by Colin Campbell
WHEN Alex Salmond came to Inverness for a book signing session one Sunday five or six years ago, throughout the afternoon a quiet, orderly queue 100 yards long stretched from Waterstones around the Eastgate Centre. People waited patiently for up to half an hour before ascending the stairs to the upper floor to meet him, buy his book and have a brief chat with him. I noticed virtually everyone went back down the stairs smiling.
When Nicola Sturgeon came to Inverness five or six years ago it was entirely different. On the High Street she was mobbed by supporters of the cult, some almost hysterically eager to get near her, or the ultimate goal, to get a selfie with her. At times, those of us in the crush around her felt uncomfortable amid the squeeze to get close to her. She wasn’t a politician, she was a rock star, and she got the full, adulatory rock star treatment.
At this pivotal time for both of them, there’s a metaphor there for where we are now.
The glitz and glamour of the rock star is not a lasting phenomenon, it fades over time and at the end there may not be much left. But the calm, convincing demeanour of a statesman who attracts great admiration among many of his supporters but neither adulation nor hysteria remains, over time, solidly in place.
I didn’t watch Alex Salmond’s six-hour appearance before a parliamentary inquiry live but I watched much of it on Saturday night (what else are Saturday nights for these days).
Even though, like most people I suspect, I couldn’t follow half of the legal detail which surfaced, I didn’t switch off. Alex Salmond had me in his grip. His recall of times and dates and damning detail and what was said on 100 separate occasions, without reference to notes but with him repeatedly emphasising that everything he was saying could be corroborated or was on the record, was compelling viewing.
His calm composure and utterly convincing delivery was hugely impressive. His six-hour appearance was surely the performance of his life, and he never once flagged, despite having a chest infection.
How will Nicola Sturgeon on Wednesday follow that?
How will she explain the points raised by Salmond and many of the questions he left hanging in the air and which need credible responses from her? Most of all how will she explain her claim that she “forgot” about the first meeting when she was told of allegations of serious sexual misconduct against him?
That was always non believable and after Salmond’s mastery of detail it seems a farcical argument to try and make. Salmond asserted that there are more damning and explosive texts and emails which he was legally prohibited from bringing out in the open. There are now moves to remove that restriction before Wednesday. If they are as explosive as he suggested, Sturgeon could go up in flames before our eyes.
And she won’t get away with her familiar, “Look I want to be straight with you…I had an extremely busy day” rejoinders before the inquiry committee, even though its membership is weighted in her favour. She is good at delivering zippy one-liners against her opponents at First Minister’s Questions, but her Wednesday appearance will be a gruelling, interrogative experience of a different magnitude altogether. She will not be able to brush aside questions in the exasperated tone we so often hear from her.
Neither can she hide behind the pressures exerted on her because of the virus.
A week ago how many people outside the Holyrood bubble were paying this affair much attention? I wasn’t, particularly. The assumption was that one way or another Sturgeon, even if she has broken the ministerial code, would bluff it out and in a week or two it would all blow over.
But that was before Alex Salmond gave his evidence in a performance which may over time come to be regarded as legendary. It’s too long in its entirety to watch in one session. Maybe it’ll be turned into a box set. That would be merited, because it was classic.
On Wednesday Sturgeon will be in a forum where the undying support of Sturgeon worshippers is of no use to her. She will be unable to dismiss questions by referring to previous election successes or her customary “Let’s wait and see what the voters have to say in May” riposte when her back’s to the wall.
She’ll be under scrutiny by a vast number of people watching, and if she looks and sounds like she’s dodging or evading difficult questions and answers, compared with Salmond’s absolute candour, then she could indeed be fatally wounded. She needs to put on the performance of her life too and aim to equal Salmond. Under oath, has she got it in her?