In the ongoing Salmond-Sturgeon stooshie, Mr Salmond says that Ms Sturgeon misled parliament and broke the ministerial code, and Ms Sturgeon says that Mr Salmond is a conspiracy theorist living in a fantasy world. A friend of mine said the other day, one of them is lying.
And I wondered about that. Can this bourach be understood and interpreted in such a way that conflicting accounts can be reconciled? The Salmond-Sturgeon débâcle reminds me of Arthur Miller’s 1953 play The Crucible, a dramatization of the Salem witch trials which took place in Massachusetts during 1692 – 93. A group of young girls are caught dancing naked in the woods and it is assumed they are bewitched. The girls start accusing various members of the community of being in league with the devil. It’s a kind of collective hysteria born of nothing at all, that uncovers all sorts of hidden malice, and eventually leads to executions. It’s an allegory. Miller was really talking about the McCarthy witch hunts of the 1950s, and the activities of the House of Representatives’ Committee on Un-American Activities. Miller himself appeared before the committee in 1956, and was found to be in contempt of Congress because he refused to name the names of individuals he had met at various left-leaning political meetings.
The current impasse also reminded me of a book I’ve just finished reading – Ray Monk’s Inside the Centre, the Life of J. Robert Oppenheimer (Jonathan Cape, 2012). Oppenheimer, the physicist who during the war ran the Manhattan Project leading to the construction of Little Boy and Fat Man, the plutonium and uranium atomic bombs that respectively destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki, also fell foul of the Committee on Un-American Activities. He had left-leaning political views and associations with some Communist front organisations, although he was never a member of the Communist Party. Oppenheimer had enemies, people who had a grudge. So they suggested to the FBI he was a Soviet spy. The Feds tapped his phone and followed him for years. This culminated eventually in a security hearing that started on 12 April 1954 and went on for three and a half weeks. As with any such inquiry, there was a ton of evidence and an excruciating mass of detail about who said what to whom, and when.
Oppenheimer did suggest to President Truman that it would be a good idea to share knowledge with Soviet Russia with respect to nuclear fission, and subsequently fusion. He thought that some kind of international oversight of nuclear research might forestall a nuclear arms race. President Truman said to his aides, get that son-of-a-bitch out of my Oval Office. Or words to that effect. The great Danish physicist Niels Bohr had gone to see Churchill with a similar idea, and Churchill had wanted to lock him up.
When Oppenheimer was in charge of Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Studies he was interviewed by the newsman Ed Murrow (so wonderfully played by David Strathairn in the film Good Night and Good Luck). You can catch some of the interview on U-tube, where you get a sense of Oppenheimer’s courtliness. Murrow himself had a run-in with the Committee on Un-American Activities, and perhaps that explains the rapport between the two men that is evident on film; either that, or they got along because they were both chain smokers.
The Feds never managed to nail Oppenheimer, or pin anything on him. Yet he was a suspect, and that was enough. His security clearance was withdrawn.
Nowadays we are not so worried about “reds under the bed”. (Mind you, having listened to Bill Browder yesterday on Radio 3’s Private Passions, perhaps we should be. Mr Browder, an American-born British citizen, and onetime hedge fund manager in Moscow, is a fierce critic of Mr Putin, and he was instrumental in forging the Magnitsky Act which has frozen the foreign assets of the oligarchs of several corrupt regimes. He says that London is the money laundering capital of the world. Mr Browder likes to keep a high profile because he is sure if he fades into obscurity his enemies will bump him off. This reminded me of Smersh. They never forget. Didn’t Ian Fleming tell us as much? They always get you in the end. This is by the by.)
Anyway, if you wanted to destroy a reputation now, it’s unlikely you would accuse somebody of being a communist. You might suggest they were a sexual predator. You might not have to prove it. Enough already, just to create suspicion. No smoke without fire.
In the case of the Right Honourable Alex Salmond, the most crucial fact to bear in mind is that the accused was found not guilty of criminal charges of sexual assault. It is suggested that persons within the SNP High Command conspired against him. But why would they wish to do such a thing? One possible answer is that Mr Salmond found himself in the same situation as Dr Oppenheimer; he was faced with a charge which in the current Zeitgeist is so toxic that, because mud sticks, he was going to be a political liability. You might surmise that the party chose to distance itself from him, or you might go further and surmise that they hung him out to dry. If you found yourself in the Kafkaesque situation initially of being charged with misconduct, but denied the right to interview witnesses or collate evidence, might you find it difficult to distinguish between a botch and a conspiracy? Indeed the distinction would seem to be somewhat academic.
During the course of an interrogation that lasted half a lifetime, J. Robert Oppenheimer was found on one occasion to have told a lie. It came back to haunt him. As the saying goes, Falsus in uno, falsus in omnibus. False in one thing, false in everything. If you are found to lie once, then your entire evidence is no longer credible. Ms Sturgeon, herself a lawyer, and due to appear before a Parliamentary committee on Wednesday, will be well aware of this Latin tag.