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Alex Bell: Salmond affair’s tangled web may clear a path for Labour in the May elections

BREAKDOWN: Former first minister Alex Salmond and current incumbent Nicola Sturgeon were close friends as well as colleagues.
BREAKDOWN: Former first minister Alex Salmond and current incumbent Nicola Sturgeon were close friends as well as colleagues.

Oh what a tangled web we weave, when first we practise to deceive.

Watching the first minister give evidence to the Holyrood committee into the botched investigation of Alex Salmond, it appeared the truth would never out.

Sir Walter Scott’s words came to mind, not because anyone set out to lie, but because too many had reckoned honesty was not the best policy from the beginning.

There are too many vested interests and old relationships at stake. A cabal of senior party people and special advisers, former and current, found themselves presuming they could manage a story, as per usual, but discovering that they weren’t as smart as they thought. This one would not be managed away and it looks like no one will take responsibility. In Scotland the effect of #MeToo has been to make it even harder for victims of sexual misconduct to trust the system.

Alex Bell

In a healthy democracy Leslie Evans, permanent secretary to the Scottish Government, would have resigned for failing the victims and the first minister. Liz Lloyd would have been long gone for being really bad at her job, which is to protect the first minister. Geoff Aberdein might have begun to see he’s not Batman, but Robin.

But you’ll note none of the above characters are elected. A big lesson of the imbroglio is that actual politicians have little effect on how Scotland is run. It’s time the people, via the parliament, took back control.

The question now is how much will the scandal around the Salmond allegations affect the elections in May. Will the public judge the national party to have mismanaged the nation, to be as riddled with cronyism as old Labour and southern Tories? Or will the rules of political inertia take over, where Scottish voters are slow to change?

A large number think Salmond is basically nasty and are protective of Sturgeon. There will be an emotional rally to an FM who, on balance, probably tried to do the right thing but was let down by advisers.

The counter to this is that Sturgeon’s weakness has been exposed, namely a loyalty to inept people.

If she can’t get the right advice now, or lacks the courage to fire incompetent people, then what hope for her leading an independence negotiation?

However, Nat obsessives aside, I’m not persuaded many pro-Sturgeon voters actually expect her to advance independence. It does not matter that she’s a bad character judge, because she seems to have done a decent job on Covid and she’s not Salmond or Boris.

The chances of Indyref2 look remote, and even if it does happen, voters will judge it on its merits, not on their affection for Nicola.

So voting SNP for some is still the socially-acceptable thing to do. Others, the fundamentalist camp, don’t really have a choice. If they don’t vote SNP, they are sabotaging the chances of Indyref2. They may hate Nicola, believe in a conspiracy and genuflect at the mention of Eck’s name, but they have yet to create a credible counter platform.

The important trends might be elsewhere. The latest polls show the SNP winning an absolute majority in May but my hunch is to bet against this.

The Salmond farrago has given voters a good reason to get out on polling day. In some ways, Sturgeon might benefit from her supporters rallying, but it’s also good for opposition parties. Labour and the Tories now have a solid, strong argument against the SNP. Any sense that Scotland is holier than Westminster has been destroyed by the Salmond business.

The Nats got stuck in the tangled web, captured by their reliance on story management over transparent government.

They join the public perception that all politicians are ultimately crooks.

This dilutes the potency of the Nat claim that Boris is dodgy. This diminishes a key attack line by the SNP.

Further, the reliance on a small leadership group means the public worry there’s no one to take over from Nicola. Tell them it’s John Swinney and they’ll only laugh.

What seems most interesting in recent polls is an improvement in Labour support. In part this is from the departure of Jeremy Corbyn. Having a leader that it is impossible to imagine in high office isn’t good for popular appeal. Starmer may be dull, but he’s plausible.

It also might reflect a view among progressive voters that the SNP talk a good game but don’t deliver.

That has been a hard case to make in the past, but is easier now – a lot of voters switched in the last decade from red to Nat. They can always go back, if only to check the unaccountability of the nationalist government.

Crucially, Labour now have a clear platform. The SNP can’t be trusted.

The SNP’s success has been built on ruthless campaigning, apple pie policies and competence. Party splits undermine the campaigning force, the policies look cynical when not delivered and competence is in doubt.

The political axis has shifted. It’s no longer more powers versus broken Westminster. Post the Salmond inquiry, it’s how to clean up broken Holyrood with the powers we have. Even Scottish Labour looks capable of doing something with that, which is some achievement for the SNP.

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