The Alex Salmond Scandal and its aftermath

Break-Up: How Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon Went to War, David Clegg and Kieran Andrews, Biteback Publishing, £20.

Scottish politics has been transfixed the past three years by the fallout between Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon – the defining figures of the SNP over the past twenty years. This has been a saga like no other – of serious allegations made against Salmond, two court cases and judgements, a parliamentary inquiry and independent review, all of which have created huge political waves and turbulence which have not yet dissipated.

David Clegg and Kieran Andrew’s Break-Up is the first attempt to understand this dramatic tale in what is a timely, important publication. Clegg is one of the main figures in the whole episode, having been (as Political Editor of the Daily Record) the journalist who broke the story that the Scottish Government had reported Salmond to the police over allegations of sexual misconduct; and Andrews works for The Times in Scotland. In so doing the book touches on many areas: the actions of the Scottish Parliament and Government, the nature of the SNP leadership and its key personnel, the blurring of lines between party and state, and how allegations of sexual inappropriateness are dealt with.

The arc of Break-Up is on one level conventional; the chronological story of the rise of the SNP and the rise and fall of Alex Salmond. At its core is the evolution and disintegration of the Salmond-Sturgeon relationship, from the good years focusing on Salmond’s return to the SNP leadership in 2005 when Sturgeon stood aside, instead running for the deputy post, to the SNP winning in 2007. And then come the slow shadow of the bad years.

The early chapters are more superficial, glazing over momentous events which have been endlessly analysed elsewhere. But as the focus turns to the slow implosion of the Salmond-Sturgeon relationship focusing on the allegations against Salmond, how they were dealt with, and the voices of the women complainants, it becomes a compelling read.

The book comes alive in the explosive story of the allegations and investigations into Salmond’s actions, detailing the manoeuvring, positioning and calculating of some of the key players. This is an intense, often claustrophobic tale of insider politics which does not reflect well on the institutions described. No one really comes out of this well or with their dignity and reputation enhanced – not Salmond, not Sturgeon, nor senior figures in the SNP and civil service.

The only people this cannot be said of are the ten women complainants who emerge as having retained perspective and sight of what really mattered all through this: justice and doing the right thing. And as we know at every turn in this tawdry affair they were let down and betrayed by people who were either incompetent, or who leaked to the media, or who tried to use the women for cheap point-scoring – sadly true across the political spectrum.

All of this raises difficult and uncomfortable questions about the Scottish Government, Scottish Parliament, committee system, quality of MSPs, SNP, civil service, Crown Office and wider legal establishment at the highest level that require consideration, reflection and some answers.

One concern is accountability and due process. At each stage the women complainants were failed – horrendously so. Part of Scotland saw them as acceptable collateral damage in this struggle. Then there is where the buck stops after such colossal systematic failure. Some of the main protagonists – Permanent Secretary Leslie Evans, Judith Mackinnon – have remained in post despite their shortcomings and miscalculations becoming known and public (Evans leaving when her contract is up in 2022). There have been no resignations from the civil service and SNP and no sackings.

And there is also the issue of how we appropriately undertake allegations of sexual misconduct particularly by powerful men who can intimidate those who work for them. Sandy Brindley of Rape Crisis Scotland says: ‘There is no doubt it has set the public conversation about sexual harassment back. It has promoted so many myths about sexual crime and what a not guilty or a not proven verdict means.’

Then there are the implications for the cultures and processes of the Scottish Parliament, Scottish Government, and SNP. Holyrood, its committee system and the inquiry undertaken, along with the actions of the Corporate Body of the Parliament, were all caught short in this and not up to it. There was the distortive effects of hyper-partisanship, staggering incompetence, and overall there was the humiliation of the Parliament. Frankly, some MSPs were not up to the task of engaging with such controversial issues – across the political spectrum and parties.

The Scottish Government at its most senior levels is not as smart as it believes it is. It tried to embrace the #MeToo movement but remains partly stuck in some long-lost past where being openly dismissive and disbelieving women’s complainants of sexual misconduct is the norm.

