Beset by glitches and awkwardness, the launch of Alex Salmond’s new Alba Party wasn’t exactly a statement of political seriousness. The media, however, could be relied upon to fill the gap, and fill it, it did. Here was an undeniably thrilling twist in one of the only Scottish political storylines worth following: Salmond’s years-long feud with his protégée Nicola Sturgeon, and the government and party he once led, has made the sink-or-swim transition from the public sphere to the ballot box.
Even in his efforts to avoid a direct – and likely doomed – challenge to Sturgeon’s popularity, Salmond has only added to the intrigue. Alba’s “supermajority” strategy, running candidates for Scotland’s 56 proportional, “top-up” list seats, while leaving the 73 first-past-the-post constituencies to the SNP, aims to upend the structures of Scottish politics altogether. It is an audacious effort to game Scotland’s semi-proportional voting system and skew the balance of Holyrood overwhelmingly towards independence supporters, with the potential to transform the post-election fallout in unexpected ways. Commentary in the aftermath has focused on these two sides of the story, playing up the Sturgeon-Salmond breakdown and questioning Alba’s electoral prospects, but there is far more to the party than this.
Commentators have been quick to focus on Salmond’s ego and his desire for vengeance against Sturgeon and those around her, who he claims conspired to destroy him. He was acquitted of allegations of sexual assault and attempted rape by a jury of his peers. He is not a criminal; he is simply a powerful man who has allegedly been described by his own defence lawyer as “an objectionable bully” and a “sex pest”. (The lawyer later withdrew his comments and referred himself to the Scottish Legal Complaints Commission.) Confronted repeatedly about his past behaviour after Alba’s launch, Salmond repeated the same defence he gave to the parliamentary inquiry into the handling of allegations against him: he was acquitted, and that should be the end of that.
One of Salmond’s professed heroes is the radical reformer Thomas Muir, who was transported to Botany Bay, Australia, after an Edinburgh show trial for sedition in 1793, before escaping and adventuring across the globe. Salmond now appears to yearn for his own narrative arc of martyrdom, confinement and escape: he wants a return to public life, to the cut and thrust of policy debate and arguing for independence, and he has confused this desire to be heard with a right to be listened to.
This is where Alba’s “supermajority” ruse comes in. But there is something more than mere vanity or vengeance here; something more unexpected, bubbling up out of a forgotten, unwatched pot and filling the air with a putrid fog.
The idea of maximising pro-independence representation via the list vote is not new. It began to make waves within the independence movement some time in 2019, promoted in particular on Wings Over Scotland, the blog of the activist Stuart Campbell. “Wings”, as Campbell is now generally known, is a former video-games journalist who made his political name with tabloid-esque, attack-dog interventions in the 2014 independence referendum campaign. His Wee Blue Book of arguments for independence was once handed out by Yes activists and SNP politicians alike, but his controversial views – for instance, blaming Liverpool fans for the 1989 Hillsborough disaster – led the SNP to distance itself, especially under Sturgeon. It’s not clear if Salmond and Campbell are cooperating on plans for Alba, but in 2019 they were close enough for Salmond to fawn over Campbell in a 40-minute segment for his talk show on Russia Today. Key supporters of Alba, such as the former SNP politicians Kenny MacAskill and Neale Hanvey, have written guest blogs for Wings Over Scotland.
Campbell has become chief peddler of the theory that the SNP has been taken over by what he has called the “wokerati”, meaning young party activists who support, for example, easier self-definition for trans people and a more inclusive approach to disabled and BAME members and candidates. This, he and his supporters argue, has distracted the party from the pursuit of independence, and explains the lack of any solution to Westminster’s refusal to grant a new referendum. In 2019, furious with Sturgeon’s leadership, Campbell began to flirt with the idea of running a “Wings Party” and promoted a list-only approach that he believed would increase, rather than threaten, the pro-independence vote in general. Yet much like a new referendum, the “Wings Party” failed to appear quickly enough for its potential supporters, and other groups ran with the idea instead. In the past two years several parties have emerged that mix “anti-woke” politics with pro-independence fundamentalism and a “supermajority” strategy.
