“The move to independence, which I have sought all my political life … must be accompanied by institutions whose leadership is strong and robust and capable of protecting each and every citizen from arbitrary authority.”
Alex Salmond’s testimony to the Scottish Parliament’s Committee on the Scottish Government Handling of Harassment Complaints had an explosive impact, both in Scotland and in the wider UK. Whatever one thinks about the veracity of his claims, have they damaged the cause of independence?
As well as concerns about whether the First Minister has breached the ministerial code, Salmond’s testimony cast doubts on the strength and conduct of Scottish institutions, in particular the neutrality of the civil service, the conduct of the Crown Office, and the probity of the Scottish Government itself. Salmond was keen to ring-fence blame and focus on the leadership of institutions such as the Scottish Civil Service and the Crown Office. Others allege wider democratic failings, not least to an inadequate separation of powers and overbearing influence of unelected officials such as the Lord Advocate who ordered Parliament not to ‘entertain any attack on the integrity of the Crown’.
For Nicola Sturgeon, by contrast, the institutions acted impartially at all times. Indeed, she believes the problem is unwarranted accusations of bias and lack of independence which she says are “deeply injurious to the health and wellbeing of our democracy”.
After 22 consecutive polls when a vote for Independence has been the most popular response, the latest polling suggests some supporters of independence may be changing their minds. And while the SNP is still on course to gain a narrow outright majority, Unionists point to George Galloway’s Alliance for Unity, which is gaining some traction, and the election of Anas Sarwar as the new Labour leader as complicating factors in the assumed march to independence.
What do the revelations of the past few weeks mean for the independence campaign and for the devolved Scottish Government? Have we seen nothing more than political opportunism on behalf of opposition MSPs, or have the hopes for IndyRef2 been dashed? Is faith in Scottish independence inextricably linked to faith in the SNP? And, more broadly, is there something rotten in the democratic settlement for the people of Scotland?
Michelle Ballantyne MSP
Scottish politician; leader, Reform UK Scotland
associate director, Academy of Ideas; co-author, The Future of Community
columnist for The Herald; author, Disunited Kingdom: How Westminster won a referendum but lost Scotland
Scottish politician, independence campaigner and former deputy leader of the SNP
Dr Simon Knight
director, Scotland Salon