LONDON — Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon strongly denied being part of a plot against her predecessor, as she testified under oath Wednesday in a political saga that is tearing apart her party and imperiling her position as Scotland’s leader.
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 sexual abuse allegations about powerful people must not be “ignored or swept under the carpet.”
Sturgeon was giving her side of the story to a committee of lawmakers investigating 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 misconduct allegations brought 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 government undermined democratic principles and the rule of law by allowing the distinctions between government, party and civil service to become blurred, and claims it acted wrongly in contesting a legal challenge from him despite knowing it would likely lose.
Scotland’s highest civil court ruled in 2019 that the way the Scottish government had handled the misconduct allegations was unlawful, and awarded Salmond 500,000 pounds ($695,000) in expenses.
Sturgeon told a Scottish Parliament inquiry into the way sexual misconduct complaints were handled that the government had made mistakes. But she insisted 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.”
Salmond, who led the SNP for two decades and was Scotland’s first minister between 2007 and 2014, built the separatist party into a major political force and took the country 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 experience of the last few years a “nightmare.” Sturgeon expressed sympathy for her former friend, but said she had searched in vain during his testimony last week “for any sign, 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. And yet across six hours of testimony, there was not a single word of regret, reflection or even simple acknowledgement of that.”
The political soap opera in Edinburgh could have major implications for the future of Scotland and the U.K.
Scottish voters rejected independence in the 2014 referendum, which 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 even though a majority of Scottish voters in the U.K.’s 2016 EU membership referendum opted to remain in the EU. The U.K. as a whole voted narrowly to leave the bloc and finalized the break on Jan. 1.
An election for the Scottish Parliament is due in May, and the SNP has a strong lead in opinion polls. Sturgeon says if she wins a majority, she will push for a new independence referendum for Scotland and challenge British Prime Minister Boris Johnson in the courts if his government refuses to agree.
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