What puzzles many about the Alex Salmond situation is motive. It’s incredibly difficult for some Yes supporters to imagine any motive that could justify the awfulness of what Alex Salmond has been put through by his successor, and so they reject the whole idea of any sinister goings-on out of hand.
However, it’s far easier to understand what went on when you look at the personality of Nicola Sturgeon and her historical pattern of behaviour.
Because the core fact is that Sturgeon simply cannot bear to lose. She’s very single-minded, and doesn’t really adapt or regroup in the face of adversity. When events and new information make problems for her ideas and plans, she just keeps going – often creating more problems as she tries to force the plan back on track.
Sturgeon’s main priority – in common with most politicians – is to stay in power and to boost her own image and profile. We can look at some hot topics and her behaviour around them, and gain clear insights into what happened to Alex Salmond and why.
Let’s take the heated subject of gender reform, and in particular self-ID which allows people to, entirely on their own say-so, legally change their sex. Initially Sturgeon was sold the story by the hyper-demanding transactivist lobby (ironically largely funded by the Scottish Government), and on spotting an easy opportunity to advance her equality credentials she enthusiastically signed up to it.
But the policy quickly ran into problems when women in the party said “Hold on, this affects our rights” and the issue became toxic, with women (in particular) receiving constant abuse from the trans extremists within the SNP. Joanna Cherry and many other women in the party have pleaded with Sturgeon to intervene but Sturgeon has stayed silent, other than occasional vague “all abuse is bad” boilerplate.
Once she’d started down the path, Sturgeon was not willing to backpedal on becoming a “progressive trans ally” despite the fact that it was becoming detrimental to the success of the SNP. Humza Yousaf, her Justice Minister, has brought forward a Hate Crimes Bill with huge implications for the Article 10 right to free expression.
There’s been a massive outcry against it among groups right across the social and political spectrum, and a recent consultation found that out of over 600 submissions, 80% were negative with only 10% in favour.
Women’s groups are rightly concerned that if they make an argument against self-ID they could fall foul of this bill. This will necessarily have a chilling effect on the ability of women’s groups to argue against the SNP’s gender reform plans as the Hate Crime Bill could criminalise those that do so.
But Sturgeon won’t drop either of these bad ideas – even though polling shows them to be deeply unpopular with the public – because she can’t bear to lose. So the SNP have ended up with policies that bitterly divide the party, let alone the wider electorate, and are a gift to the Tories going into the Holyrood election campaign.
Late last year Sturgeon’s favoured candidates suffered heavy defeats in both the MSP constituency selections and the NEC elections. And if she’s not seen to be delivering for her favourites it undermines her authority.
The next elections coming up were for the SNP candidates that will stand on the regonal list. So a controversial policy was brought forward to the NEC which would all but ensure that her favourites would top the lists.
(As this article goes to print the SNP has spent more than four days on “counting” the votes in those list elections, which were conducted almost entirely online and should have been finalised in minutes, and has still not published them.)
The NEC asked for legal advice and were told unequivocally that they would likely lose any court case brought by a losing candidate, at very great cost in both financial and political terms, but because Sturgeon is determined to not back down and to reverse her “defeat” of last year, the policy was forced through anyway, against party rules, by her close ally, business convener Kirsten Oswald. It remains to be seen whether it has catastrophic consequences.
And now we come to one of the most dogmatic positions Sturgeon has adopted; the Section 30 plan. The UK government learnt their lesson from their uncomfortably and unexpectedly narrow win in 2014, and are not playing ball this time. People within the SNP have been campaigning for years for a Plan B, but Sturgeon would not even have it discussed. She elevated Section 30 to the “gold standard” and the only “legal” plan.
The trend is clear: when Sturgeon gets an idea and it runs into trouble, she doesn’t abandon the idea – she doubles down hard and refuses to reconsider. Studying her character explains what happened to Salmond. She doesn’t actually need much of a motive, all it needs is for her to embark on a path, and from then on she simply won’t deviate no matter how deep the swamp gets.
In late 2017 Sturgeon had lost 21 MPs and her approval ratings were below Ruth Davidson, who was the media darling. This would have been of huge concern to the SNP leader. But as with the trans bandwagon she happened on an opportunity to gain approval and international recognition – she would be the leader who acted to defend women amid the upsurge of the “Me Too” movement, which sprang to prominence in early October of that year.
But she’d have to move fast to catch the fashion, so by the end of the same month the Scottish Government was rushing a new harassment policy into place – it would be signed off in barely six weeks from start to end, with no input at all from Parliament – and it was deployed against Alex Salmond in January 2018, before it had even been officially published on the Scottish Government intranet.
(Which didn’t happen until in February 2018, despite false claims made by the Scottish Government to the Holyrood inquiry that it had been in December 2017.)
Despite numerous opportunities to prevent the disaster from unfolding – from the UK civil service advising her not to make it retrospective, or when Salmond showed her his own legal advice stating that the policy was unlawful – Sturgeon couldn’t bear to “lose” and couldn’t drop the idea of being a “Me Too” heroine, with bonus extra plaudits for her “bravery” in applying the policy without fear or favour to her own friend and mentor.
So to this day, despite the internal investigation collapsing in the most disastrous and costly manner imaginable, and Salmond then being cleared in the criminal High Court of all charges, she continues to smear him because he has to be guilty – at least in the eyes of the public – for her plan to work.
She has to be the one that stands for the “poor women” – even though it was left to Salmond’s lawyers to protect their anonymity and it was her close ally, Permanent Secretary Leslie Evans, who went to the police (via the Crown Office) and instigated a criminal trial against the women’s express wishes.
The pattern never changes. Her primary motivation back in 2017 was to increase her personal standing, but when it started to go badly wrong, instead of giving up she displayed the same behaviours as always: she won’t change her plan (just like with Section 30); she doesn’t worry about unlawful processes (just like with the list elections); she doesn’t really care who gets hurt (just like with self-ID); and she has no issue criminalising opposing arguments rather than defeating them in debate (just like with the Hate Crime Bill).
The reason an innocent man came to be put through two years of hell is simply because that’s how Nicola Sturgeon does things. We see it time and again throughout her time as leader. Once an idea is in her head it’s set in concrete, no matter what.
Sturgeon’s plan now is to run the 2021 Holyrood election as a presidential election focussing on her record. And from what we know of her character, regardless of the findings of either inquiry she will not resign and she will lead the SNP into that election.
The consequences of that could be grave not just for the independence movement, but for all of Scotland.