Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s first minister, has credited her former mentor and predecessor Alex Salmond with making her career.
Sturgeon’s appearance on Wednesday morning before a parliamentary inquiry into her Scottish National party government’s handling of harassment complaints against Salmond will be a potentially pivotal moment for her, and her dream of leading Scotland to independence from the UK.
At an extraordinary appearance before the parliament committee on Friday lasting almost six hours, Salmond accused Sturgeon’s closest associates of maliciously colluding to drive him from public life and his former protégée of breaching the ministerial code by intentionally misleading parliament — potentially a resignation matter.
Sturgeon denies the allegations. But the televised session must have made difficult viewing for the formerly shy working-class girl from Ayrshire in south-west Scotland who has, in recent years, helped bring her nation closer to independence than at any time since the 1707 union with England that created Great Britain.
When Sturgeon succeeded Salmond as first minister in 2014 — in the aftermath of a referendum in which Scottish voters backed staying in the union by 55-45 per cent — she was fulsome in praise of her predecessor. “Without the guidance and support that Alex has given me over more than 20 years, it is unlikely that I would be standing here,” she told the Scottish parliament.
But Salmond was hardly the first figure in the SNP to spot Sturgeon’s talent. Aged just 16, Sturgeon in 1987 timidly rang the bell of then SNP general election candidate Kay Ullrich to offer her support. Four years later Sturgeon was a veteran student campaigner and, according to biographer David Torrance, Ullrich was presciently describing her to party comrades as the future “first female leader of the SNP”.
Sturgeon, who describes her nationalism as more “utilitarian” than “existentialist”, has said her early interest in politics was driven by anger at the social cost and deindustrialising impact of the policies of late UK prime minister Margaret Thatcher and the powerlessness of Scottish voters to resist them.
After studying law at Glasgow university, she became a community lawyer and a rising SNP star. In 1999, she was elected to the new devolved Scottish parliament and by 2004 she was a contender for the party leadership. But she accepted the junior place on a joint ticket after Salmond, who had already led the SNP from 1990 to 2000, entered the race.
Robert Johns, politics professor at Essex university and author of a book on the SNP’s rise, said Sturgeon was a big factor in the party’s fortunes as deputy leader from 2004 and as deputy first minister of Scotland after it won power in Edinburgh in 2007.
“She’s got better and better at being seen as a normal human being and becoming likeable, while at the same time not losing that reputation for competence,” Johns said.
After playing a central role in the 2014 referendum, which the pro-independence Yes campaign lost by a much smaller margin than expected, Sturgeon took over an SNP energised rather than dispirited by defeat.
Today, the first minister enjoys approval ratings unmatched by any other UK party leader despite 14 years in government and a patchy record on key policies.
An international education survey in 2019 found Scotland’s progress in narrowing the attainment gap between advantaged and disadvantaged pupils had actually slowed since Sturgeon made the issue her top priority four years earlier. And the SNP’s reputation for governing competence has been dented by serious problems with construction and equipment at flagship hospitals in Edinburgh and Glasgow.
Sturgeon’s instinctive caution and mastery of detail — on display at near-daily televised briefings — appears to have served her well during the coronavirus pandemic. Most voters think she has handled the crisis better than UK prime minister Boris Johnson. While Covid-19 deaths in Scotland are high by international standards, they have been somewhat lower than in England.
But Sturgeon’s determination to keep a tight rein on the SNP and her reliance on a small inner circle of confidants, which includes her husband and SNP chief executive Peter Murrell, has fuelled discontent among some party colleagues. Formidable self-discipline was an ingredient in the once anarchic SNP’s rise, Johns said, but now the party felt “over-professionalised”. “It’s more top-down than it ever used to be,” he added.
Some in the SNP also believe that Sturgeon has been too cautious to take full advantage of a rise in support for independence since the UK in 2016 voted for Brexit despite 62 per cent of Scottish voters backing staying in the EU. Tensions in the party have also grown over her plans to make it easier for trans people to receive official recognition for the gender they identify as.
But it is the rift with Salmond that now threatens Sturgeon’s hopes for a renewed push for a second independence poll.
Relations between the two had already been tested by Salmond’s decision to host a chat show on Kremlin-backed Russian broadcaster RT when in 2018 two civil servants made formal complaints against the former first minister dating to his time of office.
In 2019, the Scottish government accepted that its investigation into the complaints had been “tainted by apparent bias”. At a criminal trial last year, Salmond was acquitted of all of the 13 sexual offences charges against him.
Salmond has accused Murrell and Sturgeon’s chief of staff Liz Lloyd of involvement in a “concerted” effort to damage his reputation “to the extent of having me imprisoned”. They deny the allegations.
Salmond has also accused Sturgeon of breaching the ministerial code by misleading parliament about when she learned of the complaints against him and by failing to report meetings between the two. And he says she has presided over a broad failure of “national leadership”.
They are charges that, if proven, could prove politically fatal, but Sturgeon — a formidable debater — says she is “relishing” the opportunity to set the record straight on Wednesday.
With crucial elections for the Scottish parliament just nine weeks away, her committee appearance could have a major impact on the UK’s constitutional debate, said Mark Diffley, a consultant on Scottish public opinion.
Polls suggest the SNP has been on course to go from minority to majority government, removing its need to rely on the pro-independence Scottish Greens for support on constitutional matters and providing a strong mandate to demand UK approval for a second referendum.
But securing a majority in the proportionally representative Scottish parliament is a difficult feat that would be made harder if Sturgeon was not seen to effectively rebut Salmond’s allegations, Diffley said. “She can, with a good performance, recover some of the damage,” he added. “It’s a huge deal for her — and she knows it.”