Scottish politics is at a turning point, argues Vladimir Unkovski-Korica
Recent days have seen the crisis in the Scottish National Party and the Scottish Government reach a peak.
Both protagonists in the drama, former First Minister Alex Salmond and his successor Nicola Sturgeon gave testimony before a Scottish Parliament committee.
Their feud revolves around an investigation into complaints of sexual misconduct against Salmond when he was First Minister in 2013. Salmond has denied wrongdoing and claimed a conspiracy against him.
The initial inquiry against Salmond in 2018 was botched and the Scottish government was forced to pay Salmond’s legal costs after he took it to court and won. Later, in March 2020, Salmond was acquitted in a criminal case of 13 charges including attempted rape.
Now, the cross-party committee in the Scottish Parliament is investigating the Scottish Government's handling of the complaints against Salmond.
Until now, in the court of public opinion, Salmond is generally seen as guilty of having behaved inappropriately towards women. Meanwhile, Sturgeon is widely viewed as having performed well at her job, especially in relation to her handling of the coronavirus pandemic.
But recent revelations may be damaging for Sturgeon, though it is too early to say if she will be forced to resign, as demanded by the Conservative opposition.
The revelations included the release of government emails on Tuesday 2 March which showed the government pursued the botched legal case against Salmond even though its lawyers warned it would lose.
Moreover, Sturgeon faces accusations that she misled parliament and broke the ministerial code when she erroneously claimed that she first heard of allegations against Salmond on 2 April 2018 at her home, when in reality she had been told about harassment accusations already on 29 March – at a meeting with Salmond’s former chief of staff, a meeting not recorded as having taken place.
Lying to parliament is a resigning issue in Scotland’s ministerial code, and two separate inquiries are looking into making a judgement on the matter of whether Sturgeon misled parliament.
Others are also involved, like Sturgeon's husband, SNP chief executive Peter Murrell. Murrell stands accused of lying about meetings between Sturgeon and Salmond in their Glasgow home – which went officially unrecorded.
He is also under scrutiny because of text messages he sent which seemed to suggest pressure should be applied on the police to prosecute Salmond.
Sturgeon herself has denied wrongdoing and dismissed claims of a conspiracy against Salmond, criticising her predecessor for not showing remorse during his testimony for his inappropriate behaviour towards women.
The truth is that neither side has come out of the feud looking good. Salmond is currently widely disliked in Scotland, with an approval rating lower even than the reviled Tory PM Boris Johnson.
And while the public appears to take Sturgeon’s side when she claims that she ‘refused to follow the age-old pattern of allowing a powerful man to use his status and his connections to get what he wants,’ it seems difficult to sustain the notion that accusations about government interference were a mere conspiracy theory.
After all, the damning legal advice that has just been published saw the light of day only after two votes in parliament and the threat of a no-confidence vote in the Deputy First Minister John Swinney, while Sturgeon’s and Murrell’s testimonies about their early dealings with Salmond do not give off the odour of good motives. Ditto Murrell’s text messages.
It is too soon to predict what the outcome of the last few days will be. Sturgeon has seen calls for her to resign and has begun to lose popularity but she is still more widely trusted than other politicians in Scotland and the SNP is significantly ahead in the polls. But all it would take would be a 4-point swing for the SNP to fail to win a much-predicted majority on 6 May.
What would then happen to calls for a Scottish independence referendum in the short term would indeed then become a major question.
Beyond the SNP
One thing, however, is certain. The independence movement in Scotland has been dominated far too much and for far too long by the SNP.
The top-down nature of the party has been increasingly exposed in recent times, with the Salmond-Sturgeon feud being only the most dramatic example of how cloak-and-dagger it gets at the top. Another recent example is the November 2020 conference, when the leadership prevented many motions diverging from leadership policy even being discussed.
Consequently, the prospect of an independent Scotland led by the SNP may begin to seem like a less desirable prospect. Indeed, the SNP’s Growth Commission published a report in 2018 which already moved the party to the right and promised a neoliberal future. The leadership’s slavish pro-NATO and pro-EU stances are also suggestive of an entirely establishment worldview.
The spirit behind the popular moment of the Indy referendum of 2014, as expressed by such organisations as the Radical Independence Campaign, is not on the horizon as long as the SNP remains the dominant force in the Scottish independence movement.
This spirit has moved on to such movements as the student climate strike, Black Lives Matter and the British Gas strikes of recent days. But it was also sustained by the All Under One Banner (AUOB) protests peaking in May 2019 in Glasgow with tens of thousands of working-class people participating.
It is too early to speak of a political alternative to the SNP but the formation of a new organisation, Now Scotland, in February 2021, on the back of the AUOB pro-independence mobilisations, is a sign that questions of strategy and political direction are being raised in the movement independently of the SNP.
The left should be part of these discussions and put working-class demands front and centre. The crisis of the British state will not be overcome simply because the SNP faces problems. The national question remains an intractable one for the British state, blighted by its history of empire and decline and by its democratic deficit. And Scotland remains a rich but deeply unequal country. We should challenge that as part and parcel of a fight for a more just and democratic future.
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