Lessons have supposedly been learnt by the Scottish Government, but isn’t that evasive set of words the usually mealy-mouthed words used by institutions to avoid accountability today? Government, Parliament, SNP – all failed and are institutions at their very top with problematic, dysfunctional cultures. Are any of them better now after the fallout and recriminations – or is it more likely they have regressed and are less likely to lead, be bold, listen and respect complainants on such a subject, and hold powerful men to account?

As Clegg and Andrews reflect on this sad state of Scottish life they draw particular attention to the health of the mainstream media. They do not find it impressive – hollowed out, male-dominated, ultra-partisan – and often missing the real story for defining every political story through a partisan lens. BBC Scotland they rightly point out had a lack of ambition and imagination – with the BBC not breaking any of this story and consistently being behind the curve; and that is without mentioning the dreadful Kirsty Wark programme.

Alongside this is the fetid world of the uber-bloggers, conspiracy theorists and those spreading disinformation who had walk-on roles in this drama. Many believe they spoke truth to power, stood up for justice and against the persecution of Salmond, but in reality they lost any judgement they had through ultra-partisanship. Part of the blogosphere got lost in a cesspit of sexism and misogyny, the authors writing: ‘the women who dared to speak up have been ignored, vilified and abandoned.’

Moreover, this episode throws up challenging questions for the SNP and the future of independence. As one senior figure who worked with Salmond and Sturgeon reflected: ‘Do I have questions that I ask myself over whether I’m blameless or not? Of course I do. These are my friends. But set that aside – the bullying and the horrible human being that he was – why did we tolerate it? Because of the prize’ – meaning independence.

Humza Yousaf inadvertently underlined this when he looked back on the whole episode, and Salmond’s subsequent behaviour post-trial, as being ‘really upsetting because it could have done our cause a hell of a lot of damage – it still might do our cause a hell of a lot of damage.’ Clegg and Andrews comment that no matter his subsequent comments emphasising how the women had been failed: ‘he had already let slip the true priority of many in the SNP, including those at the top of the party.’

This is a necessary book about a turbulent period in Scottish politics, and Clegg and Andrews have done the subject and its numerous issues justice, treating it seriously and with respect. They have done the background work, undertaken numerous interviews, and tell the story straight, keeping the polemic to a minimum.

Some independence supporters will want to dismiss this account and pose it as a hatchet job on Salmond the man and his supporters, but it is nothing of the kind. Many will want to not read it, some through fear that their prejudices will be challenged, others because they will find the whole Shakespearean tragedy too upsetting: the latter is understandable, the former, an uncomfortable evasion of inconvenient truths.

For anyone who thinks Salmond has been absolved by being found not guilty in a court of law Clegg and Andrews write that ‘the behaviour admitted to by Salmond should not be excused just because he was acquitted’. The words of one of the women who worked closely with Salmond and was a complainant should make us all pause: ‘More than anything, working for the FM was like being in an abusive relationship. When he was being cruel, he made you feel like you deserved it. But at times he was very caring and great fun to be around, and it was these times that you began to live for …’

Ultimately, this book asks brave questions which all the main protagonists would prefer not to discuss that go beyond the Salmond-Sturgeon power play. Namely, what do we do when men in power consistently behave inappropriately? What do organisations do (in terms of action and redress) when this happens – and specifically organisations that believe they are progressive but aren’t really? And how can we be comfortable in a political culture where there is such rampant sexism and misogyny about the sexual behaviour of men – some of which comes from the Scotland of the dark ages and does not exactly equate with ideas of a forward-thinking country?

The book portrays a culture of government and party created by two protagonists who have grown up together over the past 20-30 years and whose professional and personal lives were completely intertwined with little boundaries. This became how the SNP governed and how the civil service worked under them. As the authors reflected: ‘Civil servants … should not be carrying out political projects or be involved in late-night drinking sessions in hotels and bedrooms with the First Minister.’ That was the normal working environment of Salmond, and while gone under Sturgeon, the wider culture of blurred party and state remains unchallenged.

One thread implicit in Break-Up is the damaging consequences of this saga for the SNP and the independence movement effectively dominated by a court politics and court party: a form of atrophied, manipulated democracy that Scotland is familiar with throughout its history. Independence is meant to be at its best about accountability, democracy and better government, and sadly none of these qualities were on evidence over the course of this tragedy. How we get back to such fundamentals, demanding better of those in power, institutions, leading independence and contributing to public life, is a set of questions all of us have to reflect and act upon.

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Comments (18)

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  1. Andy murray says:

    Disgraceful article trying to deflect from lies Conspiracy and perjury.
    A disgrace to the nationalist movement

  2. Hugh Hunter says:

    Quite frankly, the only thing that matters in this whole sordid affair, is that he was not convicted of any crime. It was a jury of mostly women who could not find cause to convict him. The law has spoken on the matter, and I for one am satisfied with that. I won’t be rushing out to buy this rake over garbage.

    1. james gourlay says:


  3. Helen Lomas says:

    I’m wondering if all ten women imagined the whole thing … strange story, strange outcome.

  4. Michelle Shortt says:

    If Gerry’s review is accurate then I have to say that the book comes to much the same conclusions I have over the whole affair, albeit I didn’t have access to interviewees as the authors did (maybe I should be a journalist ) The women were badly let down by everyone, and their treatment by commentators on social media and craven politicians looking for cheap party political point scoring was the most disgraceful thing I have witnessed in Scottish politics. Why certain civil servants weren’t sacked is a mystery.
    Of course indy is prized above all else because without it we don’t have a hope of changing anything for the better. Scotland is a ‘masculine’ country and so long as it is mainly directed by having to align with a WM model of winner takes all, rich and powerful men win every time and this ‘masculine’ culture will continue. Women have been saying this for years. I also note that the book is written by 2 men and is being reviewed on here by a man…I wonder if these men will be subject to the same levels of disgusting abuse Dani Garavelli was for her reporting?…

    1. Gerry Hassan says:

      Many thanks for the above sane and thoughtful comments Michelle. Too many on the independence side want to close their eyes to these difficult issues.

  5. Alan says:

    “At each stage the women complainants were failed – horrendously so.”

    All of them? Gerry, how do you know this? Did the jury fail them? The jury made up of a majority of women with a female judge presiding concluded the evidence didn’t support conviction. Salmond may well have behaved badly but he was found to be not guilty of criminal behaviour. And some of the evidence given by women at the trail strongly suggested at least one of the complainants was guilty of perjury. Was that complainant failed?

    I know a lawyer who does a lot of work on these type of cases. Companies employ her to do independent investigations (what should have happened in this case but didn’t). At the start of the Salmond case I was sure he was guilty of something, given the number of complainants, and that he was going to be convicted. She was more skeptical. She said you don’t know he’s guilty until the evidence is presented. She pointed out that while there’s a long history of women victims telling the truth and not being believed, it was her experience that there were plenty of women who lie and exaggerate about such things and use the accusation as a weapon. So why do you think none of the complainants could have possibly been lying? And on what grounds do you think you know better than the jury? And complainants aside, Sturgeon, Evans, Mackinnon, Wark, Garavelli and other women all appear to have been quite happy to weaponise the complaints for their own purposes, in accordance with their own prejudices, and with scant regard to the evidence and the interests of the complainants.

    Ignoring facts in favour of women making accusations (and the women using them) is equally as bad as ignoring facts in favour of accused men.

