Alex Salmond has, once again, gone rogue.
Accusations that the former first minister and Scottish National Party (SNP) leader sexually harassed two women during his time in office have highlighted a potential split in the party that could change the course of the independence movement.
If unchecked, it could result in two distinct strands of Scottish nationalism: a hardcore of Salmond supporters (the Salmondites) aggressively pushing for independence and a more moderate strain led by his friend and successor Nicola Sturgeon (the Sturgeonites).
Unity has long been a strength of the SNP as it rose to become the largest force in Scottish politics, in public at least. That strong position is already being shaken by the Brexit vote (Scotland voted Remain and Sturgeon last year said the U.K. government is dominated by “mad Brexiteers”) and the rise of Ruth Davidson, the charismatic leader of the Scottish Conservatives.
However, tensions between Salmond supporters wanting independence as quickly as possible and Sturgeon-backing pragmatists prepared to wait to seize the moment have deep roots. That friction has been kept in check over the last decade or so, but this latest spat could see it spill out into the open.
Since he lost his seat at Westminster in last year’s general election — one of the surprises of the night — Salmond has move further and further away from the party line.
It’s unlikely that either of the main players will back off, leaving the SNP’s future direction as uncertain as Salmond’s currently seems to be.
The issue for Sturgeon isn’t just the allegations, but Salmond’s response to them — he’s crowdfunding legal action against the Scottish government. It’s another problem Salmond has caused for Sturgeon (he also hosted a chat show on the Kremlin-funded RT station against her wishes and clearly wants to see a second independence referendum happen more quickly than she does).
It’s all escalated quickly since the claims first surfaced a week ago.
Salmond strongly denies the allegations against him — incidents alleged to have taken place in Bute House, the grace-and-favor residence of the Scottish first minister, in December 2013. He called them “patently ridiculous” and said he is taking the Scottish government to court over the way it has handled the claims.
Late Wednesday, Salmond resigned from the SNP.
In a statement posted on Twitter, Salmond said: “I truly love the SNP and the wider independence movement in Scotland. They have been the defining commitment of my life. But today I have written to the national secretary of the party resigning my membership.”
Then, in an audacious and populist move, he launched a £50,000 crowdfunding campaign to fund the legal action. It passed its target within hours.
The affair, nicknamed Salmondgate, has pitted Salmond — an SNP member for 45 years and at its helm for 20 of them before stepping down in the aftermath of the 2014 referendum that saw independence rejected — not just against the administration he once headed, but also against his protégé Sturgeon. They’ve been friends for nearly 30 years, working tirelessly during that time for independence and building their considerable reputations as a result.
The current first minister said she feels a “huge sadness” about the situation and is personally upset by it, but added that it is important that the legal process is allowed to take its course. The complaints have been passed to Police Scotland, which says it is assessing the information.
As the drama has unfolded, neither has publicly denounced the other, and Salmond says he plans to rejoin the party when he is cleared. However, the undercurrents are clear.
Since he lost his seat at Westminster in last year’s general election — one of the surprises of the night — Salmond has move further and further away from the party line, especially when it comes to the timing of a second independence vote.
The fundamentalists, including Salmond, are champing at the bit for it to take place soon, while Sturgeonites prefer caution, waiting to see how Brexit plays out and what the Scottish political landscape will look like then.
Salmond’s aggressive response to the Scottish government investigation into the sexual harassment allegations will polarize opinions further.
Salmondites see him as a rare and remarkable politician with plenty of life left in him.
The crowdfunding appeal may not primarily be about money, although judicial reviews can be eye-wateringly expensive. It is also a useful way for Salmond to gauge his level of support within the party and across Scotland, and to give his cause and his vigorous denial of any wrongdoing mass appeal. Early indications are that he may be succeeding: At least one SNP MP is said to have contributed to the appeal.
The call for financial help has infuriated many Sturgeon supporters, who say Salmond is a wealthy man and that the money could have gone to more worthy causes. They see his interventions as arrogant and disruptive, believe his time has gone, and say he should let the first minister get on with the job she has been elected to do.
Salmondites take a different view. They see him as a rare and remarkable politician with plenty of life left in him.
Andrew Collier is a writer, broadcaster, author and commentator, and a former communications adviser and speechwriter to both Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon.