I first met Alex Salmond 15 years ago. SNP branch chairs and secretaries were invited to join him one Sunday morning for breakfast at the Union Hotel in Turriff. He had returned as party leader in 2004, on a joint ticket with Nicola Sturgeon as his deputy, but he was an MP, and she fronted for the SNP at Holyrood. He announced that he wanted to run for the Scottish Parliament in our Gordon constituency, which was then held for the Liberal-Democrats by Nora Radcliffe.
The Scottish Parliament had brought in single transferable voting for council elections which offered a great opportunity for the SNP to gain seats in local authorities throughout Scotland in the combined Scottish parliamentary and council elections held in May 2007. I was nominated and selected to stand in Inverurie, and was duly elected as the first ever SNP councillor for the town, along with a host of others which gave us ward representatives across almost all of Aberdeenshire. Alex Salmond became MSP for Gordon.
Inverurie is an industrious, growing market town, which then had a booming retail sector, and is centrally located in Gordon. I told Alex it was the obvious place to set up his constituency office. We identified a former curtain shop as suitable, and it was purchased promptly. I am a building contractor, and working with another property professional, we got the place operating soon after planning consent was obtained. It had been an exhausting effort, but it was satisfying to have delivered against such a demanding timescale.
Alex had recruited Hannah Bardell, now the MP for Livingston, as his office manager, and more staff were quickly taken on. As the local councillor, I worked closely with the office, effectively acted as property manager, and generally kept an eye on things. Hannah couldn't drive, but was learning to, and I regularly drove Alex, predominantly on party business. On his becoming First Minister, a car with driver had been provided for his official duties.
These were exciting times. Over a weekend, the Scottish Executive became the Scottish Government. Nothing leaked, and I gathered later that Alex was delighted with how his civil servants had performed. Before the election, he asked me to prepare a briefing note on transport infrastructure in the constituency. I listed the urgency of replacing a traffic bottleneck on the main A96 Aberdeen-Inverness road at Inveramsay rail bridge; the strategic importance of that railway line joining the two cities, and also the desirability of major improvement of the trunk road itself.
Inveramsay now has a new bridge, and the capacity of the rail line is greatly increased after major investment. Planning for dualling the whole A96 is well advanced, with work due to start on the Nairn bypass. This is part of a long-term strategy to link all the Scottish cities by dual carriageway and remove any permanent single lane operations, effectively rural traffic lights, on trunk roads in Scotland. It is tempting to compare implementation of these ambitious plans with the current Scottish Government's failure to take effective action in developing a permanent solution to periodic land slippage closure at The Rest and Be Thankful on the A83, the southern gateway to Argyll.
Eventually, Hannah passed her driving test, so I rarely drove Alex after that, but had got to know him fairly well. In the 2007 election we were the underdogs, winning Gordon had always been a gamble, and doing so gave the SNP a one-seat majority over Labour, 47 to 46. Despite our holding just over a third of the parliament's 129 seats, Jack McConnell graciously conceded the SNP's right to form a government, which had to be a minority one as the Lib-Dems refused to form a coalition. Their 16 seats in themselves would not have provided an overall majority, but two Green MSPs and the Independent Margo MacDonald combined to provide 66 votes, just one more than the 65 required to win an otherwise opposed vote.
A fraught parliamentary situation was superbly managed by the SNP's chief whip, the late Brian Adam, one of the most thoroughly decent people I have ever met. I think the strain contributed to his early death, and the huge turnout at his funeral in 2013 testified to his popularity across the political spectrum, both locally and nationally. The Tories under Annabel Goldie were often supportive of legislative proposals of the new Scottish Government, and a huge amount was achieved in that first term. I didn't exactly have a ringside seat, but had a good insight into what was going on. Alex made a great effort to attend monthly constituency meetings and give us a comprehensive update.
There was nothing I saw or heard that ever suggested any impropriety in Alex's behaviour towards women. He is very quick witted and loves to come out with a good one-liner, which doesn't always work. Hugs and pecks on the cheek were his style, and expected of him: pretty much the modern day equivalent of kissing babies, I suppose. After he lost his Gordon seat in 2017, when he had again become an MP, he put on a successful show at the Edinburgh festival fringe. Despite his subsequently touring Scotland with it, I never had any desire to see it. He infamously made a badly misjudged blue joke, but I suspect many nouveau stage performers do that.
While there had been rumours mentioned in the press about a sex scandal involving a prominent Scottish politician, I was surprised and shocked to learn that referred to Alex. This came from the Daily Record's
story based on a leak that appeared most likely to have come from a high level of the Scottish Government. His following press conference from the Champany Inn at Linlithgow was disappointing in that he indicated there had been impropriety in some of his behaviour. The tale of the two court cases, subsequent parliamentary and government instructed inquires and their outcomes, is well known. There is a lot of criticism of the Scottish Government's handling of various aspects of the affair in the inquiry reports, but there was only limited coverage of their detailed contents in the media.
While there were lurid headlines when the prosecution case was being made, reporting of the defence case was limited, with an odd lack of cross-examination by prosecuting counsel. The defence evidence that was allowed to be heard appears to have been compelling as far as the jury was concerned, given all its findings of not guilty. On the one charge that was found not proven, there was, I understand, agreement by counsel on the evidence, and from which the jury concluded the behaviour was not criminal. It is purely and solely the jury's task to decide whether the state prosecutor has proved their case or not.
From my perspective, Alex appears to be no saint but no unpardonable sinner either. He is an outstandingly talented politician, with a record of substantial achievements behind him. I am far from alone, as a layman, in failing to understanding why no charge was made of perjury against one of the prosecution witnesses, based on the reported evidence she gave on the most serious charge. Other charges have been laid against bloggers since the trial arising from their comments about it. The Salmonds have been through hell, and where there were any misdemeanours by Alex, a heavy price already appears to have been paid for these. Had he been found guilty on any of the charges, he would likely have faced a prison sentence.
Had anonymity been granted to the defendant along with that given to prosecution witnesses, as I understand is the case in Ireland and New Zealand, none of the vituperative personal attacks on Alex Salmond, apparently based on innuendo rather than anything more substantive, could have been made. In those circumstances, having been acquitted on all charges, in a case that has raised many questions about the conduct of the prosecuting authorities, he would have enjoyed the same life-long anonymity as his accusers.
Can we have a proper election campaign with policy debate now please?
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