First published on March 4, 2021
It was a brief moment, a waver, a flash of emotion amid a steely performance. And yet, it is the moment that will have stood out to any woman watching.
Nicola Sturgeon’s questioning before Holyrood’s Committee on the Scottish Government Handling of Harassment Complaints was an opportunity her political opponents had been waiting months, nay years, for. They were not about to let the chance to make headlines nor hay pass them by. Fiery exchanges were guaranteed. Twitter urged us to grab our popcorn.
For eight hours, we watched as she withstood complex legal questioning, accusations and critique. About her own unquestionable role in the mishandling of sexual misconduct complaints against her predecessor, Alex Salmond. About the identification risk his accusers have faced. About her marriage, her relationship with her staff, and her knowledge of the law. The grilling came mere hours after the Scottish Conservatives had called for a vote of no confidence in her leadership, mere weeks before a national election in which a parliamentary majority is her party’s to lose. The stakes could not have been higher but, largely, she handled the occasion with a calm few could have mustered.
And then, around 4pm, her armour cracked. All through her political life, Tory MSP Murdo Fraser cried, she had told the Scottish people that they should believe in Alex Salmond. Now, she believed him to be a “liar and a fantasist.” He aimed what he clearly hoped would be his fatal blow: “Do you owe the people of Scotland an apology for urging them to trust him?”
The question appeared to hit Sturgeon as it did me, and doubtless many others watching. Should she apologise for him?
There was an uncharacteristic hesitation. No, she said, she would not. She had trusted Salmond as a friend and mentor for 30 years. She had learned things about him since that had “left her head spinning”. But he had been asked to apologise during his own committee appearance and had not. It was not, she insisted, her place to step up and do so for him.
Misogyny in action
This is as good a time as any to say that I’m no Sturgeon apologist. Her appearance before the committee was overdue, so the holes in her evidence – the questions she couldn’t answer, the meetings she couldn’t recall – were concerning. She apologised for catastrophic government errors, and acknowledged that the two women who initially complained about Salmond had been gravely let down.
She had never claimed to be infallible, she reminded us. But as she spoke out against Salmond’s behaviour, as she acknowledged that perhaps those around him may have become inured to the worst excesses of his personality, it was hard not to hark back to the time she insisted he did not have a “sexist bone in his body”.
Still, there is a special sense of horror that comes from watching a man ask a woman to say sorry for the alleged sexual misconduct of a man she once worked for. It is a horror that would strike any woman in the gut, whatever her political persuasion. It is a horror borne of déjà vu.
For what woman in the workplace has not been asked, in some way, to apologise for a more senior male colleague? Who among us has not bitten her tongue at an inappropriate comment, or compensated for his behaviour by warning other women off him, quietly, in the toilets, away from male ears?
What woman hasn’t laughed awkwardly at an inappropriate joke, told a junior colleague to avoid boarding the lift with him, or avoid accepting a drink from him? Who hasn’t papered over the cracks to protect the women they work with, and never uttered a word about it? For a long time, it was just part of what we did to survive at work. For some women, particularly in politics, it still is.
Nicola Sturgeon is the most powerful woman in Scotland. And yet, as she spoke of how torn she felt when accusations about Salmond’s behaviour emerged, about her misplaced loyalty to her former political master and mentor, about the disappointment she’d felt in his actions since, it was hard not to see her as everywoman.
“Even in the days when we were besties, Alex Salmond had a tendency to see most things as about him,” she told the committee wryly at one point. We all know that guy. When questioned later about her own role in the early days of Salmond’s undoing, she demurred “I still felt a loyalty to him. People will have to decide if they think I was right or wrong.”
She won’t have to wait long for their verdict. Scotland’s elections are just two months away, and Sturgeon’s fate now rests largely on who voters believe – her, or a man whose own defence lawyer was filmed on a commuter train describing his client variously as a “quite objectionable bully”, a “nasty person to work for”, and “inappropriate, an asshole”. Is that criminal behaviour? No. Is it behaviour any woman should have to apologise for working alongside? Also no.
Tale as old as time
For a country looking for irrefutable facts, yesterday’s committee hearing was deeply frustrating. Many questions remain, and I’d argue the combative approach of Murdo Fraser and his Conservative colleagues only added more to the list.
I would like to ask him, for example, why he was less demanding of remorse from Mr Salmond himself? I’d like to ask why Nicola Sturgeon’s misdemeanours are a career-ending offence, but his colleague, health secretary Matt Hancock’s High Court acknowledged dishonesty is not? Mostly, I’d like to ask what needs to happen before we stop expecting women to atone the sins of men, or cease holding them to a higher set of ideals, propped up on rank hypocrisy?
Above all, though, I want to tell Mr Fraser this. There are a lot of apologies due here. But until the men start issuing them, we’d do well to respect a woman’s right to refuse.