The inconvenient truth for the unionist parties is that polling evidence suggests last year's general election was not some kind of staging-post on the way to a total SNP collapse, as the media narrative optimistically suggested in the immediate aftermath of last June. All full-scale Scottish polls since the election have suggested that the SNP vote has held up well, and the majority of them have actually put the SNP a little ahead of the 37% achieved on polling day. If anything, the SNP appear to be on course to gain seats, not to lose them. Little wonder, then, that the unreconstructed Daily Record reacted with such glee at the opportunity to publish allegations of sexual misconduct against Alex Salmond, which they clearly feel will be harmful to the SNP regardless of whether the complaints eventually prove to be well-founded or not.
Is that correct? Certainly the experience of the Liberal party in the late 1970s, when their former leader Jeremy Thorpe was charged with (but eventually acquitted of) conspiracy to murder, gives the lie to the notion that there is no such thing as bad publicity. It's telling that Thorpe's replacement David Steel was warmly congratulated after the 1979 election for severely limiting the damage that had been widely anticipated. Probably damage limitation is the most that can be hoped for in such circumstances - but of course the allegations against Mr Salmond, although they appear to be relatively serious, are obviously not in the same order of magnitude as the allegations against Mr Thorpe.
Another thing in the SNP's favour is that the public have become used in recent times to the proliferation of sexual complaints against leading public figures, and have learned that sometimes those complaints prove to be accurate and sometimes (for example in the case of Cliff Richard) they don't. That will hopefully help people to keep an open mind as this process unfolds.
The situation would also have been far worse from an electoral point of view if Mr Salmond had only just stood down as leader, or indeed if he was still a sitting MP. (The Labour activists who let themselves down by openly celebrating the Tory gain in Gordon will surely be reflecting on the irony that if Mr Salmond had held his seat, the SNP would now be faced with a much more serious dilemma.) Nicola Sturgeon is clearly now seen to be in total control of both the SNP and the Scottish Government, a point she has underscored by putting out a statement that would have been unthinkable a few years ago, making clear that the Scottish Government will vigorously defend itself against the criticisms made by Mr Salmond.
I'd suggest the public will find her statement rather impressive, taking account as it does of the complainants' right to be taken seriously, the need for a process that is blind to the seniority and political affiliation of the person under investigation, and also the hurt and upset this is causing within the SNP. The only thing that is perhaps missing is a reminder that Mr Salmond, just like anyone else in the same position, is entitled to a presumption of innocence until and unless proven guilty. That crucial point seems to be increasingly falling under neglect in the current climate.
We'll just have to wait for new polls to see if the Daily Record get their wish by seeing the SNP vote fall back. But I certainly wouldn't rule out the possibility that any electoral impact will be relatively minor or even non-existent.
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