Under fire, Scottish leader defends handling of sex claims

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First Minister of Scotland Nicola Sturgeon takes the oath before giving evidence to the Committee on the Scottish Government Handling of Harassment Complaints, at Holyrood in Edinburgh, Scotland, Wednesday March 3, 2021. The inquiry is investigating the governments handling of sexual harassment allegations against former leader Alex Salmond, and allegations that Sturgeon misled parliament. (Jeff J Mitchell/PA via AP)

LONDON – Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon on Wednesday strongly denied being part of a plot against her predecessor, as she testified under oath in a political saga that is threatening both her leadership and her push for an independent Scotland.

Sturgeon defended the way her government handled sexual assault claims against former First Minister Alex Salmond, saying the #MeToo movement had made it clear that abuse allegations about powerful people must not be “ignored or swept under the carpet.”

Sturgeon testified for more than seven hours to a committee of lawmakers probing a political and personal feud that is wracking Scotland’s pro-independence movement and the governing Scottish National Party. Its antagonists are Salmond and Sturgeon, two former allies and friends who have dominated Scottish politics for decades.

Salmond was tried and acquitted last year on sexual assault charges, and claims the allegations made by several women were part of a conspiracy to wreck his political career.

He accuses Sturgeon of lying about when she learned of the allegations and breaking the code of conduct for government ministers. He alleges her administration undermined democratic principles and the rule of law by allowing the distinctions between government, party and civil service to become blurred.

Scotland’s highest civil court ruled in 2019 that the way the Scottish government had handled the misconduct allegations was unlawful and “tainted by apparent bias,” and awarded Salmond 500,000 pounds ($695,000) in expenses.

Sturgeon told a Scottish Parliament inquiry into the handling of the complaints that no one had “acted with malice or as part of a plot against Alex Salmond.”

“A number of women made serious complaints about Alex Salmond’s behavior,” she said. “The government, despite the mistakes it undoubtedly made, tried to do the right thing. As first minister I refused to follow the age-old pattern of allowing a powerful man to use his status and connections to get what he wants.”

The opposition Scottish Conservatives have demanded Sturgeon resign, but she insisted she acted properly.

Sturgeon defended not reporting to civil servants a meeting and a call with Salmond in 2018 about the complaints, saying it was because she did not want to influence the investigation. She denied leaking the complainants’ names, and said she refused Salmond's request to intervene on his behalf because that would have been “a heinous, egregious breach of my position.”

Salmond, who led the SNP for two decades, built the separatist party into a major political force and took Scotland to the brink of independence by holding a 2014 referendum.

He stepped down as first minister after the “remain” side won, and Sturgeon, his friend and deputy, replaced him.

In 2019, Salmond was charged with sexual assault and attempted rape after allegations by nine women who had worked with him as first minister or for the party. Salmond called the charges “deliberate fabrications for a political purpose,” and was acquitted after a trial in March 2020.

Salmond has called the last few years a “nightmare.” Sturgeon expressed sympathy for her former friend, but said she had searched in vain for “any sign at all that he recognized how difficult this has been for others, too.”

“That he was acquitted by a jury of criminal conduct is beyond question,” she said. “But I know just from what he told me, that his behavior was not always appropriate."

Yet she said Salmond had not spoken “a single word of regret.”

Sturgeon said she had “revered” Salmond as a mentor for decades.

"I’ve learned things about Alex Salmond over the past few years that have made me rethink," she said. “Many of us, including me, feel deeply let down by him. And that’s a matter of deep personal pain and regret for me.”

The political drama in Edinburgh could have major implications for the future of Scotland and the U.K.

Scotland's 2014 independence referendum was billed at the time as a once-in-a-generation decision. But the SNP says Brexit has fundamentally changed the situation by dragging Scotland out of the European Union against its will. A majority of Scottish voters backed “remain” in the U.K.’s 2016 EU membership referendum. The U.K. as a whole voted narrowly to leave the bloc.

A Scottish Parliament election is due in May, and the SNP leads in opinion polls. Sturgeon says if she wins a majority, she will push for a new independence referendum and challenge British Prime Minister Boris Johnson in the courts if his government refuses to agree.

John Curtice, professor of politics at the University of Strathclyde, said the damaging saga could hurt the SNP’s electoral prospects.

“(The possibility) is that sufficient people, as they see the drama on the accusations played out between Mr. Salmond and Ms. Sturgeon, that some say ‘Well hang on, is this really a country that can govern itself, or at least is this a party that I want us to take us on the road to independence?’” he said.