Another story has broken which deserves to compete with COVID-19, at least for a couple of days. Alex Salmond, the former First Minister of Scotland, was acquitted on all charges yesterday afternoon.
The ex-leader of the Scottish National Party was defending himself against 13 separate allegations, including sexual assault and attempted rape, levelled by nine women.
Obviously we were not inside the jury room and so can pass no comment on the result itself. But it is an extraordinary outcome to one of the biggest stories in Scottish politics, and the fallout could be substantial.
The road to trial has already opened a deep rift between Nicola Sturgeon and her one-time mentor. Salmond reportedly believes that the First Minister and her allies conspired in the allegations against him in order to get him off the political stage. For their part his own troops, such as Nationalist MP Joanna Cherry, are already calling for an inquiry into how the Party handled the allegations against him.
After decades of phalanx-like discipline, the SNP’s internal cohesion was already showing signs of strain – Cherry herself is currently standing against Angus Robertson, the pro-Sturgeon former SNP leader in the Commons, to fight Ruth Davidson’s constituency of Edinburgh Central at the next devolved elections. Before today one might have expected the pro-leadership forces to comfortably have the upper hand – but the return of a vengeful and vindicated Salmond could upset the balance of power.
Vindicated in his own mind, at least. It’s important to stress that whilst fighting the charges, the trial has projected claims about Salmond’s conduct with women which will not go away. Already an increasingly toxic figure amongst pro-UK voters, he will never again be able to rally the entire separatist movement the way he did in 2014.
But it is increasingly unclear that anyone can. The row between Sturgeon and Salmond is not just about personalities – it’s about strategy too. The ex-First Minister is now an old man in a hurry, and has emerged as a champion of the ‘fundamentalist’ wing which wants the Nationalists to fight another referendum as soon as possible. His successor, burned by her incautious push for a vote after the Brexit referendum and with potentially more time on the clock, heads up those who want to wait until there is clear evidence that the independence vote is strong enough to win.
It looked as is the COVID-19 crisis had given her the perfect justification for telling her troops to stand down. The British and Scottish governments are working together to meet the public health challenge of the moment, and in any event it is tricky to sell separation when the Treasury is staging Herculean fiscal interventions a newly-independent Scotland (whilst possibly in the throes of self-inflicted austerity) could never hope to match.
By exhibiting the usefulness of the British state and fostering a spirit of solidarity, the epidemic could actually create extremely unfavourable conditions for the separatists for years to come, if not longer. In those circumstances the SNP would be wise to conserve their resources.
But Salmond’s likely return – he is already rumoured to be seeking re-election to the Scottish Parliament next year – will push this question back up the agenda whether his successor likes it or not.