Alex Salmond walked free from the High Court in Edinburgh, issued a not-so-veiled threat to the government he once led, and urged us all to go home and avoid the worst effects of COVID-19. That last injunction may be the only thing he has left in common with his successor.
The former First Minister of Scotland emerged after 11 days in the dock of Court 3 on the Lawnmarket, his reputation damaged by revelations of life in the hothouse of public life during his final years at the top of Scottish politics. Damaged but not besmirched by criminal conviction: pretty much as he anticipated way back when he conceded bad behaviour but denied that he had done anything criminal.
The jury of eight women and five men agreed with him on Monday. At least eight of them *** – we will never know the actual figure – found him not guilty of 12 charges of sexual misconduct, and one other charge was not proven. A 14th charge was dropped by the Crown during the trial.
Outside the court, Salmond was brief although he made his intended points after a trial during which nine women had given evidence alleging various instances of groping, inappropriate touching, a sexual assault with intent to rape and an attempted rape. He paid tribute to his legal team, thanked the court staff and repeated his faith in Scottish justice. He even found time to recommend to the assembled media and a few supporters attending that they head home to their families and avoid infection.
Mr Salmond's acquittal is by no means the end to this tumultuous and bizarre affair. One senior civil servant told colleagues: 'we have lost a battle but we have not lost the war,' following the former FM's £500,000 judicial review victory in early 2019. Her side have just lost a second, bigger battle in the same war. The third may be decisive and will certainly be messy.
The implications of this trial are deeply political in the first instance. They threaten to split the SNP, a party which has enjoyed massive electoral success since 2007 and which even today is expected to emerge as the largest group at Holyrood after elections in May 2021.
Immediately after the jury delivered its verdict, leading Salmond supporters, Kenny MacAskill MP and Joanna Cherry MP, issued statements critical of the SNP leadership and the civil service. Ms Cherry's challenge for the party's Edinburgh Central nomination is seen widely as a proxy war between those nationalists who are more in the Salmond mould and the gradualist, self-styled 'progressives' around Ms Sturgeon.
But the verdict has implications of another political variety. In rejecting the charges, the jury struck a blow against the #MeToo movement that was said in court to have inspired some of the complainers.The publicity surrounding the case, and court reports during the last fortnight, drew attention to the whole issue of sexual harassment at work, male-female relationships, and what men do with power. While a comparison with the Harvey Weinstein case would be invidious, it was made to some degree by supporters of Salmond's accusers, one of whom actually attributed her decision to come forward to the police to the #MeToo campaign.
The jury, by a majority, chose not to believe Woman H in her story of a late night encounter with the then First Minister at Bute House, how she claimed they ended up on a bed naked, him snoring and her cowering in fear. Her allegation of attempted rape was picked apart by Shelagh McCall QC, junior counsel for the defence. Woman H was imprecise about dates, details and hazy about what had happened within the First Minister's official residence.
Her allegation was contested by witnesses and during cross-examination. The defence, however, argued that it was based on an actual event involving Woman H and Mr Salmond months earlier. In his version, a tipsy tangle ended amicably when the two agreed their actions were 'not a good idea' and immediately ceased while both remained at least partially clothed.
Mr Salmond confirmed the basis of complaint by Woman F, a civil servant with whom he had become entangled on a bed late at night after drinking shots of the Chinese liquor Maotai. The incident in December 2013 had been discussed among various civil servants and advisers before the First Minister offered Woman F an apology for his behaviour. She wanted to remain in her job, and accepted the apology.
The jury concluded that the Crown had failed to prove that this incident amounted to sexual assault with intent to rape. And, having reached that conclusion, they did not accept the testimony of Woman A (inappropriate kissing and groping), Woman B (attempting to re-enact a painting that depicted a younger woman in skimpy dress reaching to kiss an older man), Woman C (resting his hand on her knee in the back of a car), Woman D (stroking her skin and hair on frequent occasions); or Women G, J and K (various allegations of groping and inappropriate behaviour).
The court heard evidence – disputed by the defence – that civil servants in the FM's private office had made arrangements to ensure that female staff were not left alone with Mr Salmond in the evenings at Bute House. Giving evidence, former special adviser Alex Bell remarked that he had headed back up to the drawing-room after a working dinner when a colleague pointed out that he had left Woman B alone with their boss. His intention was 'to ensure that the welfare of my colleague was OK', he said.
After more than eight days' evidence, the trial came down to the final summations, presented by the cream of the Scottish legal profession. Senior Advocate Depute Alex Prentice, widely-respected for his forensic approach, portrayed the former FM as a 'predator'. He emphasised the pattern of behaviour, often involving alcohol and late-night working meetings at Bute House. In every case, the alleged victims were 20-30 years younger than Mr Salmond.
'It is about a powerful man who used his power to satisfy his sexual desires with impunity. His conduct was intimidating. I suggest that the complainers are courageous, brave women,' Prentice told the jury. Turning to the defence case that many of the complaints were made years after the alleged events, he suggested that the women feared for their job prospects, given that most of them were civil servants or party workers. 'They were all young women with great careers ahead of them. Why should they give that up?'
The prosecutor echoed the evidence of some witnesses that Mr Salmond was a demanding boss, aggressive at times and capable of outbursts of temper. Despite that, several complainers said they enjoyed their jobs, especially during the excitement of the referendum campaign. Some of them felt loyalty to either the First Minister or the independence cause, or both. They felt they had to protect his reputation.
Last Friday morning, when Gordon Jackson QC rose to begin his speech for the defence, it followed a succession of witnesses whose evidence had contested some of the prosecution case. Company director Samantha Barber refuted the date on which Woman H had claimed to have attended a dinner involving Mr Salmond and a well-known Scottish actor. Ms Barber testified that Woman H had not been there. Former SNP politician, Tasmina Ahmed Sheikh, contradicted Woman H's testimony that she was due to attend a women's international football match the following day; in fact Mrs Sheikh's father had died and she had cancelled as she was travelling south with her husband to arrange the funeral.
Jackson, 71, Dean of the Faculty of Advocates, is a former Labour member of the Scottish Parliament for Govan, a seat he lost to Nicola Sturgeon in 2007. He boasts a West of Scotland accent and something of a swagger outside the court. He has cultivated an absent-minded approach in court, shuffling around the well, his wig askew, notes cascading around him. During complainers' evidence, which was watched via video link by the press from an adjacent court room, his frequent coughing and spluttering – nothing to do with the coronavirus, he assured the court – echoed through the sound feed, sometimes blotting out the proceedings.
Given various testimonies, it seemed that Jackson could not defend his client's general behaviour towards some of his staff. He acknowledged some of it might seem improper, but he disputed its criminality. Both he and Mr Prentice quoted one complainer who had told the court: 'I wish the First Minister was a better man and I wasn't here'. However, they chose differing interpretations of the comment.
But the jury was not there to judge his client for his manners, pointed out the defence counsel. They had to judge whether the prosecution had proved criminality. Rather, he argued, the complainers were describing misbehaviour that stopped short of criminality, or in some cases had not even happened. The defence claimed consent in three of the allegations.
'He would shout and bawl – so what? He could be a bugger to work with – so what?' asked Jackson. He quoted Woman K, who told the court that the former First Minister had grabbed her backside while they were having a photograph taken at a Stirling Castle event. 'She said "I didn't think he was doing anything sexual at all, I thought it was a power thing".'
Mr Jackson was not there only to argue the details of the allegations. He smelled conspiracy, particularly in the creation of WhatsApp groups that included some of the complainers. One complainer, Woman A, a senior official in the Scottish Government, had contacted several of the women only after procedures changed regarding the treatment of staff complaints.
'There is something going on. I cannot prove it, but I can smell it,' added the Dean.
Where the prosecution presented a picture of escalating sexualised behaviour against young women staff, the defence saw a pattern of conspiracy, a scenario where the state apparatus was turned on the man who once controlled it. Woman A had been party to arranging meetings in 2018 involving Mr Salmond and Ms Sturgeon, which discussed the initial complaints involving two women. Ms Sturgeon's role will be examined soon by Holyrood, although when that happens will depend largely on the progress and impact of Covid-19.
Police Scotland took 386 statements during its investigation, according to Detective Chief Superintendent Lesley Boal. She described this as 'thorough'.
This trial was managed scrupulously by Lady Dorrian, Scotland Lord Justice Clerk. She had set the rules during two preliminary hearings, careful to ensure the trial centred on the criminal allegations rather than the political intrigue that surrounded the case. She tempered both sides, chiding them about 'relevance' at times. At one stage she advised Woman H to desist from making 'gratuitous remarks' about the accused during her evidence.
This trial became haunted by coronavirus. Each of us – jury, lawyers, court staff, public, press and the accused – entered Court Three on March 9 for a start to proceedings which in ordinary times would have dominated the headlines daily. As the prosecution proceeded, it commanded less space on the front pages and moved lower down the broadcast bulletins. There were fears the trial may be halted by jury illness, and concerns among the dozens of journalists attending that it might break out amongst the press corps.
The call signalling a verdict came at 2.45pm on Monday. The judge entered the court at 2.51pm and a minute later the 13 surviving members of the jury trooped in (two of them having dropped out that morning for reasons undisclosed). They had been deliberating for more than six hours in session since last Friday.
As the foreman ran through the responses to each charge, Mr Salmond's complete acquittal became obvious to all in a hushed court. Minutes later, we were blinking in the sunlight of a deserted Royal Mile, having spent 11 days in that period of suspense that descends upon everyone engaged in such court cases. The intensity of giving evidence, interrogating it, or just taking notes, is all absorbing. Lawyers, witnesses, journalists, and, of course, the accused can think or speak of little else while a case is underway. The implications of this case for all involved added intrigue to the usual tension of a criminal trial.
I first met Alex Salmond at Deacon Brodie's pub, back in the early 1980s. I was a cub reporter, interviewing him and his colleague Kenny MacAskill about their campaign efforts against industrial closures, having been expelled from the SNP for membership of the left-wing 79 Group. As we parted company, he assured me: 'Independence will happen within my lifetime'. Scottish independence seemed deeply unlikely in the early 1980s. He has come close to realising his ambition: the 2014 referendum campaign would never have happened without Salmond; arguably the SNP would never have achieved power at Holyrood without his leadership.
Four decades after that declaration, Salmond – described as 'Marmite' by his defence counsel – stood just yards from the same spot, exalting his innocence following a trial that threatened to cast him into the darkness of the sex offenders' register and career-ending disgrace.
Free of that, vindicated and possibly vengeful, Scotland has not seen the last of him.
*** The jury of 15 people — nine women and six men – was reduced on the second day of deliberation when one female and one male were removed from the jury. The reasons were not disclosed to the court. The reduced jury of eight women and five men was still required to reach a majority of at least eight to reach its verdicts on the charges.