Ian Swanson: Row over Salmond a test that Sturgeon cannot fail

Nicola Sturgeon will unveil her Government's legislative agenda for the coming year. Picture: WPA Pool /Getty Images
Nicola Sturgeon will unveil her Government's legislative agenda for the coming year. Picture: WPA Pool /Getty Images
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NICOLA Sturgeon could not have been clearer. When SNP parliamentarians got together last week ahead of today’s return to Holyrood after the summer break, she told them in no uncertain terms: There ­cannot be one rule for the powerful and ­another for everyone else.

The First ­Minister finds ­herself in an incredibly ­awkward situation following the ­allegations of sexual harassment against her predecessor Alex Salmond – which he strenuously denies.

Not only has Ms Sturgeon been a close ally of Mr Salmond for many years, but he is also still a hugely ­significant figure in the nationalist movement she leads and has a big personal following.

Yet he is now the subject of the kind of claim which she has said women must be confident will be taken seriously.

He has launched legal action against the Scottish Government and its top civil servant Leslie Evans over the process for investigating the ­complaints – a process which Ms Sturgeon herself had approved.

The allegations and the row ­surrounding them will overshadow today’s unveiling of the Scottish ­Government’s legislative programme, next month’s SNP conference and potentially most political debate in Scotland for some time.

Mr Salmond is the biggest figure of his generation in Scottish politics. He took the SNP from the political fringe to the heart of power and established it as the party of government and brought Scotland closer than most people expected to becoming an ­independent country. But now he is fighting for his reputation.

Like the skilled political operator he is, he sought – as soon as he realised the allegations were about to be made public – to take control of the story by focusing attention on what he believes is the unfairness of the process.

He appeared to make it a personal battle between him and Ms Evans, warning there would be “consequences” for her if he won his legal action.

When there were calls for him to be suspended, Mr Salmond took the initiative again by resigning from the SNP – and reminding everyone of his grassroots popularity by saying his move would avoid the “substantial internal division” which could have resulted from his suspension.

He caused controversy by launching a crowdfunder for his legal action and raising over £100,000 but this offered more evidence of the support he has out there.

In the face of all this, Ms Sturgeon has spoken repeatedly of the need for women to know complaints of ­sexual harassment will be treated ­seriously and went out of her way to urge ­support for a crowdfunding campaign for women’s aid groups.

She emphasised to her MSPs that she believes in a Scotland where there is equality before the law.

She went on: “Let’s not forget that at the heart of this, amidst all the focus on process, politics and personalities, there are two people who have brought forward complaints, which cannot have been at all easy to do.

“How we deal with this, and how we are seen to respond to this, will say a lot about who we are as a party and also about the country we are today and want to build for the future.”

The complaints against Mr ­Salmond present a major test which the SNP and Scotland cannot afford to fail.