FOR just a moment the fog lifted and the way ahead was clear. Alex Salmond, former First Minister of Scotland, had been invited to appear next week before the Scottish Parliament committee investigating the handling of harassment complaints against him. His successor, Nicola Sturgeon, would follow seven days later.
Finally, after so much delay and obfuscation, a chance to hear from the principal actors. Direct questions yielding straight answers.
Dream on. No sooner had the invitation to Mr Salmond been issued than his lawyers were saying it would be “highly problematic” for him to appear, given he would be constrained from telling the whole truth by a threat of prosecution, plus he had underlying health issues.
His lawyers have suggested an alternative date in mid-February. Will he appear then? What might he say? And will the session clash with Bargain Hunt?
When it comes to the Salmond-Sturgeon psychodrama, of which the committee hearing is merely one part, a more fitting cultural reference might be Bleak House and the seemingly interminable and irresolvable case of Jarndyce and Jarndyce.
Just as no two lawyers were able to talk about Jarndyce and Jarndyce for five minutes without coming to verbal blows, so it has become with members of the rival Salmond and Sturgeon camps. As each week goes on, the circle of people affected by the feud widens. Or as Dickens put it: “Scores of persons have deliriously found themselves made parties … without knowing how or why; whole families have inherited legendary hatreds with the suit.”
A sunny soul might see it as a badge of honour to have such a feud. A sign the party has come of age. History is full of such top tier rivalries, some of them playing out between parties (Disraeli and Gladstone), others within (Castle and Callaghan, Thatcher and Heseltine, Gove and Cameron, Blair and Brown).
As to which feud Salmond and Sturgeon’s psychodrama most resembles it is hard to say. Theirs is not a fight over who should assume the leadership, like Blair and Brown. Blair took too long to stand aside and neither seem to have fundamentally understood the bargain they made (and if it even was a deal).
Salmond and Sturgeon handled the succession smoothly. It was later that the trouble started. One side wanted to go full steam towards independence; the other to ca canny. Hardly a new division in the party. Maybe the pair are more like Barbara Castle and Jim Callaghan battling over union reform. Same side, different approaches. She lost the fight, but then so did he eventually.
Comparisons can only take us so far, however. In its intensity there is something very Scottish about the Salmond-Sturgeon feud.
Alex Salmond seeks delay to committee appearance
There is also the generation gap, with Mr Salmond, roughly speaking, representing the older, more traditional SNP voter and Ms Sturgeon the younger, more socially liberal side of the party. But it is far from that clear cut. People you might think would be in one camp turn out to be in the other.
What there can be no doubt about is the seriousness of the feud and the effect it is having within the party and at a wider level. There has been, and continues to be, far more at stake here than hurt feelings and damaged career prospects. However thorny most political rivalries become, few involve the courts to the extent that this one has. This is no playground fight where the consequences are limited to a few bad headlines and a bruised ego. At one point, before Mr Salmond was cleared of all charges against him, a man’s very liberty was at risk.
Letters – inquiry remit must be broadened
Mention of the courts brings us of course to the financial consequences of the run-ins between the Scottish Government and Mr Salmond. Half a million of your money and mine paid to the former First Minister after the Government’s initial actions over harassment complaints were ruled unlawful and, in the words of the judge, “tainted with apparent bias”.
To such costs can be added the bill for the current Scottish Parliament inquiry, the one awaiting the appearance of Mr Salmond and Ms Sturgeon.
Beside the financial cost there is a reputational price to be paid. The committee system, and its ability to hold the executive to account, was meant to be one of strengths of Scotland’s shiny new parliament.
This committee, however, has found its hands tied at several points, denied the information it wants. All of which will doubtless be pointed out in its report. But if such a committee can so blatantly be given the runaround by government, what chance does any future inquiry have of cutting through the din?
First citizens’ assembly reports
The more the Salmond/Sturgeon appearances are delayed, the less likely it becomes that the committee will be able to present a report before the election.
Then again, what does that matter? Political wisdom has it that parties which seem at war with themselves are punished by the electorate. But the SNP continues to ride high in the polls, and Ms Sturgeon’s popularity is undimmed.
Lest we forget, this psychodrama is playing at a time of a global pandemic, when every shoulder should be to the wheel in rolling out the programme of vaccinations. Why isn’t the public up in arms at the time, energy, and pounds being expended on this feud when there is so much else that needs to be done?
This disconnect is another way in which the Salmond-Sturgeon psychodrama is unique and peculiarly Scottish. Voters can see what is going on, but it is not turning them against the governing party, or driving them into the arms of others. Or not yet anyway.
Boiled down to the fundamentals, he says she misled parliament and broke the ministerial code. She says she did not. They cannot both be right. The longer it takes to get to the truth, the more damage will be done to the people involved, the parliament, and the interests of the country as a whole.
Whatever happens in the coming weeks, the curtain must fall on the Salmond-Sturgeon psychodrama at some point. Even Jarndyce and Jarndyce came to a close eventually. By that time, however, all the inheritance had gone and there were no spoils for the victor to claim. From literature to politics, a lesson to ponder.