The feud within the Scottish National Party

ALEX SAUMOND and his successor, Nicola Sturgeon, transformed the Scottish National Party from a fringe cause into a ruthless election winner that reduced the Scottish Labor Party to a rump and in a 2014 referendum came close to achieving its goal of smashing the UK. It can still succeed: independence is leading in the polls. If he fails, the feud he is now locked in could be partly to blame.

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On February 22, Mr. Salmond’s testimony before a committee of lawmakers was released. He claimed that those around Ms Sturgeon had made a “deliberate, prolonged, malicious and concerted effort” to damage her reputation “to the point of having me imprisoned”. Ms Sturgeon, he says, misled the Scottish Parliament and breached the Ministerial Code, which would be grounds for resignation. She calls it a conspiracy theory.

In January 2018, in the wake of the #MeToo movement, the Scottish government received two complaints of sexual misconduct against Mr Salmond, dating back to his time as Prime Minister. It sustained them. Mr Salmond sued and in January 2019 won. The judge described the investigation as “tainted by apparent bias”.

Later that month, police charged Mr. Salmond with 14 offenses against ten women, including attempted rape and sexual assault. During her trial, the court heard that there was an informal policy of not allowing female civil servants to work alone in her residence at night; his defense portrayed him as a “tactile, sensitive” man who, in a “world of victims”, had been labeled a criminal. He was acquitted.

He is now seeking revenge. A Scottish Parliament committee is investigating how Ms Sturgeon’s government has handled complaints, and an inquiry by James Hamilton, a lawyer, is looking into whether she breached the Ministerial Code.

The #MeToo movement has exposed the flaws in every organization it has touched. In the SNPIn this case, the proximity of those who have devoted themselves to independence makes the quarrel particularly vicious. Mr. Salmond was a leader for a total of 20 years. Ms. Sturgeon, his assistant for a decade, first met him as a teenage volunteer. Peter Murrell, her husband, whom Mr Salmond identifies as a major plotter, was her bag-bearer and is now the party’s chief executive. Such intimacy, once SNP strength, has become a handicap: filth accumulates and resentment accumulates. The battle deepens political divides, over trans rights and when to hold a second referendum.

The charge that Ms Sturgeon knew more about Mr Salmond than she admits has stuck, because she is so dominant in her party and takes personal control of so much government business. “This government has been very centralizing. Under Nicola Sturgeon, the cabinet just rubber stamps things,” says James Mitchell, professor of public policy at the University of Edinburgh. A Sturgeon loyalist blames a talent shortage. “It’s the same under Nicola as it is under Alex – a very small group of the smartest people run the show and, you know what? We have won many elections this way.

The Scottish civil service appeared weak. Leslie Evans, the permanent secretary, apologized for the botched first investigation. She and Ms Sturgeon are accused of pursuing the doomed legal action. Lawmakers found his testimony evasive and forgetful. The impression is that of a machine that lacked the grip to deal with complaints, and in which the affairs of party and government were too easily muddied.

The Scottish Parliament was also embarrassed. The commission of inquiry, chaired by a SNP lawmaker, has been chaotic: The appearances of Mr. Salmond and Ms. Sturgeon have been repeatedly delayed amid quarrels over evidence. After publishing the accusations of Mr. Salmond against the entourage of Ms. Sturgeon, the commission retracted and redacted its statement at the request of the prosecutor.

The farce fuels the conspiracy, which is rampant among nationalists. Mr. Salmond’s case is that the internal investigation was not simply bungled by officials determined to meet the #MeToo challenge of the moment, but that it was a coup. Its sponsors speak of “dark forces” and MI5. The women involved were identified and tracked online. Rape Crisis Scotland, a charity, says the fracas can discourage women from bringing cases against powerful men.

Mrs. Sturgeon will survive. She has no clear successor. A SNP hand estimates that support for independence would fall by ten points if she left. But the party will be damaged. In the May election, she will seek a mandate for a second independence referendum and ask Scots to believe that her government is ready for remarkably complex divorce negotiations with the British government. That’s a lot to ask.

This article appeared in the Britain section of the print edition under the headline “Feuding nationalists”