It is political theatre of the highest order: the falling-out between Scotland’s first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, and her former mentor, Alex Salmond, over the handling of allegations of sexual harassment against him. The drama is so spectacular that it positively invites onlookers to take sides. And while it may not be fair to expect a female leader to deal with such claims more adeptly than a man in the same position, the expectation undeniably exists – and Sturgeon herself has admitted that the Scottish government’s response was muddled and let down the complainants.
At the same time, it is hard to avoid seeing ancient archetypes at work. The SNP’s inner circle resembles a dysfunctional family where the father figure, Salmond, rages against the ungrateful daughter, Sturgeon, who has refused to afford him the protection he believes to be his due. She responded with a bravura performance before the Holyrood inquiry this week, challenging any such expectation on his part: “As first minister, I refused to follow the age-old pattern of allowing a powerful man to use his status and his connections to get what he wants.”
It is exactly what women want to hear in the age of #MeToo, yet Sturgeon also made a revealing admission. Denying Salmond’s claim that she offered to intervene on his behalf, she acknowledged that he might have been left with the contrary impression: “I was perhaps trying to let a longstanding friend and colleague down gently, and maybe I did it too gently.” This is absolutely stereotypical feminine behaviour, a woman taking responsibility for a man’s feelings, and it happens frequently in unequal relationships.
Sturgeon’s reaction in April 2018 when Salmond told her exactly what he was accused of was shock, and she recalled this week that the revelation prompted “a maelstrom of emotions”. Shock may go some way towards explaining why her handling of the complaints lodged against Salmond by two women was so inept, leading to a successful judicial review of the Scottish government’s investigation. Salmond was awarded more than £500,000 of public money in costs.
Yet it has to be said that the former first minister’s revelation did not come entirely out of the blue. Even before that fateful meeting at her home, Sturgeon had “a lingering fear, suspicion, concern” that allegations about Salmond’s behaviour towards women might emerge. Five months previously, in November 2017, she had been told about alleged incidents involving the former first minister at Edinburgh airport a decade earlier.
A couple of weeks before that, the American actor Alyssa Milano had been on social media inviting women to use the #MeToo hashtag if they had ever been sexually harassed or assaulted. It received massive publicity, and it is not clear why a smart political operator like Sturgeon did not perceive a grave risk when her former mentor’s alleged behaviour appeared to fit an emerging pattern. It is one of several reasons why the first minister’s judgment has been called into question, but she has at least acknowledged her errors.
“Two women were failed and taxpayers’ money was lost,” she told the inquiry frankly on Wednesday, in stark contrast to Salmond’s “je ne regrette rien” performance the previous week. It is unfortunate for Sturgeon that her appearance followed bitter recriminations over her handling of a separate issue, self-identification for trans people, which has led some feminists in the SNP to question their support for her.
Even so, the most astonishing aspect of this long-running saga is Salmond’s determination to portray himself as its victim. Let’s be clear: he was cleared at a criminal trial last year of 12 charges of attempted rape, sexual assault and indecent assault. Some men might have regarded that outcome as sufficient vindication but it was evidently not enough for the former first minister, who has chosen to reinvent himself as the wholly innocent target of a wicked conspiracy.
It is not a view accepted by his former deputy, who has described his behaviour towards one of the original complainants – too often overlooked in this unedifying sequence of events, by the way – as “deeply inappropriate”. Salmond’s defence counsel at his trial, Gordon Jackson QC, was overheard on a train describing the former leader of the SNP as “quite an objectionable bully to work with”, although he later clarified that he did not regard his client as a “sex pest”. (Jackson resigned as dean of the Faculty of Advocates and referred himself to the Scottish Legal Complaints Commission.)
The fact remains that it is the woman who has apologised for a “dreadful, catastrophic mistake” in her government’s investigation, who is fighting for her political life, rather than the man whose alleged misconduct kicked off the ongoing scandal. The jury is out on whether the first minister will survive, but the situation speaks volumes about the differing expectations the public and the media continue to have towards men and women in public life.
Joan Smith is a journalist and chair of the Mayor of London’s Violence Against Women and Girls Board