The most prominent of these, Action for Independence (AFI) and the Independence for Scotland Party (ISP), spent the best part of a year establishing themselves, before being wiped out overnight by Alba. On the morning of the new party’s launch on 26 March, AFI announced its top candidates, including the convicted perjurer and former Scottish Socialist Party leader Tommy Sheridan, and the former British diplomat turned blogger Craig Murray, who is awaiting sentencing for contempt of court over blogs he wrote about Salmond’s trial. In the hours after Salmond’s press conference, AFI stood down its candidates. The ISP, whose co-founder Victoria Gianopoulos-Johnson quit the party last year and later expressed her support for Donald Trump, stood down its candidates on 29 March. This does not appear to be a particularly progressive alliance.
Many of Alba’s first batch of election candidates were recruited from disgruntled nationalists who remained focused on the SNP, and whose seizure of several seats on the party’s ruling NEC last year was celebrated as a defeat of “woke ideology”. They include some of the most prominent critics of the SNP leadership’s (now “paused”) proposals to reform the Gender Recognition Act, but this is combined with a more general demonisation of “social” concerns, which many of Salmond’s more left-leaning backers view as a cover for economic conservatism. The architect of the SNP’s economic moderation was, of course, Salmond himself, who knows that the Scottish public is not as radical in its preferences as some like to pretend.
But Alba is not about left or right; it is about forcing a distinctive variety of nationalism into Scottish public life, defined above all by the performance of authenticity. Scottish nationalism’s success has been built on a kind of native cosmopolitanism, offering a highly “inclusive” vision of nationhood that self-consciously incorporates diverse identities into its own. This inclusion still relies on certain subtle exclusions, chiefly of those who see nationhood not in terms of countless negotiated minorities, but simple, decisive majorities – “supermajorities”, even. Unsatisfied by Scotland’s thin, cautious, postmodern national identity, an increasingly loud minority of the Yes movement now openly yearns for something more honest, substantial and majoritarian. Where the alt-right claim to be “red-pilled”, these alt-nats are saltire-pilled. Their angst at the myriad alienations and disappointments of contemporary capitalism is tangled up with a more immediate process of disenchantment: the stagnation of an independence movement that once burst suddenly into life, and gave them something pure and sincere to fight for. It promised a moment of collective heroism in a country hard-wired for moderation by centuries of unwanted upheaval, from the Highland Clearances to deindustrialisation.
This was an empty promise, but the escapism – from Britain, and from the everyday helplessness of neoliberal life – was the point. It was Salmond, as SNP leader, who made that promise; Sturgeon, less of a romantic than her predecessor and faced with a far more obstructionist UK government, was stuck with the impossible task of keeping it. That betrayal, inherent in all nationalist politics, has now become too obvious to ignore, so it has to be projected on to something other than the nation itself.
In its disdain for “wokeness”, its mistrust of trans self-identification and its suspicion of a leadership that takes the slow road, Alba’s ideological core represents a Scottish nationalist version of what the writer Joe Kennedy calls “authentocracy”. It sees fraudulence everywhere, dressing up its own bizarre preoccupations as dissident realness. The trouble is that there is nothing more inauthentic than somebody trying desperately to prove their authenticity, which is how we have ended up with Alba’s supporters struggling to pronounce their own party’s name.
This is the only way of understanding Alba’s existence, its potential appeal, and its likely function in Scottish politics. If all that’s needed is another pro-independence party on the list, more left-wing and internally democratic than the SNP, why not support the Scottish Greens? The answer is that the Scottish Greens are too woke; Alba is the new vanguard party of Scotland’s “war on woke”, a bekilted ally, whether its supporters like it or not, of Faragism and the right-wing gutter press. Scottish politics is usually a decade or so behind England’s – the centrist SNP is only now enjoying peak Blairism – and it was perhaps only a matter of time before we had our own, indigenous culture-war electoral force to match Ukip and the Brexit Party.
Salmond may have made the modern SNP, but he was also made by it, kept sensible and serious by the requirements of a big-tent, pragmatic electoral strategy. After resigning as SNP leader in 2014 he had to watch from the back benches as Nigel Farage achieved his own dream of independence without ever emerging from a pompous, self-indulgent comfort zone. Owing to the weak spots of the Scottish electoral system and the slow degeneration of the Yes movement, Salmond and his fans may have finally found a way of settling into their own safe space, abandoning the compromised work of gradualism to pursue a different kind of power, out on the shadowy fringes of acceptable conduct.
[See also: Our Scottish election poll tracker]