Scotland's latest political intrigue could slow its march to independence

Edinburgh is embroiled in a nasty feud ahead of plans for a referendum. This will come as good news for London

The Scottish Parliament stands at one end of Edinburgh's Royal Mile – a cobbled road connecting Holyrood Palace with Edinburgh Castle, founded in the 12th century. In 1707, Scots voted to dissolve their Parliament and transfer powers to London. Almost three centuries later, in 1999, the legislature was reborn with powers handed back by Westminster, amid increasing agitation for independence. Then came a referendum on independence in 2014.

Around that time, in the parkland next to the Parliament, I interviewed the leader who had dominated Scottish politics for a generation, Alex Salmond. As Scotland’s first minister, Mr Salmond was hugely effective, articulate and witty.

Since I am a Scot living in England, I wanted to know why – like hundreds of thousands of other Scots – I could not vote in his independence referendum. “I could play rugby for Scotland,” I joked, “but I cannot vote on the most important vote in our history. Why not?” Mr Salmond laughed. He doubted I had ever been good enough to play rugby for Scotland. (True.)

INVERURIE, SCOTLAND - APRIL 18:  SNP Leader Nicola Sturgeon and Alex Salmond campaign in the Gordon constituency on April 18, 2015 in Inverurie, Scotland. The First Minister joined  Alex Salmond to highlight the fact that only the SNP represent all parts of Scotland.  (Photo by Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

Then he turned serious. The only way to have a fair referendum, he said, was for those who live in Scotland to have the vote, and no one else. Since Scots for centuries have sought their fortune worldwide, the diaspora is found in Australia, the Middle East, Africa and the Americas. I agreed that allowing expatriates such as myself to vote was impractical. But when Mr Salmond, his advisers and security detail returned to the parliament building, and my TV crew were packing up equipment, he returned alone because he wanted to talk more. He put his arm round my shoulder and whispered that if I really wanted to vote, I should buy a house and "come home".

His vision, and that of his Scottish National Party (SNP), was that expatriate Scots and other migrants would be welcome in a newly energised independent Scotland. That same inclusive vision continued when he left office. He handed power to his talented protege and successor as First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon. She is popular in Scotland and in parts of England, too. During the coronavirus crisis, opinion polls showed voters across the UK regarded Ms Sturgeon as much more competent than UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

All this is prologue to a bitter and almost inexplicable political row between Mr Salmond and Ms Sturgeon – two formidable leaders who together ensured that since 2007, the SNP has become the natural party of government in Scotland. They have made Scottish independence not just possible, but – again according to opinion polls – increasingly likely. Yet their mutual hostility threatens to derail independence for a generation.

Scots wave the Saltire as they gather in Edinburgh for a rally in support of an independence referendum in 2013. AFP

What the fight is about is murky. In 2019, police charged Mr Salmond with 14 offences, including two counts of attempted rape, nine of sexual assault and two of indecent assault. A year later, he was cleared of the charges, and in law is considered innocent, although his reputation has been damaged. Yet, the aftershocks continue. Politicians and sections of the media scent blood. Some hope to damage not just the SNP but also the idea of independence.

The allegations include the idea of some kind of conspiracy with Ms Sturgeon breaking the ministerial code and being vague about what she knew about the Salmond prosecution and when she knew it. Mr Salmond has not asked for Ms Sturgeon's resignation, but he has said that Scottish government and legal institutions have failed.

Where does the truth lie? I have no idea. But Mr Salmond’s testimony under oath before a parliamentary inquiry last week damaged Ms Sturgeon. She will have her say this week, and predictably Mr Salmond will feel the heat. Either way, this political Destruction Derby comes two months ahead of crucial parliament elections in which the SNP was expected to do very well. If pro-independence parties secure more than half the vote, it will serve as a mandate to demand a second independence referendum. Every Scottish poll in the past six months suggests a majority of Scots may now support independence.

Over the past year, I have talked with Scottish politicians, SNP members and activists, plus their opponents among Scottish Conservative and the Labour parties. Privately, many believe Scotland is on a trajectory that will lead to independence before this decade is out. Yet, the one issue that brought Mr Salmond and Ms Sturgeon into politics decades ago – independence for Scotland – may be derailed because of the visceral loathing between its two most articulate advocates.

The only person to benefit politically so far is Mr Johnson.

Scots – even those I have spoken to within the Johnson-led Conservative party – have told me that he is a disaster for their cause. The Prime Minister is seen as an archetype of the kind of arrogant Englishman to whom Scots have an allergic reaction. Scottish independence would destroy him. But Mr Salmond and Ms Sturgeon may yet destroy each other. And as these three political reputations hang in the balance, so does the future of Scotland – and with it, the UK.

Gavin Esler is a broadcaster and UK columnist for The National