GLASGOW â€” This is much, much bigger than me.
That was the message from former Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond during a long-awaited appearance before a parliamentary inquiry Friday. Even for the famously forthright politician, his over 4 hours of evidence was explosive. Ministers will have been expecting a political hand grenade, they got a thermonuclear detonation.
Not only was there a conspiracy at the highest levels to expunge Salmond from public life, he claimed, involving the suppression of evidence and hamstringing a probe into the governmentâ€™s handing of sexual harassment complaints against him, the malfeasance was eating away at Scotlandâ€™s democratic foundations.
The actions of senior ministers were â€œundermining the system of government in Scotland,â€ Salmond said, even as erstwhile allies in the Scottish independence movement dubbed the performance a grandstanding distraction to salve his oversized ego.
Telling the committee he had turned down hundreds of media appearances in order to give his evidence direct to lawmakers, Salmond cast himself as the defender of truth in a murky affair that threatens to bring down First Minister Nicola Sturgeon â€” and with her the cause of independence itself.
Here are five key takeaways from Salmondâ€™s committee appearance:Â
1. Top down
The former first minister didnâ€™t pull his punches. While Salmond rejected claims that the affair had rendered Scotland a â€œfailed state,â€ he said that the mishandling of his case stemmed from the very top. â€œScotland hasnâ€™t failed. Its leadership has failed,â€ the 66-year-old said, laying blame squarely at Sturgeonâ€™s feet.
Salmond then went a step further, suggesting that Sturgeonâ€™s administration â€” alongside elements of the civil service and prosecuting authority â€” was so imcompetent that his dreams of independence were in jeopardy.
â€œOur move to independence â€¦ must be accompanied by institutions whose leadership is strong and robust and capable of protecting each and every citizen from arbitrary authority,â€ Salmond told lawmakers on the Holyrood committee. Sturgeon denies she has done anything wrong.
2. Scottish National Party rift widens
The Salmond vs. Sturgeon saga has torn a hole through SNP ranks, splitting the party in two. Todayâ€™s blistering session will have done little to soothe tempers or bridge the divide.
As the committee got underway, a string of SNP politicians changed their profile pictures to grinning snaps with Sturgeon. One of them, Brendan Oâ€™Hara MP, added a little context: â€œPlease be in no doubt as to where my loyalties lie. #IStandWithNicola.â€
James Dorman MSP, who represents a Glasgow constituency, upped the ante, accusing Salmond of â€œundoing everything he fought for to salve his ego.â€Â
The former first ministerâ€™s supporters werenâ€™t to be outdone, however. â€œHow much further can [the] jaw drop [?],â€ tweeted MP Angus MacNeil, responding to claims of Scottish government bungling in a court case against Salmond. For a party trying to instill trust in the independence cause, these fissures threaten to upend voter confidence.Â
3. Salmond the victim
It has been a testing couple of years, Salmond told the committee: harassment claims, court cases, criminal prosecution, eventual acquittal. He described it as a â€œnightmare â€¦ among the most wounding that any person can face.â€
But is he sorry for behaviour towards multiple women that, though not criminal, he has admitted was sometimes inappropriate (he acknowledged that he couldâ€™ve beenÂ â€œa better manâ€Â during the trial)? Thatâ€™s what committee member Alex Cole-Hamilton wanted to know.Â
â€œLaying aside the charges of which youâ€™ve been acquitted and the allegations you deny, of the behaviors you have admitted to â€” some of which are appalling â€” are you sorry?â€ the Liberal Democrat MSP asked.Â Â
The former first minister did not offer an apology, instead referring to the Scottish governmentâ€™s botched handling of claims, and the consequences that had had for all involved.Â Â
4. Election approaching
After Fridayâ€™s bombshell session, thereâ€™s little chance of the debacle blowing over before Mayâ€™s Scottish Parliament election. For the SNPâ€™s electoral rivals â€” desperate to counter the partyâ€™s seemingly ironclad popularity â€” that is good news.
â€œI am no fan of Alex Salmond. He is not a man I respect,â€ said Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross as the hearing commenced. â€œBut he is right about at least one thing â€” truth and honesty in government matters. And weâ€™re not getting it from Nicola Sturgeon.â€Â
Expect to hear this line over and over again. If the opposition can sow seeds of doubt in Sturgeonâ€™s probity, the SNP â€” reliant on their leaderâ€™s public standing â€” will be in big trouble (a point borne out by recent polling).
5. This is far from over
Salmond professed his wish to move on from the ugly affair â€” but thereâ€™s plenty of play in it yet.
The prospect of new police involvement looms large after the hearing, with Salmond demanding that the leak of harassment allegations against him be investigated.
And then, next week, Sturgeon will be in the hot seat herself. Sheâ€™ll be facing questions on a range of topics: not least whether she breached the ministerial code by pursuing a court case despite her team having had prior contact with complainants, or whether a complainantâ€™s name was passed illicitly to Salmondâ€™s chief of staffÂ â€” two things her predecessor seems certain of.Â
Even more dangerous for Sturgeon is a separate probeÂ being conducted by James Hamilton, an Irish barrister investigating her conduct.Â He is due to give his verdict just weeks out from election day.