How Infighting Threatens Scotland’s Independence Drive

Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon’s feud with her predecessor and former mentor, Alex Salmond is threatening to undermine her pro-independence Scottish National Party at a time when it desperately needs to keep momentum. She faced a grilling at a parliamentary inquiry on March 3 over her role in the mishandling of a case against him, part of a probe that includes an allegation that she misled parliament. That’s a charge that could force her to quit just as the party is gearing up for elections that may pave the way for a second independence referendum.

1. What’s at stake?

The drama has been unfolding just weeks before a May 6 election in the country that could prove critical for the future of the whole U.K. Polls show the SNP is on course for a majority that Sturgeon says will reinforce her mandate to pressure U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson for a further plebiscite on leaving the three-centuries-old union with England and Wales. An Ipsos MORI poll published Feb. 25 showed the SNP would win a record 72 of the 129 seats in the Scottish Parliament, though the pollster warned the inquiry into the handling of harassment complaints against Salmond was starting to register with voters. Support for Scottish independence declined to 52% from 56% in November.

2. What happened in the last referendum?

Salmond and Sturgeon were the united front for years at the top of the SNP and in 2014 fought an independence referendum campaign that at one point had polls suggesting they might just win. In the end, Scottish people voted 55% to 45% to remain in the U.K., though the issue never went away and Sturgeon increased her popularity. At the time, Sturgeon described the referendum as a “once in a generation” event. But she now argues that the U.K.’s June 2016 vote to leave the European Union fundamentally changed what it means to be part of the U.K. Scotland voted by 62% to 38% to remain in the EU in that referendum.

3. How could this probe affect Sturgeon?

As leader of Scotland’s semi-autonomous administration and the U.K.’s third-largest party, Sturgeon is one of Britain’s most prominent politicians — and she’s been a constant thorn in the side of Johnson over Brexit. Sturgeon’s case is that Scotland has been dragged out of the EU against its will and that Scots are being sidelined under Johnson’s government, exposing a “democratic deficit” that only breaking away from the U.K. can fix. Johnson, who riled Scots by calling devolution “a disaster,” says she can’t have a referendum because it’s too soon after the last one. She’s viewed as having handled the pandemic well and is praised by the public for her clear messaging and perceived honesty. But any evidence she misled parliament risks undermining that.

4. What’s the feud about?

Salmond was acquitted in 2020 in court of multiple counts of sexual assault against women while he was in office. He claims he’s the victim of political collusion that ran all the way to the top of Scotland’s government and included the judiciary, civil service and parliament. Having built the SNP into a potent political force and served as Scotland’s first minister from 2007 to 2014, he handed the baton to Sturgeon after losing the referendum on leaving the U.K. He admitted in court to some inappropriate behavior toward women, but even before his trial a judge had found that the government’s investigation into harassment allegations was unlawful and he was awarded 500,000 pounds ($691,000) in costs. He says there was a “deliberate, prolonged, malicious and concerted effort” to purge him from public life, something Sturgeon denies.

5. Why is there an inquiry now?

Actually there are two. The botched handling of complaints against Salmond led to a probe by a parliamentary committee into how and why the government pursued a criminal case despite reservations about whether it would be successful. A second inquiry by Ireland’s former head of public prosecutions is looking into whether Sturgeon broke the ministerial code by misleading parliament about when she became aware of the complaints against Salmond. Both inquiries are expected to report by March 25, when parliament breaks for the election campaign.

6. So it’s personal?

Yes, very. Her spat with Salmond involves her husband Peter Murrell, who is chief executive of the SNP, as well as her chief of staff. There’s a chance the SNP will have to fight the election without Sturgeon if she’s forced to resign. The Conservatives called for her to quit after the publication of legal advice the government received.

7. What have Salmond and Sturgeon said?

When he gave evidence on Feb. 26, Salmond said that Scotland’s “leadership had failed” and that independence must be “accompanied by institutions whose leadership is strong and robust and capable of protecting each and every citizen from arbitrary authority.” Sturgeon, who appeared at the inquiry the following week, apologized for the way the investigation was handled but dismissed any notion of collusion or that procedures were set up specifically to target him. “It’s absurd to suggest that anyone acted with malice or as part of a plot,” she said.

8. Is Sturgeon able to call another independence vote?

Yes, if you ask a lot of Scottish nationalists. No, if you ask the U.K. government. The 2014 vote was called by the Scottish Parliament under one-time powers granted to it by the U.K. Parliament. Following that precedent, Johnson would have to agree to another referendum, and he’s been clear he opposes one. Whether he could sustain that position depends on how political pressure shifts in Scotland and how Sturgeon plays her hand. When asked in January if she would consider unilaterally holding an advisory referendum, she said that she remained committed to a legal one. A separate case by independence campaigners seeking a ruling that Scotland already has powers to hold a legally binding referendum was being fast-tracked by an Edinburgh court and the latest appeal was expected to be heard before the May election.

9. Does the way Brexit was handled matter?

Johnson’s delivery of a “hard Brexit” -- taking Britain out of the EU’s single market -- has given more succor to a Scottish independence bid, yet also made it more complicated. About 60% of Scottish exports go to England, Wales and Northern Ireland. Under the independence scenario envisioned by nationalists in the 2014 referendum, Scotland would have kept the pound, gotten a seat on the Bank of England’s Monetary Policy Committee and had no border with the rest of the U.K., since both would still have been EU members. Now the U.K. has left the EU, an independent Scotland would need to apply to rejoin the bloc.

10. Would that be automatic?

In short, no. But then we are in uncharted waters. Given the U.K. was a part of the EU from 1973 until 2020, the process of joining might be expedited because European laws are already established in Scotland. The biggest hurdle might again be Spain, which is keen not to give its own separatists in Catalonia a road map for secession.

The Reference Shelf

  • A Bloomberg story on Scotland’s leader wanting to force a legal independence vote.
  • A Bloomberg article on Johnson facing a battle to keep Scotland as the Brexit deal shows scars.
  • Bloomberg stories on testimony by Salmond and Sturgeon.
  • A QuickTake explainer on Scotland’s independence and one on Catalonia.
  • A Bloomberg Opinion column by Therese Raphael on a Scottish drama that’s worthy of Shakespeare.
  • A profile of Sturgeon.

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