TAre you Sturgeon or Team Salmond? Looking at the parliamentary inquiry into the handling of sexual harassment allegations against Alex Salmond last week, you will be forgiven for thinking that this begins and ends with an explosive showdown between the two giants of the Scottish independence movement.
In one corner is the former prime minister-turned-host of Russia Today, who implausibly alleges that these complaints were part of a gigantic political conspiracy against him. On the other is his former protégé and current prime minister, Nicola Sturgeon, who has stridently defended herself against accusations of breaking the ministerial code.
But there are nine people who have been almost completely forgotten in this unfolding political drama; nine voices that have been drowned out by those who defend Sturgeon and those who cry out for his head. They are the women who came to complain about Salmond’s behavior, who have undergone not one, not two, but three investigations.
First, there was the original Scottish government investigation that confirmed their complaints, but which was so sloppy that it has now been outlawed. Then there was the trauma of the criminal trial against Salmond, where they were aggressively interrogated. Last year, a jury acquitted Salmond of 12 counts of attempted rape, sexual assault and indecent battery, paving the way for “witch hunt” charges against him. They are now experiencing the injustice of being turned into parliamentary political theater by Sturgeon’s opponents, who seem to care more about reclaiming his scalp.
All means of acquittal for Salmond are that a jury did not think there was sufficient evidence be certain that he had committed the crimes he was charged with. It does not follow that the women’s stories have been exaggerated or fabricated in any way; only that the high level of evidence in a criminal case was not met. Salmond himself has accepted to inappropriate sexual relations with an official and three civil servants testified at the trial, staff shifts were shifted to ensure that no woman was left alone after 9pm with the prime minister at his official residence.
A workplace investigation rightly has a lower threshold of evidence (probability balance) because the penalties are less severe and the emphasis is on protecting current and future employees. It is entirely conceivable that, had the Scottish government investigation been carried out legally, the women’s complaints would have persisted to this day. The women should have been protected by anonymity, but since then they have faced threats to get them out on social media and misogynistic abuse is so serious that they have been given personal alarms and offered police protection.
These women have been rejected primarily by Salmond, who relied on the defense he shared with a minor staff member what he describes as a drunken, consensual “sleeping hug” against the sexual assault allegations. Yet Sturgeon’s critics have succeeded in amplifying his ridiculous claims that his protégé is at the center of a conspiracy to unjustly send him to jail. In a misogynistic twist, the woman who regarded Salmond as her political mentor is forced to bear the brunt of the political fallout instead of Salmond himself.
This is no excuse for Sturgeon’s own grave mistakes, some of which he has openly admitted and, unlike Salmond, expressed remorse. Sturgeon should never have discussed the details of the allegations with Salmond since there was an ongoing government investigation. She has aptly described the appointment of an investigating officer who had already spoken to some of the complainants to lead the investigation, which is ultimately what led to the investigation being outlawed as a “terrible and catastrophic mistake”: It cost these women a fair investigation of their complaints. But the cheekiness of Salmond’s “sleepy embrace” in declaring that “Scotland’s leadership has failed” without showing any recognition of women’s pain is impressive. The Scottish Conservatives have wasted no time in calling for Sturgeon’s resignation. But the political hypocrisy here reveals the extent to which they see the nine women as pawns to undermine the campaign for Scottish independence. When the police investigated a Conservative deputy for allegedly raping an investigator, the party refused to approve suspending it, as would happen in any normal workplace. I have not seen conservative MSP Murdo Fraser raising concerns about this, or indeed the fact that Boris Johnson has kept Priti Patel in office, despite an independent investigation finding the Home Secretary’s intimidating behavior. broke the ministerial code. Serious problems also remain with the Labor Party’s complaints procedure for sexual harassment.
One of Salmond’s accusers has explained how the parliamentary inquiry has been even more traumatic than the high court trial because of the way opposition MSPs have taken their “very personal experiences and exploited them for their own selfish political interests.”
Fraser’s insinuation last week that Sturgeon somehow owes Scotland an apology for Salmond’s behavior is misogyny personified. Why should Sturgeon, 16 years younger than Salmond, be held accountable for his conduct in office? Like she or he hates her, no one could deny the difficult position in which Sturgeon was put by Salmond. His mistakes have been serious and costly, but he has done more than many to hold a former political ally, friend and confidant to account for his predatory behavior. The Scottish government adopted at least one complaints procedure The scope of which included historical indictments two years before Westminster that they had to be dragged there kicking and screaming.
“Be strong, be brave, make yourself heard”, the nine women implored other women after Salmond was acquitted. Courage calls for courage everywhere. But we remain stuck in an old roundabout of political actors who use sexual harassment as weapons to bring down their opponents, without thinking of their own complicity in these toxic cultures. The high hopes I had three years ago that the #MeToo moment would create a world where talking would require something less than extraordinary female bravery have faded.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism