Love him or loathe him, Alex Salmond is one of the towering political figures of the age. He has taken the cause of Scottish independence from a fringe idea to one of the great themes of Scottish and indeed British politics. With a ready wit and an unsurpassable sense of his own importance, he has assembled an army of Nats on and offline, all straining to be unyoked from the United Kingdom.
This last week, Scottish politics has been convulsed by allegations of sexual misconduct against him. These allegations, which Alex Salmond vehemently denies, have led to him taking legal action against the Scottish government that the party he led for so long runs and resigning from that party in order that he might clear his name.
To be clear, Alex Salmond has every right to assert his innocence and he must be presumed innocent unless proven otherwise. It is easy to understand why he might feel aggrieved that the complaints are being investigated in the full glare of publicity, with his name being dragged through the mud in the meantime. But this story potentially matters.
For this particular incident has echoes of the politics of a former age, also involving a nationalist movement. In the 1880s, Westminster politics were overshadowed by another nationalist figure: Charles Stewart Parnell. He was instrumental in pushing the cause of Irish Home Rule to the centre of British politics. As a result of his efforts, the Irish Parliamentary Party were kingmakers.
The Liberal party split as a consequence and Parnell worked closely with Gladstone to construct a form of Home Rule that could command broad support in Ireland and was acceptable to the rest of the country. The outlines of a potentially lasting settlement were visible.
This came crashing down when he was cited as co-respondent in a divorce case. The ensuing scandal made him unacceptable both to the Catholic church that formed a central support of Irish nationalism and the non-conformists who comprised much of the Liberal party.
The Irish Parliamentary Party split, with supporters and opponents of Parnell feuding. With the loss of his talents, the cause of Irish nationalism was set back a generation. By the time it re-emerged, attitudes on all sides had hardened.Ireland lives with the consequences of that to this day.
As even Nicola Sturgeon would probably accept, Alex Salmond is still by some way the most prominent nationalist politician of the age. The Parnell precedent shows the potential impact on the cause of a long-running squalid sideshow.
We have already seen Alex Salmond launch a crowdfunding campaign for his legal fees to demonstrate that he has popular support, and the risk of factions forming looks substantial. So the stakes are potentially high.
Right now, it’s far from clear that this is going to come to anything. Alex Salmond’s innocence may be quickly established beyond all doubt. This is something for a watching brief, no more at present.
If this went somewhere, what might it mean? The cause of Scottish independence is too well-entrenched now to disappear indefinitely. Even if the SNP’s formidable discipline were to break down and we were to see an outbreak of savage infighting, its ideas would remain, seeking new political outlets. It might, however, take time for those new political outlets to emerge, just as it did at the beginning of the 20th century in relation to the politics of Irish Home Rule. In that time, the political landscape might change dramatically.
The politics swirling round another individual are similarly important. Jeremy Corbyn has unleashed a new interest in unabashed and updated social democratic policies. He has enthused a new generation with retail socialism. In the process, however, he has also attracted a torrent of hostility from those who are repelled by the numerous unsavoury connections that he has made and his questionable actions over the years: his approval ratings, never good, are once again abysmal.
He is getting in the way of the social democratic intifada that he claims to seek to lead. But no other figure inspires anything like the same level of loyalty on the left. He is both indispensable to Labour and a huge impediment. How this is resolved may change the course of future British politics.
They say that great minds discuss ideas, average minds discuss events and small minds discuss people. Sometimes, however, people and events can have effects that change the course of history. When a person is so important to a cause, the impact of that person being laid low can be profound. However regrettable it might be, there are far more small minds than great minds. So it follows that people, and their personal attributes, can sometimes really matter.