Barely had the first sirens of our current health emergency begun to sound than Nicola Sturgeon was being reminded of this. Following the first COBRA meeting to discuss coronavirus the First Minister felt duty-bound to announce public measures as quickly as possible to the Scottish people. According to some English commentators Ms Sturgeon had no right to do this until Boris Johnson had done it first.
Earlier this week, Ms Sturgeon was reprimanded once more by some English journalists unhappy that she insists on referring to Mr Johnson as “Boris” rather than “Prime Minister” during Cobra meetings. You might have thought that rising daily death tolls; the mortal threat to the economy and the prospect of the NHS being overwhelmed are enough to be getting on with. But, no, because “it’s ‘Prime Minister’ to you”.
Adherence to this convention hasn’t stopped some Unionist commentators trying to predict how the movement for independence might be affected first by coronavirus and secondly by the fallout of the Alex Salmond trial. I have no problem with this.
The constitutional question has dominated Scottish politics for a generation. It’s entirely reasonable to speculate what the effects of coronavirus will portend for the SNP and its ultimate goal of independence. In light of the expected civil war that is expected to erupt within the SNP and the wider Yes movement following Mr Salmond’s trial this national health emergency could provide an opportunity for reflection.
The former First Minister was acquitted on all the charges of sexual assault and attempted rape he was facing and immediately gave notice that he intends to exact a significant measure of vengeance upon those within the SNP whom he holds responsible for seeking to destroy him. Those of us who have been made aware of some of the evidence ruled inadmissible in the defence case know where this is going.
Mr Salmond and his supporters are confident that once this is placed in the public domain – almost certainly in the course of two inquiries into the Government’s role in it – that some very senior people may be forced to consider their positions.
I have no doubt that Mr Salmond will attempt a political comeback and that this will ultimately involve a tilt at the party leadership. He will feel utterly vindicated by the decision of a jury, which included nine women, to find him innocent of all charges.
Few doubt the wisdom of their judgment. A high bar is set for proving guilt in these cases. It became clear from the opening exchanges in the trial that the prosecution would have trouble reaching this standard.
In the absence of corroboration or witnesses to the incidents in question the prosecution’s case rested heavily on the Moorov doctrine. This is used to establish a pattern of predatory sexual behaviour. In a case like this, where most of the accusers were known to each other it carries a risk: if one or two stitches come undone then the pattern is ruined.
Yet, in this case, acquittal does not signify that all the witnesses were lying. Those observers I’ve spoken with who were present throughout the trial reported that the testimony of most of the complainants seemed sincere and heartfelt. It becomes troubling when bystanders, especially men, seek to cast aspersions on the quality of a woman’s complaint of sexual assault.
The passage of a significant amount of time between an incident occurring and the reporting of it is of little consequence. There are many reasons for making a woman think twice about taking complaints further, not the least of which is the distressingly low number of rape and sexual assault cases that even come to court in Scotland. This, and how their sexual histories (though not in this case) are luridly held up for public inspection.
I also become queasy when comparisons are drawn between what might have been acceptable a few years ago and now. Men often justify revelations of predatory behaviour by old celebrities as merely “a product of the 1970s”, and thus deemed to be trifling or “a footer” to borrow a phrase used in Mr Salmond’s trial. Yet, most of the men I have known from that era considered such conduct to be just as wrong then as it is now. They would talk of ‘common decency’.
And yet, on the evidence, the jury did come to the right decision. These incidents, some of which Mr Salmond and his legal team admitted were inappropriate, did not amount to criminality in the law. He is innocent and thus free to pursue a political career as an innocent man.
However, as coronavirus advances towards summer I would urge Mr Salmond to take the opportunity it provides for self-reflection. He can’t escape from this truth: he wouldn’t have found himself in the dock if his conduct had always been of the standard we expect of a national leader.
If we’re talking about the high bar that’s set to prove criminality then we must also discuss the high bar we set for those who seek public office. If Mr Salmond does return to front-line politics he and those closest to him must first consider if the Scottish people feel he can reach that gold standard in light of all the evidence led at his trial.
I would urge Mr Salmond to think again about seeking revenge for his ordeal and tipping the cause he loves into a state of ruinous civil strife. The opponents of independence even now are salivating at such a prospect.
This is not a time for vengeance but a time for healing. I would like him to express contrition for those times his conduct fell below that which we expect in high office and to seek to bring about peace and reconciliation. These, more than strength and clarity of purpose, are the characteristics of a true leader. They are also the mark of a better man.