Analysis: Nicola Sturgeon sets out a story of good intentions and catastrophic consequences
Any good lawyer knows the importance of telling a story. It may be incomplete, with its ending uncertain, but a coherent narrative with a central theme is the greatest persuasive power in their armoury.
A quarter of a century has passed since First Minister Nicola Sturgeon qualified as a solicitor. Little could she have known how such a grounding would serve her in good stead for her future career.
Ms Sturgeon did not unify the opposing claims and counter-claims that have defined the Holyrood committee’s investigation into the Scottish Government’s handling of complaints against Alex Salmond
Such a task would defy Cicero, let alone someone who spent two years at Drumchapel Law Centre. But in setting out a credible and uncomplicated sequence of circumstances which led to the extraordinarily breakdown in her relationship with the man she once revered, Ms Sturgeon has made a compelling case.
It will not convince everyone, of course. In a political landscape where tribal rivalries grow more entrenched with every passing month, how could it? But its success depends on appealing to principles that are as universal as they are unfashionable – decency, empathy and conscience.
These are the motifs which thread Ms Sturgeon’s story together and propel its plot – that of a woman left aghast by grave allegations against one of her oldest friends and mentors, and who reluctantly turned her back on him. Not because she did not care, but because she cared too much.
Time and again Ms Sturgeon told the committee she was not infallible, a claim borne out by her evidence.
All too often, one of the pre-eminent politicians of her generation was struck down by a curious amnesia, left bereft of her preternatural ability to wrest an argument in her favour, not least when addressing the conflicting accounts over what transpired at meetings with Mr Salmond and Geoff Aberdein, his former chief of staff, in the spring of 2018.
She was at her weakest when answering questions over whether she had promised Mr Salmond to intervene in the complaints process, stating she had perhaps let him down “too gently”. This is too cute an answer by far.
The game of ‘he said, she said’ around such flashpoints will linger long after the committee has published its conclusions, but what has mattered most of all in the inquiry is the question of motive.
We know that whatever initial promises Ms Sturgeon may have offered to Mr Salmond, she did not make good on them. At no point did she seek to involve herself in the complaints process, a point she made repeatedly and forcefully over the course of eight hours of evidence.
In doing so, she asserted the authority of her story over that of Mr Salmond. He has presented himself as the fly caught in a web of his successor’s making – a trap designed to consign him and his allies to the political wilderness.
Ms Sturgeon, without too much labour, took a feather duster to that particular conspiracy.
The narrative she told was one of good intentions and catastrophic consequences. What binds these two things together is serial incompetence and a culture of secrecy that is common knowledge to anyone who has ever sent a Freedom of Information request to St Andrew’s House.
Her administration’s stonewalling of the committee’s inquiry is no less damaging than the catalogue of errors it committed in the first place.
Ms Sturgeon expressed contrition for the mistakes that have been made and, more importantly, regret for the pain they had caused. The strength of her testimony was rooted in such candour, especially when she chose to contrast her penitent tone with the refusal by Mr Salmond to say sorry for his behaviour.
Of course, she could yet pay a political price for presiding over such a calamitous approach, and the concurrent investigation by James Hamilton QC into whether Ms Sturgeon breached the ministerial code may ensure that is a heavy one.
His inquiry centres around her meetings with Mr Salmond and Mr Aberdein, an area in which Ms Sturgeon’s testimony fell some way short of conclusive.
The story is almost over and each successive chapter has complicated a tale that is fraught with contradictions. These are not easily resolved, though perhaps too much energy has been spent on attempting to do just that.
It is possible to hold simultaneous and conflicting beliefs about the evidence set out by Ms Sturgeon and others. What we know about the handling of the judicial review is excoriating for the government, and yet it is no way indicative of a plot to bring down Mr Salmond’s populist schism of the nationalist movement.
Equally, accepting Ms Sturgeon’s remorse over the government’s handling of sensitive legal processes is in no way incompatible with ridicule of the “frustration” she expressed at the paucity of partial and withheld evidence drip fed to the committee.
Ultimately, however, Ms Sturgeon and Mr Salmond cannot both be right. It is in the committee’s power to attribute weight to these competing factors, an onerous task that will hopefully be carried out with a gravity and curiosity that has been frequently absent from the witness hearings.
Its members have two stories before them – one a riveting thriller, the other a morality tale. Let us hope they take seriously their duty to choose the one that is most convincing, and not that which is the most convenient.