What is the Alex Salmond controversy all about?

After weeks of legal wrangling, the former first minister is due to appear before a Holyrood inquiry

What is the Salmond controversy about?

In August 2018, news leaked the Scottish government had investigated two allegations of sexual misconduct against Alex Salmond while he was first minister. It did so under new rules introduced due to the #MeToo movement, which allowed retrospective investigations into former ministers. Its findings were passed to Police Scotland, which launched its own investigation.

Salmond denied the allegations, resigned from the Scottish National party, and immediately took the Scottish government to court, accusing it of abuse of process.

In January 2019, the court of session in Edinburgh ruled the government inquiry was unlawful because the lead investigator had had prior contact with the complainers. Leslie Evans, the permanent secretary, admitted it was “tainted by apparent bias”.

What happened next?

Nicola Sturgeon, the first minister, admitted she spoke to Salmond about the government inquiry five times while it was under way, including meetings at her home. She failed to tell Evans she had done so until hours before her third conversation, potentially in breach of the ministerial code. She also failed to tell parliament she had met one of Salmond’s former aides in her Holyrood office on 29 March 2018, when she is said to have been first told he was under investigation – another potential breach of the code.

Several investigations were launched: Sturgeon referred herself under the ministerial code and the case was passed to James Hamilton, a former director of public prosecutions in Ireland; the Scottish parliament appointed a special committee to investigate the government’s handling of the inquiry and Sturgeon’s actions; and the government set up an internal review.

Two weeks after winning his judicial review, Salmond appeared at Edinburgh sheriff court on 14 counts, including two of indecent assault, nine of sexual assault and two attempted rapes. He denied all the charges.

In August 2019, the Scottish government paid Salmond £512,000 to cover his legal expenses for the judicial review. It later emerged that figure was so high because of serious procedural concerns about the government’s handling of his legal challenge.

What happened at the Salmond trial?

In March 2020, after nine days of evidence at the high court, Salmond was cleared of 14 charges – an attempted rape, one intent to rape, 11 sexual assaults and two indecent assaults, against 10 women. One charge was dropped by the crown; the jury acquitted Salmond of all the others on majority verdicts.

Salmond admitted in evidence he had an extramarital “sexual liaison” with one of the complainers, but on a different date to the one alleged in the charges, and a “sleepy cuddle” with another for which he soon apologised to her. It emerged during the trial a number of civil servants heard of two alleged incidents after the women involved told close colleagues.

Once the trial ended, the Scottish parliament inquiry began to gather evidence.

What has happened with the two remaining inquiries?

The Holyrood inquiry has held 11 oral evidence sessions, given under oath, including several with Evans, the senior civil servants involved in drafting the sexual harassment policy used to investigate Salmond, and the officials who carried out the inquiry. MSPs heard that officials were aware of unspecified rumours about Salmond, including alleged bullying.

The government has released thousands of pages of evidence but MSPs have repeatedly accused ministers of breaching promises to do so quickly. After ministers repeatedly refused to release their legal advice on the Salmond case, Holyrood voted twice to insist it was handed over. The government has not given way, and the committee has only been allowed to see a summary of the advice.

What happens now?

After weeks of legal wrangling over the publication of his submissions, Salmond has refused to appear before the Holyrood inquiry on Wednesday instead suggesting Friday, with Sturgeon expected to be its final witness next week. Both will appear under oath.

Salmond’s evidence to the committee was published, in partly redacted form, in which he accused some of the most senior figures in the SNP and Scottish government of colluding in a conspiracy to destroy his political career – charges that Sturgeon, the SNP and the government reject.

The committee is running out of time: Holyrood will stop sitting in late March before the Scottish elections on 6 May, and its officials have only a few weeks to write and publish the report. Meanwhile, the Scottish government will have to publish Hamilton’s report into whether Sturgeon broke the ministerial code: many observers think that investigation is a greater threat to the first minister than the Holyrood inquiry. If Hamilton finds she broke the code, she could resign.


Severin Carrell Scotland editor

The GuardianTramp

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