Team Sturgeon or Team Salmond? Watching the parliamentary inquiry into the handling of sexual harassment allegations against Alex Salmond last week, you would be forgiven for thinking this begins and ends with an explosive showdown between the two giants of the Scottish independence movement.
In one corner is the former first minister turned Russia Today presenter, who implausibly alleges these complaints were part of some giant political conspiracy against him. In the other is his former protege and current first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, who has stridently defended herself against charges she broke the ministerial code.
But there are nine people who have been almost completely forgotten in this unfolding political drama; nine voices who have been drowned out by those defending Sturgeon, and those baying for her head. They are the women who came forward to complain about Salmond’s behaviour, who have lived through not one, not two, but three investigations.
First, there was the original Scottish government inquiry that upheld their complaints, but which was so badly bungled it has now been ruled unlawful. Then there was the trauma of the criminal trial against Salmond, where they were aggressively cross-examined. A jury last year acquitted Salmond of 12 counts of attempted rape, sexual assault and indecent assault, paving the way for allegations of a “witch-hunt” against him. Now they are experiencing the injustice of being turned into parliamentary political theatre by Sturgeon’s opponents, who seem to care more about claiming her scalp.
All Salmond’s acquittal means is a jury did not think there was sufficient evidence to be certain he had committed the crimes of which he was accused. It does not follow that the women’s accounts were in any way exaggerated, or fabricated; just that the high evidentiary bar for a criminal case was not met. Salmond himself has admitted to inappropriate sexual relations with a female civil servant and three civil servants testified in the trial that staff rotas were changed to ensure no woman was left alone after 9pm with the first minister in his official residence.
A workplace investigation rightly has a lower evidence threshold – balance of probability – because the penalties are less serious and the emphasis is on protecting current and future employees. It is entirely conceivable that, if the Scottish government’s investigation had been conducted lawfully, the women’s complaints would have been upheld to this day. The women should have been shielded by anonymity, but have since faced threats to out them on social media and misogynistic abuse so bad that they have been given personal alarms and offered police protection.
These women have been failed first and foremost by Salmond, who relied on the defence that he shared with a junior member of staff what he describes as a consensual and drunken “sleepy cuddle” against allegations of sexual assault. Yet Sturgeon’s critics have succeeded in amplifying his ludicrous claims that his protege is at the heart of a conspiracy to unjustly throw him in prison. In a misogynistic twist, the woman who regarded Salmond as her political mentor is being forced to bear the brunt of the political fallout in place of Salmond himself.
This is not to excuse Sturgeon’s own serious mistakes, some of which she has openly admitted and, unlike Salmond, expressed remorse over. Sturgeon should have never discussed the details of the allegations with Salmond given there was a government inquiry under way. She has rightly described the appointment of an investigating officer who had already spoken to some of the complainants to lead the inquiry – which is ultimately what led to the investigation being ruled unlawful – as a “dreadful and catastrophic mistake”: it cost these women a fair investigation of their complaints. But the gall of “sleepy cuddle” Salmond in declaring “Scotland’s leadership has failed” while showing zero acknowledgment of the women’s pain is breathtaking. Scottish Conservatives have wasted no time in calling for Sturgeon to resign. But the political hypocrisy here reveals the extent to which they see the nine women as pawns to undermine the campaign for Scottish independence. When a Conservative MP was being investigated by the police for allegedly raping a researcher, the party refused to countenance suspending him, as would happen in any normal workplace. I have not seen the Conservative MSP Murdo Fraser raising concerns over this, or, indeed the fact that Boris Johnson has kept Priti Patel in post, despite an independent investigation finding the home secretary’s bullying behaviour broke the ministerial code. There also remain serious issues with the Labour party’s sexual harassment complaints procedure.
One of Salmond’s accusers has explained how the parliamentary inquiry has been even more traumatic than the high court trial because of the way opposition MSPs have taken their “very personal experiences and exploited them for their own self-serving political interests”.
Fraser’s implication last week that Sturgeon somehow owes Scotland an apology for Salmond’s behaviour is misogyny personified. Why should Sturgeon, 16 years Salmond’s junior, be held accountable for his conduct in office? Like her or loathe her, no one could deny what a difficult position Sturgeon was put in by Salmond. Her missteps have been grave and costly, but she has done more than many to hold a one-time political ally, friend and confidant to account for his predatory behaviour. The Scottish government at least adopted a complaints procedure whose scope included historic allegations a full two years before Westminster, which had to be dragged there kicking and screaming.
“Be loud, be brave, be heard,” the nine women implored other women after Salmond was acquitted. Courage calls to courage everywhere. But we remain stuck on an age-old roundabout of political actors weaponising sexual harassment to bring down their opponents, with little thought given to their own complicity in these toxic cultures. The high hopes I had three years ago that the #MeToo moment would create a world where speaking out would require anything less than extraordinary female bravery have fizzled out.
• Sonia Sodha is an Observer columnist