What we still don’t know about the Salmond affair

24 March 2021

1:47 AM

24 March 2021

1:47 AM

The inquiry into the Alex Salmond affair has concluded that Nicola Sturgeon misled parliament and potentially breached the ministerial code. If you could swear you heard the exact opposite yesterday, that’s because you did. On Monday, the Scottish Government’s independent adviser James Hamilton released the findings of his inquiry into whether Sturgeon breached the code.

He considered four potential violations: Sturgeon’s unminuted, belatedly reported meetings and phone calls with Salmond; whether she intervened in the sexual harassment investigation against him; her omission of a meeting with a Salmond representative from a statement to parliament; and her government continuing to oppose Salmond in court in spite of the advice of counsel. Hamilton found no breaches on any count and declared the omission to be ‘the result of a genuine failure of recollection’ and ‘not deliberate’.

The Scottish Parliament inquiry into these matters, published this morning, reads not merely like a separate inquiry, but as though it dealt with a separate set of facts. It finds that Sturgeon gave the committee ‘an inaccurate account of what happened’ at a meeting with Salmond in her Glasgow home in 2018 and ‘has misled the committee on this matter’.

Sturgeon told the committee she did not promise to intervene in the investigation into Salmond during this meeting; Salmond told the committee she did. The committee concludes: ‘Taking account of the competing versions of events, the committee believes that she did in fact leave Mr Salmond with the impression that she would, if necessary, intervene.’ It notes that Salmond’s version of events was supported by his advocate Duncan Hamilton, a former SNP MSP who was present.

The parliamentary inquiry relates another potential misleading statement in Sturgeon’s evidence:

‘The committee finds it hard to believe that the First Minister had no knowledge of any concerns about inappropriate behaviour on the part of Mr Salmond prior to November 2017. If she did have such knowledge, then she should have acted upon it. If she did have such knowledge, then she has misled the committee.’

This conclusion was reached by majority vote, with Sturgeon’s MSPs dissenting from this and other criticisms of her. The Scottish Government attacked the inquiry report in advance, claiming it ‘deliberately ignored and suppressed evidence’ and ‘resorted to baseless assertion, supposition and smear’, but there is a smell test in these matters, and it is difficult not to agree with the inquiry that Sturgeon’s testimony had a certain whiff to it.

To accept her version of events requires us to accept that Salmond’s loyal deputy leader for ten years, his inseparable deputy First Minister for seven of them, one of the best-connected figures in the SNP, and arguably the sharpest, canniest mind in Scottish politics, never heard a concern, a suspicion, an intimation, a rumour, a bit of gossip — not a peep.

This point is vulnerable to the accusation of holding a woman to account for the alleged actions of a man, and with identity politics in the ascendancy even the hollowest such charge is insurmountable, but this is about Sturgeon’s accountability for her statements and her decisions.

The inquiry also finds that ‘it was inappropriate for the First Minister to continue to meet and have discussions with the former First Minister’ on the topic of the sexual harassment investigation, ‘given the sensitivities of the matter and the fact that it related to internal government complaints handling’. From her meeting with Salmond on 2 April 2018, it took Sturgeon 65 days to inform the Permanent Secretary about their contact – contact which continued after the meeting.

The committee rules that Sturgeon ‘should have made the Permanent Secretary aware of her state of knowledge of the complaints and the facts of the meetings at the earliest opportunity’ and thereafter ‘she should have confirmed that she would cease to have any further contact with Mr Salmond on that subject’.

One of the most contentious points of this whole saga has been a meeting between Sturgeon and Salmond’s former chief of staff Geoff Aberdein on 29 March 2018. This is the conversation that Sturgeon first revealed in her October 2020 written evidence to the committee and about which James Hamilton said she suffered ‘a genuine failure of recollection’. The point of contention is whether the meeting merely involved arranging a later meeting between Sturgeon and Salmond, or whether it was made clear to Sturgeon during this first meeting that the resulting meeting would be about the investigation into her predecessor.

