For a decade they were the indivisible duo that drove the quest for Scotland’s independence and brought their party – and themselves – to power.
But in politics few friendships last forever, and those of the first Scottish minister, Nicola Sturgeon, and her predecessor and mentor, Alex Salmond, have not aged well – to the point that their collapse threatens the independence movement now, just as their prospects seemed best.
The two giants of the Scottish National Party are embroiled in a bitter feud over how to handle allegations against Mr Salmond, which culminated in 2020 when he was charged with more than a dozen sexual assaults and found not guilty on all counts.
The rift is so vicious that some believe the fate of the 314 year old Scottish union with England may have been based on a dispute over what Mrs Sturgeon knew about the allegations and whether she was telling the truth.
“It is very serious for the SNP,” said James Mitchell, professor of public order at Edinburgh University, who cited the Scottish parliamentary elections in May and Ms. Sturgeon’s hopes of making a profit to meet the demand for one to justify second Scottish independence referendum.
“This happened at the point where the SNP will get good election results and where support for independence is highest,” said Professor Mitchell. “Under these circumstances, one would expect the party to unite, although it has not been so inconsistent in decades.”
The case is so explosive because Mr Salmond says Mrs Sturgeon misled the Scottish legislature about her role and failed to truthfully explain how she handled the allegations against him. If so, this would lead to requests to withdraw.
Ms. Sturgeon denies the allegations, saying that those close to her former boyfriend and mentor are selling conspiracy theories and making contradicting claims against them.
But like the worst arguments, this one is personal.
Mr Salmond believes his reputation has been shattered by allegations against him, dating back to his first ministerial position prior to 2014, and including an attempted rape charge.
Some of his supporters believe that Ms. Sturgeon simply tossed him to the Wolves during a botched internal investigation into him in 2018 (long before the police got involved) in her eagerness to show no tolerance for sexual harassment.
Others theorize she wanted to actively get him out of the way to prevent his return to politics as a potential rival.
Ruth Davidson, the leader of the Scottish Conservatives, has spoken of a “cover-up in the heart of the government” and the dispute involved Peter Murrell, CEO of the SNP, who also happens to be married to Ms. Sturgeon.
With two separate investigations – alleging that evidence is suppressed and a lawsuit over freedom of the press – the bewildering complexities and endless twists and turns of the case have so far not had a material impact on public opinion, according to a poll, according to John Curtice, an expert and professor for Politics at the University of Strathclyde.
Regarding the allegations of conspiracy, “the tail was not put on the donkey,” he said.
However, he also noted that support for independence has stagnated in recent weeks. “It has long been apparent that the greatest risk to the SNP’s success in the May elections is the SNP itself,” said Professor Curtice.
This is partly because the fighting split the SNP into belligerent camps and uncovered other divisions within a party once known for its iron unity – for example, about how patient they are in seeking a second independence referendum should.
A reshuffle earlier this month stripped Joanna Cherry, a high-profile lawmaker in the UK Parliament, from her role as spokesperson for home affairs and justice, in what many viewed as a factional cleansing of those who criticized Ms. Sturgeon.
Ms. Sturgeon’s critics include Jim Sillars, a veteran of the independence movement who once clashed with Mr. Salmond but now sees his successor as a problem.
“The mentality at the highest point of the SNP is more like the divine right of kings: They think that nobody can touch them,” said Sillars.
“This lot has been in power for 14 years, they have enjoyed the elixir of power, they don’t want to give it up. They thought Salmond might be a threat and so decided to turn him on, ”he added.
The Civil War comes at a time when Ms. Sturgeon had been fine after a series of public opinion polls showed that the majority of Scots are in favor of independence. Their approval ratings in Scotland are well above those of Prime Minister Boris Johnson, whose English mannerisms of the upper class tend to compete with Scots.
And although the Covid-19 crisis in Scotland was just as severe as it was in England, Ms. Sturgeon’s serious manner and polished presentation won her praise as opposed to Mr. Johnson’s awkward personality, especially in the early stages of the pandemic.
Many of Ms. Sturgeon’s skills were learned from Mr. Salmond, a brazen, formidable, sometimes bitter debater who headed the SNP twice from 1990 to 2000 and from 2004 to 2014.
After the 1999 constitutional amendments restored a Scottish parliament, Salmond oversaw the transformation of the SNP from a powerless group of lawmakers in Westminster to a dominant political force in Edinburgh.
Scottish nationalism was renamed Progressive and Inclusive, and the party leaned slightly to the left, advocating the European integration it once spoke out against and welcoming immigrants from the bloc.
Mr. Salmond first discovered Mrs. Sturgeon’s talent when she was a student; As she once put it: “He believed in me long before I believed in myself.”
In 2004, Mr. Salmond advised her against engaging in a leadership battle he believed would lose and instead returned to the helm with Mrs. Sturgeon as his deputy.
Ms. Sturgeon’s next opportunity came in 2014 after the Scots rejected independence in a referendum and Mr. Salmond resigned as first minister and SNP leader. By then, Mrs. Sturgeon had established herself as his inevitable successor.
However, tensions between the new leader and her predecessor increased after he won re-election to the UK Parliament in 2015.
Nor did they let up when Mr Salmond lost that seat again in the 2017 general election and found new ways to attract attention. He hosted a one-man show at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and hosted a TV chat show on RT, the network formerly known as Russia Today.
“He couldn’t let go and she wouldn’t find a role for him,” said Professor Mitchell. “She’s a control freak in the way she runs the party, just like him. They are too similar; There would always be a problem. “
How big this problem will be remains to be seen. Professor Curtice thinks it likely that Ms. Sturgeon will weather the storm and defy any calls for resignation. Given her strong handling of the coronavirus pandemic, she could likely survive even if she broke some ministerial rules.
However, Professor Mitchell believes that Mrs. Sturgeon could be badly damaged by the feud with Mr. Salmond, which is gradually changing public perception.
“Things are starting to change in Scotland,” said Professor Mitchell, referring to the increasing scrutiny of Ms. Sturgeon’s account of the events. He said Mr. Salmond “was the villain of the play, but now people are asking questions.”
Mr. Salmond may be politically exhausted, but he has a mission to restore his reputation and that makes him a dangerous enemy, said Professor Mitchell.
“The problem for her,” said Professor Mitchell, “is that he has nothing to lose.”