Speak as you find, was one of my grannie’s many rules of social engagement. And, over many years, I found Alex Salmond by turns affable, ebullient, and infuriating. The latter on occasions like the launch of his book The Dream Shall Never Die which I had been asked to chair. It took no little time to persuade the author to stop gladhanding an adoring public up and down the centre aisle and come on stage for the agreed Q&A. As many have found before and since, Mr Salmond is not a man who willingly takes instruction.
His QC called him a Marmite man, and that rings true. For everyone who lauded his building the Scottish body politic up to the verge of independence and orchestrating a referendum once thought impossible, there were others who reached for the off switch as he loomed into televisual sight. For all those who cheered his leading a majority government in a parliament whose voting system was supposed to prevent any such outcome, there were many who would accuse him of insufferable arrogance. Those who cheered his description of the Serbian bombing as “unpardonable folly” and his opposition to the invasion of Irag, had a mirror image in others who were appalled by these high profile protests.
Yet a man, and a politician, is the sum of all his parts, all his deeds, and Alexander Elliot Anderson Salmond deserves to be judged by more than the events behind his court case , and by more than any one intervention from a long life in the political limelight.
For all feminists, the allegations of which he was found not guilty (in one instance not proven) were problematical to process. His legal team alleged connivance between the complainants to bring relatively minor charges to bolster two very serious ones, whilst the prosecution painted a picture of a serial, sexual predator preying on junior staffers. The truth of all of that may come out in the subseguent wash. As the Former Minister himself observed leaving court, this was not a moment – in mid pandemic – to ponder the details of the evidence led in his case.
It’s been my experience during the trial that female opinions tended to fall along generational lines. Self evidently being subject to sexual harassment or to have a sexual liaison with your married boss – and your country’s leader – however consensual, is not behaviour to be condoned. Alex Salmond’s own QC, employing no small degree of understatement, suggested his client could and should “have been a better man”. Yet those of us who lived through a different cultural era have only too vivid memories of a time when casual sexual harassment was commonplace. When inappropriate touching, sexist “banter” and late evening, unsolicited fumblings were the all too familiar laws of the journalistic jungle.
It doesn’t mean we think any of these things were OK, and certainly not that they were acceptable well into the 21st century. But some of the charges described behaviour that my generation would have considered unremarkable compared to the kind of generalised groping that went on when we were young women, ambitious for our careers and fearful for our hard won jobs. The fact is the jury has cleared him of all the charges laid, which means that they did not consider any of the events outlined to be of criminal nature.
The collateral damage from this court case is at once clear but, given the current turmoil, less devastating than we might once have supposed. The previous close friendship with the current First Minister was an early casualty, and the fact that many of the women who laid the charges had very close links to her and to the SNP inevitably fostered rifts. Some will heal, some won’t. The women who came forward will also be feeling colossally bruised by their experiences, knowing as they do that while the country at large will hopefully never know their identities, very many people in the political bubble do.
What could certainly cause more lasting political wounds would be if those who persisted in turning the matter into internecine, proxy wars between Salmondites and Sturgeonistas failed to lift their eyes from all of that and concentrate on the national Scottish interest. It is not a time for self indulgence.
It is a fortunate country which has the right kind of leadership for the circumstances in which it finds itself. (We will avert our eyes from the manifest bad luck to have a Trump or a Johnson when the vital calls come.) Let us consider instead that a barnstorming, politically astute Salmond – warts and all – was the right man in the right place when the closed doors to an independence referendum needed kicking down. And let us be thankful too that when a calm, articulate, wholly serious presence is needed to soothe a nation’s nerves in a devastating emergency, we are led by a woman with Nicola’s Sturgeon’s temperament.
FIRST PUBLISHED IN THE NATIONAL 23.3.2020