JAlthough it seemed that Nicola Sturgeon’s political career could be eliminated, James Hamilton, the lawyer tasked with deciding whether he had broken the ministerial code, stepped into the arena of Scottish politics and gave her an imperial thumbs up.
After months of speculation, the former head of the prosecution office in Ireland acquitted the prime minister of all alleged infractions, thus effectively thwarting the Conservatives’ no-confidence vote due today.
The sturgeon does not escape unscathed. The report of a separate parliamentary investigation, released this morning, highlights serious flaws in the Scottish government’s investigation into the initial allegations of harassment against Salmond and the judicial review that ruled that investigation was illegal.
Its members also voted 5-4 to find that Sturgeon had misled them, and thus the Scottish Parliament, in a series of meetings he held with Salmond and his former chief of staff, Geoff Aberdein. He did not go so far as to say that he had done so “knowingly.”
But the credibility of that parliamentary investigation has been undermined by delays, leaks and partisanship. And never, in any event, was he the final arbiter of code violations, perceived as the most likely route to Sturgeon’s resignation. In terms of its survival, the Hamilton report would always be the one that mattered. And it turned out to be stronger endorsement of the prime minister than many people had anticipated.
Hamilton compared Salmond’s version of events with that of his successor and, above all, found that she was the most persuasive witness. Sturgeon told Holyrood that he had first heard about the sexual harassment allegations when Salmond came to your house on April 2, 2018. Salmond questioned the idea that he might have “forgotten” about a meeting with Aberdein four days earlier. But Hamilton wrote: “What tips the balance towards accepting the prime minister’s account for me is that it’s hard to think of any compelling reason why, had she remembered the meeting, she would have deliberately concealed it while revealing all the conversations she had with [Salmond]. “
Hamilton noted that while there was a dispute over whether or not she had agreed to intervene on Salmond’s behalf at the April 2 meeting, “the fact is that she did not intervene.” And he accepted their logic that it would have been impossible to record the April 2 meeting “without the risk of damaging the process or interfering with its confidentiality.”
Hamilton’s claim to the prime minister, two days before Holyrood goes into recess, means the battle to topple Sturgeon has failed; But it has repercussions far beyond your personal destiny.
His resignation would have destabilized the SNP just as it was about to enter campaign mode. One of the flaws in his leadership has been the lack of a succession plan. With several senior MSPs now standing, it is almost impossible to think of someone to replace her.
It would also have had a negative impact on the movement in general. Increased support for independence, which peaked around 56% last year, it is so closely tied to Sturgeon’s popularity that a blow to her is a blow to the cause.
Yesterday the SNP published a draft invoice for a second independence referendum that “would allow the people to decide what kind of country they want to build once the public health crisis is over.” But the odds of that becoming a reality depend on the party’s electoral performance. A majority of the SNP would remain as a mandate for indyref2, just as its 2011 majority was retained as a mandate for indyref1.
There is little chance that the party will lose the power it has held for 14 years. But recent polls have shown a drop in anticipated support for the SNP, raising the possibility of another hung parliament. Support for independence is now hovering around the 50% mark.
Sturgeon’s troubles are not over. Opposition parties will continue to ask legitimate questions, on the reverse of both reports, about the botched process and the Scottish government’s apparent lack of transparency. And yet there is again a spring in the Sturgeon Pass. Emboldened by Hamilton’s verdict, she has good reason to hope this marks a new beginning.
Meanwhile, Scottish Conservatives must have doubts about their own electoral strategy. By focusing on the failings of the Scottish government, they hoped to present themselves as the party of integrity. Instead, his decision to file a no-confidence motion before Sturgeon had appeared before the committee undermined any claim to neutrality.
The challenge for all opposition parties is that, having turned this election into a referendum on Sturgeon’s leadership, they have been hampered. She is not going anywhere. The best they can do is push for the overthrow of others, like Permanent Secretary Leslie Evans, who oversaw the original Scottish government investigation; but his scalp would be a poor substitute for the prime minister’s.
There is also a backlash after the testimony of the two original complainants, who appeared in private, was known. leaked to a Sunday newspaper: a major breach of trust.
The women told the committee about a toxic culture that they said prevailed when Salmond was prime minister. However, the newspaper headline implied that his evidence raised new questions for Sturgeon rather than him.
This was one of a series of attempts to hold Sturgeon accountable for Salmond’s alleged actions. There is no doubt that the Scottish government made serious mistakes. However, the prospect of the country’s first female leader resigning over events stemming from allegations against her male predecessor would have been irritating had it been set in the context of the #MeToo movement.
In the final published version of the parliamentary report, the two complainants speak of their fears that the “circus” that developed will dissuade others from coming forward. Hopefully her powerful testimony and the scrutiny applied to the Scottish government will lead to the development of a process in which women can finally put their trust.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism