Alex Salmond (sort of) says there was a conspiracy conducted by persons highly place in the administration and the SNP to taint his reputation with false allegations of sexual harassment and assault. In his written submission to the Scottish Parliament Committee on the Scottish Government Handling of Harassment Complaints he talks of a “concerted effort amongst a range of individuals within the Scottish Government and the SNP”. For her part, Nicola Sturgeon has described allegations of such a conspiracy as “absurd”. Referring to Alex Salmond’s submission a spokesperson for the SNP insisted it was “just more assertion without a shred of credible evidence”. One side says (sort of) that there was a conspiracy. The other side says there was no conspiracy. Which is telling the truth? Which is lying?
I want to suggest that it is quite possible that neither side is lying. Both Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon may be telling the truth. If we take a strict definition of a lie which requires awareness of the falsity of the statement, then neither individual may be considered a liar. Both are in a very narrow sense telling the truth as they perceive it. Alex Salmond looks back on the events in question and sees a “concerted effort amongst a range of individuals”. Nicola Sturgeon looks back on the same events and sees nothing untoward. Each of them is telling the truth about the matter as they see it.
Let it be clearly understood that when I refer to “events” I am not talking about the incidents that were alleged to constitute sexual harassment. Alex Salmond was duly tried in a court of law where the jury decided the allegations had not been substantiated by the prosecution and acquitted Salmond on all counts. The events to which I refer above are those which preceded the criminal proceedings and to some extent those subsequent to the trial. What I have elected to call the “incidents” which were the subject of Salmond’s trial are not up for discussion. For all honest purposes those incidents did not happen. Or did not happen in the way alleged by the prosecution.
The same series of events. Two different and contradictory accounts. How can both be true? For the most part the events themselves are not in dispute. Some details such as dates and times may be disputed. But mostly the events are a matter of public record and accepted by both sides. The argument is over whether the events involved the kind of orchestration that would amount to a conspiracy. Alex Salmond sees that level of orchestration. Nicola Sturgeon does not.
In the opening paragraph I was at pains to qualify what pretty much all of the media and I suspect most consumers of the media’s message are calling an accusation of conspiracy by Alex Salmond. But if you read his submission attentively you will find no instance of him actually applying the word ‘conspiracy’ to the events. By my reckoning, that word appears only four times in the entire 26-page document, and only twice in the body of the text. Those two occurrences of the word ‘conspiracy’ are to be found in the paragraph which prompted this article.
It has been a matter of considerable public interest whether there was ‘a conspiracy’. I have never adopted the term but note that the Cambridge English Dictionary defines it as ‘the activity of secretly planning with other people to do something bad or illegal.’I leave to others the question of what is, or is not, a conspiracy but am very clear in my position that the evidence supports a deliberate, prolonged, malicious and concerted effort amongst a range of individuals within the Scottish Government and the SNP to damage my reputation, even to the extent of having me imprisoned.
The emphasis is mine. Readers will note that Alex Salmond uses the word ‘conspiracy’ but does not apply it to the events in question. Events which he describes as involving “a deliberate, prolonged, malicious and concerted effort amongst a range of individuals”. One may interpret this as describing a conspiracy. Or not. No doubt this itself will become the subject of heated debate. But we should be clear that Alex Salmond isn’t quite alleging a conspiracy – which would be criminal. Not only does he not call it a conspiracy he very purposefully avoids calling it a conspiracy. This matters. Language matters.
Alex Salmond is a very astute individual and a formidable political operator. Were he not, it is highly likely that none of this would be happening. If indeed there was a conspiracy – or “a deliberate, prolonged, malicious and concerted effort amongst a range of individuals” one assumes there must have been a motive for what we cannot but call extraordinary behaviour on the part of these individuals. Alex Salmond’s qualities and abilities may have provided that motive by making him appear a threat to the existing political order. It may very well be that he was perceived as putting Nicola Sturgeon’s position and status in jeopardy. Such a well-regarded figure was bound to attract attention. Attention that Nicola Sturgeon wanted for herself. Or that her her ‘people’ wanted for her. Power attracts.
Power draws to itself people with ambition, as well as people who just want some coattails to hitch a ride on. The people around a powerful individual such as the First Minister and leader of the largest party in Scotland, derive their own power and status from such an individual. They will strive to maintain that power and status by strenuously promoting and defending its source. What I’m saying here is that if conspiracy there was, it is entirely possible that Nicola Sturgeon was not directly involved. It is even possible – although barely credible – that she had no knowledge of any “deliberate, prolonged, malicious and concerted effort” to ruin Alex Salmond’s proud reputation.
What is considerably more credible is that she has ‘plausible deniability’. That is to say that there is no evidence connecting her to that conspiracy/concerted effort. She may be able to deny all knowledge. Were she to be formally accused of potentially criminal conspiracy, the onus would be on her accusers to proffer evidence to support the allegation. She might be confident that they will find no evidence. We can be sure that Alex Salmond knows all about plausible deniability. Not just on account of his ‘rep’ as a formidable political operator, but because he has arranged some plausible deniability for himself. He can plausibly deny having charged anyone, but most of all his one time protege, with conspiracy. His submission will back him up on that.
Whatever your opinion of Alex Salmond as a person – and he confesses to many flaws and failings – you have to allow that he is a bonnie fechter.
But was there a conspiracy? That’s the big question. That’s what the Fabiani Committee is supposedly convened to determine. We know for a fact – or can assume with the highest degree of confidence – that the SNP members of the Committee do not want to conclude that there was a conspiracy. Although if the evidence was compelling enough, they might be forced to that conclusion on pain of looking like a bunch of tits.
The members from the British parties probably do want to conclude that there was a conspiracy. Or we can assume that with somewhat less confidence. A finding that there had been a conspiracy would detonate over the entire political establishment. The blast might hit Sturgeon but the fallout would cast a chilling pall over all the parties and the Parliament and the Government and the Civil Service. It is just possible that everybody on that Committee – or at least the majority – would prefer not to conclude that there was actual plotting and planning and scheming behind the events which have brought us to this point. Alex Salmond has cleverly left all of them a way out.
If Alex Salmond thinks the evidence for a conspiracy may not be enough to sway the swayables on the Committee but still wants a finding of guilt then he has left it open for the Committee to find only that there had been ” a deliberate, prolonged, malicious and concerted effort” – which could easily be reworded to suggest mere misconduct rather than criminal conspiracy. And Nicola Sturgeon could be left out of it altogether – at least in terms of the formal proceedings. She may have plausible deniability.
Those expecting or hoping for pyrotechnics from the Committee on the Scottish Government Handling of Harassment Complaints may be disappointed. The squibs may be a bit damp.
But was there a conspiracy? It may seem that I’m dodging this question. I’m not. I think all of the preceding commentary was necessary to set the scene. But now I owe you an answer. That answer is yes and no. And that is not evasion. The answer really is – or could be – both yes and no. Either could be true. It could all be a matter of perception.
I recall writing about the concept of Conspiracy as an emergent property of organisations* some years ago. The organisation in question on that occasion was BBC Scotland’s news and current affairs operation. But the concept applies to all hierarchical organisation. And all organisations are hierarchical whether or not the hierarchy is formal. It is common for certain types of organisations to label themselves non-hierarchical. That just means that there isn’t a chart depicting the structure of the hierarchy. Where there are two ore more human beings there is latent hierarchy. Keep the group together long enough and the hierarchy will become evident even if not acknowledged. It’s a people thing.
I’m betting Alex Salmond knows a thing or two about conspiracy as an emergent property of organisations. When he talks of “a deliberate, prolonged, malicious and concerted effort amongst a range of individuals” he is not quite describing a ‘proper’ conspiracy. This is closer to what is meant by the term ’emergent conspiracy’. Here’s my definition of that term from the earlier article.
