Yes, Salmond is desperate to portray himself as a victim of an injustice.
But isn’t there a stench about the way this has been handled?
By Graham Grant
IN a wedding marquee at a rural hotel, Scotland’s former First Minister was fielding a barrage of questions about his alleged sexual misconduct.
Alex Salmond, seated incongruously next to boxes of champagne, was asked if he had mistreated women; if he drank too much; if he would co-operate with a police inquiry…
Here was a man who banned newspapers (including the Mail) from the Press conference in 2014 when he announced he was quitting as First Minister, subjecting himself to a humiliatingly forensic inquisition about his personal life.
It was hard to imagine a more surreal journalistic experience – there was a sense of grotesque political theatre reminiscent of the The Thick of It, the BBC’s satire of Westminster life.
Except that there is more at stake here than the already tarnished reputation of an ex-First Minister (prior to this breath-taking episode, Mr Salmond’s decision to present a chat show on the Kremlin-backed RT channel had seen his stature plummet).
There is no doubt Mr Salmond is a highly divisive figure, and as much as he displayed strategic nous in the run-up to the independence referendum, he failed because – for all his swagger – he tried to con the voters, and was found out.
He is, famously, an inveterate gambler, and his forthcoming judicial review at the Court of Session must be viewed in that context: it is hard to see it as anything other than an attempt to switch the focus from his own alleged actions to those of the Scottish Government.
But while we should be wary of Mr Salmond portraying himself as the protagonist in a Kafka story – the victim of a callous and inhumane bureaucracy, kept in the dark about the detail of the lurid claims against him – his critique of that process is worthy of examination.
A foul stench hangs heavily around the Scottish Government’s handling of the entire affair, including the role of Mr Salmond’s protégé Nicola Sturgeon in a controversy which threatens to engulf her administration.
On Sunday, Miss Sturgeon said it was ‘essential that organisations have processes in place to enable investigation of such complaints and, although I have no role in it, the procedure that has been used to investigate these complaints was agreed by me’.
Take a quick look at the protocol for harassment complaints involving current or former ministers, finalised in December last year, however, and you’ll see Miss Sturgeon does indeed have a ‘role’.
It states: ‘The First Minister will be advised where a current or former minister who is a member of the party of the current administration has declined to co-operate and will be responsible for any further action.’
Mr Salmond maintained on Friday that ‘at every single stage we explained to the Scottish Government [that] we reserved our position’, because of his misgivings about the way the probe was being handled.
The co-operation he offered sounds distinctly qualified.
But we also know – because Mr Salmond and Miss Sturgeon have told us – that there have been three conversations between the pair during which the sexual misconduct allegations were discussed.
We can be reasonably sure that those chats weren’t minuted – not traditionally a strong suit for a government that has preferred sensitive meetings to go undocumented, as the row over former Chief Constable Phil Gormley demonstrated.
Indeed, at around the time the complaints against Mr Salmond were being made, back in January, the SNP was facing the possibility of legal action by Mr Gormley, who claimed the then Justice Secretary Michael Matheson had blocked his return to work amid a bullying probe.
Minutes were scarce at that time, and there’s little reason to believe at the moment that the content of those tête-à-têtes between Miss Sturgeon and her former mentor will ever be fully disclosed.
But it’s hard to imagine Mr Salmond didn’t take the opportunity to voice his concern about the Civil Service investigation.
The First Minister can hardly be blamed for the first conversation with Mr Salmond, soon after he was told about the claims against him back in March, as she could not be expected to know what he was about to say.
But what about the second and then the third time – did she think it simply wouldn’t come up?
Perhaps the most troubling aspect of the controversy is the apparent failure of the Scottish Government to make a formal referral of the claims to Police Scotland until last week, despite having known about potentially criminal behaviour for the past eight months.
Since when, we might reasonably wonder, has government taken on an investigative function, allowing it to probe alleged sex crimes?
And what precisely was going on during those eight months – why did it take so long to realise that police should be contacted, when the case could hardly be more clear-cut?
Mr Salmond has said he ‘tried everything, including offers of conciliation, mediation and legal arbitration to resolve these matters both properly and amicably’.
So it seems some of those delays may have been caused by Mr Salmond’s interventions (none of which precluded contacting Police Scotland).
They culminated in the judicial review soon to be heard at the Court of Session, aimed at challenging the terms of the internal investigation instigated by Permanent Secretary Leslie Evans, which will have no impact whatsoever on police enquiries.
That investigation is separate, and must be allowed to run its own course.
Detectives are in the unusual position of having (what we assume to be) a detailed dossier of allegations as they carry out their ‘assessment’ which could – and in all likelihood will – lead to a full-scale probe.
The effect of the delay in the referral to police is inevitably to fuel suspicion of preferential treatment – that Mr Salmond (notwithstanding his criticism of the complaints procedure) initially benefited from his high profile, which afforded him easy access to the country’s most powerful politician.
Yet the net result is an unedifying and increasingly bitter war of words between Mr Salmond and the government machine for which he was once responsible, one that could lead the Nationalist movement – already in a state of conflict over plans for ‘indyref2’ – further into internecine warfare.
Whether or not Mr Salmond tried to exploit his relationship with Miss Sturgeon to buy him time, or to try and influence the investigation, or to change the way in which was it was being conducted, will surely emerge as the key question from this extraordinary drama.
But yesterday the Tories posed another, equally deserving of an urgent answer: were the Salmond allegations ever brought to the attention of the Scottish Government, in any form, prior to January 2018? They are now demanding an independent review.
As this war by Press release intensifies, the only certainty is that the inner workings of a government which for so long has operated behind a cloak of secrecy and obfuscation will continue to be exposed to the fiercest scrutiny.