    1. Ann Rayner says:

      I agree, Alan, and was amazed that Gerry Hassan said the only people who came out of the affair well were the women complainants.
      I feel that at least some of them have abused their anonymity to stir things up against Alex Salmond following his acquittal and was surprised that the woman who was not in Bute House at the time of the alleged incident was not charged with perjury.
      Was any mention made of Craig Murrays imprisonment for ‘jigsaw indentification’ in a book that appears to absolve Kirsty Wark and Dani Garavelli from the same offence?
      I would say that the people who came out most honorably from this affair were Craig and those who gave evidence for the defence, mostly women, who were not protected by anonymity and whose testimony was ignored by the mainstream media.

  6. Dougie Blackwood says:

    Strange. I commented on here some time ago and got the confirmation email but my post seems to have gone.

    1. Eeeeen says:

      There it is. Pretty dull really Dougie.

  7. James Mills says:

    ”Clegg and Andrews … reflect on the health of the mainstream media … ” hollowed out , male -dominated and ultra partisan … often missing the real story for defining every political story through a partisan lens .”

    Gerry , a good summing up of David Clegg’s career ! Let he who is without sin cast the first stone !

  8. Evan Alston says:

    Salmond’s lawyer publically stated how it’s so very possible to discredit women who give evidence in court in cases involving sexual abuse and assault. As a man I’ve learned to listen to organisations such as rape crisis and feminists who have researched these issues. I believe the women complainers. Gerry describing “the court” nature of Scottish governance makes my heart sink. What’s the bloody point of us achieving an independent Scottish state if it’s run in the same way as the rancid British one. One final observation. The mention in Gerry’s piece of the way alcohol was being used immediately helped me establish part (and only part) of the reason for the ex-FM’s behavior. Thank you Gerry for your piece. Let’s build a beautiful Scottish nation state based on equality of power.

  9. Sam Pettipher says:

    When one looks at the whole scandal with the view that it was a political stitch up the whole thing makes a lot more sense. The obsfication during the inquiry, the continued anom briefing by the alphabetties and the disgraceful husk that the SNP has become.
    Once an SNP member and activist this process has resulted in me leaving the party and lacking trust in almost anyone left. Oh especially the booby prize!

  10. MBC says:

    Is the Westminster village any different?

  11. MBC says:

    Pot. Kettle. Black.

    So Clegg must know who the leaker was?

    If Clegg had not written his sensational article the civil service investigation (however clumsily it began) could have proceeded in private towards some sort of resolution and the women would not have been failed. Clegg blew that possibility up. Is Clegg not also guilty of having interrupted a confidential internal civil service enquiry? And of failing the women?

    Salmond was co-operating with the civil service investigation. It was Clegg’s story going public that forced Salmond to have to go on the attack to defend himself in the court of public opinion. Salmond identified that the civil service enquiry was clumsy and succeeded in getting a Court of Session verdict that it was ‘tainted by apparent bias’.

    This result then more or less forced the civil service into a counter attack of a criminal investigation. After Salmond’s victory they had to decide: Was there, or was there not, sufficient grounds to continue this case? Should they just lay the womens’ allegations aside, or not?

    All due to Clegg interfering in an internal civil service enquiry.

  12. SleepingDog says:

    The BBC has an animated short explaining ancient views of corruption, that are not related to law-breaking, but about how people violating norms in private behaviour, perhaps with colleagues, could be viewed as corrupt. I think it is important to understand political corruption in this way (after all, politicians are often in the position to write laws and regulations anyway) as wrongdoing whether laws were proven to be broken or not.

  13. J Galt says:

    One of these “conspiracy theorists” got the Jail because his “conspiracy theorising” got a wee bit too close to the truth – unlike the vaporings being reviewed.

  14. Alan Laird says:

    But back to the book – I can’t ignore the fact that the writers are also working journalists for The Times (Scotland) – right wing Tory rag of dubious news value – and the Daily Record – ‘left’ wing unionist beerandcircuses drivel – have likely brought along their conscious and unconscious biases to their pot-boiler. Not to mention their future unemployability to off-shore proprietors should they go off-message. The book is sure to be popular among the Left, Right and Centre unionists of the Scottish commentariat. Me? I’ll wait for the mini-series on Sky.

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