All that is required for the appearance of conspiracy to emerge is that there should be a sufficient number of people; with a sufficient amount of influence; and a sufficient commonality of interest.
There can be little doubt about the commonality of interest in this case. As I said above, the people around Nicola Sturgeon depend on her for their status. It is her power (or rather the power of her office) which guarantees their position. There may, of course, be actual loyalty to Sturgeon. I have met her only once and very fleetingly, but I get the very definite impression that she is capable of commanding genuine loyalty from ‘her people’. All that means is that the commonality of interest may in some cases be reinforced by an emotional attachment.
Many of these people clearly had sufficient influence to satisfy another condition for emergent conspiracy. All of them had/have influence to some degree. A few are very powerful people indeed within the SNP and/or the administration.
And there were enough of them. The number is not nearly as important as the amount of influence. The answer to the question how many does it take is as many as is required. The same is true whether we’re talking about an actual conspiracy or an emergent conspiracy. The actions taken to bring about the events are the same in either case. For there to be an actual conspiracy those actions are performed for the purpose of that conspiracy. If this is an instance of emergent conspiracy then the actions are performed for other, possibly quite innocent, reasons. Emergent conspiracy is all about motive.
To make things more complicated, it is not necessary that all actions performed should be part of a conspiracy. Some of those actions will be crucial. Some would not have been taken but for the purposes of conspiracy. Some would be consequent to the necessary ones and may have been performed in all innocence.
Looking at the situation which might for the purposes of discussion, be termed the Salmond/Sturgeon affair**, it seems certain that the conditions for an emergent conspiracy are all there. With hindsight it could easily appear that all or most of the actions taken by ‘Sturgeon’s people’ form a pattern. A pattern implies conscious intervention and contrivance. But this is where we must be extremely cautious. The human mind is a massive pattern detecting machine. Detecting patterns is what it does. It is so efficient at detecting patterns it can find patterns even where none exists. The mind is not just awfy good at finding patterns, it is also awfy good at creating them. In pretty much any series of events there are points which can be connecting to make a chain – or a series. But this is also true of events which are not, in fact connected at all. The human mind on a quest for patterns will tend to find connectable points even in a random set of actions or event. If it didn’t, we wouldn’t have ‘conspiracy theories’. Consequently, the web would be a less interesting but also a less irritating place.
Alex Salmond’s submission seems to me to have been written with the concept of conspiracy as an emergent property in mind. This may be for the reason mentioned earlier – to give the Fabiani Committee a means of finding something even if it cannot be said to be an actual conspiracy. That’s all he needs. He will be vindicated even by a fudged finding of improper conduct or inadequate oversight. The general public won’t see an emergent conspiracy and dismiss it all as just coincidence. Neither will the media portray it as such. (A coincidence worthy of some examination.) As far as the world is concerned there will have been a conspiracy. That is how it will be perceived.
It is not how Nicola Sturgeon perceive it. Nor how they would wish to portray it. As far as she and her people are concerned everybody was just doing their job. Perhaps ‘mistakes were made’. Maybe things were done that shouldn’t have been done or done in a way that could have been better. But no actual conspiracy.
Whether Alex Salmond perceives an actual or merely and emergent conspiracy, I have no way of knowing. I suspect he sees both. Since either will tend to serve his purpose, he is leaving it for the Committee to decide. By giving them what is effectively two ‘guilty’ verdicts where there is only one ‘not guilty verdict’ he has tipped the odds very much in his own favour.
He’s a fly bugger, that Alex Salmond!
*If you perform a DuckDuckGo search for ’emergent conspiracy’ – which I’m sure you are all eager to do – my article is the number one result. If that means something and I ever figure out what, I promise to let you know.
**History will decide whether the word ‘affair’ is capitalised.