THE former first minister Alex Salmond has been cleared of all the charges he faced. He was found not guilty on 12 of the charges, one was found not proven, and one had been withdrawn by the prosecution earlier in the trial. The wider independence movement has breathed a collective sigh of relief, and a lot of British nationalists can barely contain their fury.

The frothier members of the British nationalist persuasion were looking forward to the sight of a hero of the independence movement in handcuffs and being sent to prison. So were the editors of those newspapers which had already convicted Alex Salmond even before his trial had begun.

The prospect of him in a prison uniform, forever stigmatised as a sexual abuser, was one which they were relishing, and with which they intended to taunt us for years to come. They were far more interested in that than in their false concern for the complainants. In the absence of any substantive or persuasive arguments for British nationalism, it was pretty much all that they had left. All the more so since they had destroyed most of their own arguments over the past few years.

Independence is bigger than any one man, but Alex Salmond is and will always be a towering figure within the independence movement. He is the giant upon whose shoulders so many of us stand. Without his inspiration, we would not have the vibrant and thriving mass grassroots independence movement which we have today, a movement which will campaign over the coming months and which will bring about the dream that so many of us share.

It’s thanks to his boldness and his willingness to challenge the British establishment that the cause of independence got a foothold which allowed it to change the face of Scotland forever.

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More than any other individual, Alex Salmond is associated with the cause of independence. The anti-independence parties strove assiduously during 2014 to associate the topic of independence with his person and personality. And while independence is not about the ambitions of any one person, more than anyone else it’s Alex Salmond who has brought the topic of independence not only into the mainstream of Scottish politics, but he successfully made it the single most important issue around which all other considerations in Scottish politics revolve.

He may not have secured Scotland’s independence in 2014, but he laid the groundwork which placed Scotland upon the path towards independence. That above all is the reason why he is feared and hated by so many of those British nationalists, who are not nationalists because they’re British.

For a man such as Alex Salmond, one of the great heroes not only of the independence movement but of Scottish history, to have been convicted of serious charges of sexual assault would have given the opponents of independence an easy way to taunt and taint a cause which will always remain a noble one.

His acquittal means that his reputation, and the reputation of his life’s work so far, remain unsullied. For that, all supporters of Scottish independence must be grateful.

Yet even if Alex Salmond had been convicted on one or more of the charges, it would not have altered one jot the reasons for Scottish independence. It would not have changed the contempt with which the British Government has treated Scotland during the Brexit process. It would not have changed the way in which all the promises and commitments that were made to the people of Scotland by the Better Together campaign in 2014 have been traduced and destroyed by the British nationalist parties themselves.

READ MORE: Alex Salmond cleared of all charges in sexual assault case

In normal times this would be the only story in town. This would be the political story of the year which thrust all others off the headlines. Yet these are not normal times. This is a time of a potentially devastating epidemic which threatens lives and risks overwhelming our health service. As Alex Salmond said himself as he spoke to the press after his acquittal, his recent personal nightmare is as nothing compared to the nightmare of life and death that so many people are experiencing during this pandemic.

This is not the time to indulge in yet more infighting. And we must also remember that it takes a great deal of courage to come forward with an allegation of sexual assault. We must not allow this trial, nor the developments which will unfold as a result of it, to make it more difficult for vulnerable people to come forward when they have been assaulted.

We must not turn back the clock on the progress that we have made as a society in the support given to victims. But neither must we allow allegations of sexual assault to be weaponised as instruments of political infighting.

There are now questions for the current SNP leadership. There are questions about what Nicola Sturgeon knew and when she knew it. There are questions about the internal complaints processes of the party. There should be, as a matter of some urgency, an internal review within the party which will lead to the creation of a proper complaints procedure so that party members, workers, and staff can be supported and receive justice. There are also questions about what has been going on within the party that has allowed what appears to be factional infighting and internal disputes to get so out of hand. There has been considerable disquiet for some time about the way in which party members and supporters can be vilified by the media and immediately rejected by the party.

Those are debates which will come when the time is right. But what we can be sure of now is that when the question of Scottish independence is revisited in another referendum, as it most assuredly will be, one of the greatest and most persuasive voices will be beside us arguing for our cause.

No wonder the British nationalists were so keen to see him out of the picture for good.