The inquiry ‘accepts that there may be differing recollections of this meeting and is not in a position to take a view on whether the former First Minister’s or the First Minister’s version of events is the more persuasive’. However, it notes that Salmond’s version ‘has the benefit of being confirmed by others’.

Taken together, today’s report and yesterday’s, albeit covering only a fraction of the Salmond affair, nonetheless represent the record as we have it. Yet, there is a tension in relation to the ministerial code, which says: ‘Ministers who knowingly mislead the parliament will be expected to offer their resignation.’ The Scottish Parliament inquiry says it is for James Hamilton to decide whether Sturgeon breached the ministerial code. He says she did not. Hamilton says it is for the Scottish Parliament to decide whether Sturgeon misled it. Its committee says it was misled by her.

Does this mean that Sturgeon did in fact breach the code, just on a different statement to the one considered by Hamilton? Or is misleading a parliamentary committee a lesser infraction than misleading the full parliament? It is difficult to reconcile the two reports on this point.

The remainder of the committee’s findings are a catalogue of government failure, error, and dubiety. The committee accepts that the sexual harassment procedure under which Salmond was investigated was prompted by the #MeToo moment, but it notes there were ‘concerns surfacing from civil servants’ about Salmond and professes itself ‘concerned that the awareness of these, and the possibility they could become formal complaints, may have hastened, if not driven, the speed with which the new procedure was finalised’.

This pace, it finds, ‘could have had a detrimental impact on the procedure in terms of its clarity and robustness’. The report recommends the establishment of ‘an independent support service and an independent system for reporting and investigating complaints’.

The panel also concludes that the ‘multiple roles’ performed by the Permanent Secretary represented ‘a significant organisational risk’ and ‘should have been identified’ as such. While it was the investigating officer’s prior involvement with complainants that caused the government’s conduct to be ruled ‘unlawful’, the report says ‘the degree of involvement of the Permanent Secretary and her actions as deciding officer also places a question mark over the process’.

The committee underscores that, while it was not its responsibility ‘to investigate or speculate on the source of the leak’ of complaints against Salmond to the Daily Record, it considers the disclosure to have been ‘extremely serious’. ‘Should the identity of the person who leaked the information ever come to light, they should be held to account for their actions,’ the report adds.

The Scottish Government’s unsuccessful defence of the Salmond investigation in court led to an adverse ruling in the Court of Session and an order to pay Salmond’s legal fees, a sum in excess of £500,000. The inquiry decides that the government was responsible for ‘a serious, substantial and entirely avoidable situation’ and that this is ‘unacceptable by an organisation such as the Scottish Government’. The government’s document disclosure during the legal action was ‘seriously flawed’ and led to a ‘significant failure’, though the Scottish Parliament press release accompanying the report quotes the committee as using the phrase ‘catastrophic failure’, suggesting a last-minute revision.

The two reports may be just as notable for what they do not reach conclusions on. Neither considers where the leak to the Daily Record came from, nor Salmond’s claim of an effort by high-ranking SNP figures to remove him from public life, nor his allegation that the Scottish Government withheld documents despite a search warrant. The committee is ‘unable to reach any conclusion’ on whether the name of a complainant was given to Geoff Aberdein, while Hamilton’s report is heavily redacted in this area, though it appears he is more sympathetic to Aberdein’s version of events, which he calls ‘more straightforward’.

I warned a while back that, because their remits were so narrow, the inquiries set up by the SNP could not come to a satisfactory conclusion. I said then, and remain of the view, that this entire matter should be placed before an independent, judge-led public inquiry with the widest possible remit. It was, and remains, the only way of getting to the truth about what happened — or at least a more comprehensive truth than the one we’ve been presented.

The Holyrood and Hamilton inquiries have both been diligent and their conclusions ought to be respected, but their conclusions cover only a fraction of the biggest scandal of the devolved era. There is no appetite for a public inquiry. The government wants to move on. The opposition wants to move on. The public likely does too. I disagree.

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