster Government can no longer ignore.
Jim Sillars is a former Labour and SNP MP and is currently writing his memoirs.