I was with Nicola Sturgeon, in her garden on a housing estate on the outskirts of Glasgow, when Alex Salmond publicly launched his alternative pro-independence party, Alba. Four days earlier, James Hamilton, former director of public prosecutions in Ireland, had cleared the First Minister of breaching the ministerial code, forestalling her resignation. She had spent the morning on the Holyrood election campaign trail. It was time to move on from the psychodrama of the last few years. Yet now, suddenly, here Salmond was again, with his one-fingered salute to her leadership. A chill wind blew my notes off the table and storm clouds across the spring sky. “There are some people, and they do tend to be men,” Sturgeon said, “whose egos don’t allow them to leave the stage when the time is right.”
Salmond dominated the headlines over the days that followed. His bulky shadow fell on every interview with Sturgeon, and she kept taking the bait. “He was getting under her skin,” one ally says. “She couldn’t help herself, but it meant everything was dragged back to him, to the so-called feud.”
Things have progressed since then. Alba is fielding 32 candidates – four on each of the eight regional lists – in the Scottish Parliament election on 6 May. It has garnered some high-profile names, including two MPs, Kenny MacAskill and Neale Hanvey, and some former MPs, MSPs and serving councillors. It has mined seams of discontent with the SNP’s perceived “wokeness”. It has created a catchy slogan in its calls for a “supermajority” composed of a range of pro-independence parties, which Salmond claims will make it more difficult for Boris Johnson to refuse a second referendum.
Salmond claims that Alba has 5,000 members. On 21 April, he unveiled its manifesto – entitled, appropriately, “Shake Things Up” – at a virtual launch, which froze after a few minutes. He said Alba – the “plucky underdog” of Scottish politics – had been established to “bring urgency to the timetable for delivering independence for Scotland”. It would ensure “no more backsliding” on those timetables, he said.
With this in mind, in three weeks’ time, “with the support of the people”, Alba representatives intend to lay before Holyrood a motion “instructing the Scottish government to immediately commence independence negotiations with Whitehall”.
Other Alba policies include the creation of a Scottish National Renewable Corporation to finance the transition from a carbon-based economy, the introduction of a development land tax to disincentivise the hoarding of land resources, and a new Scottish currency to be introduced at an early date following independence; sterling would be used as a dual currency over a period of time.
But the party has also opened itself up to ridicule. From its technologically shaky launch on 26 March to its co-opting of Robert the Bruce for a cringeworthy election ad, it has come across as amateur. Support for Alba has been low enough that broadcasters have not felt compelled to include Salmond in the leaders’ debates. Those presenters who have interviewed him – LBC’s Iain Dale, for example – have concentrated on his least attractive attributes: his Kremlin-sponsored RT chat show and equivocation over Russian state involvement in the Salisbury poisonings, and his admitted inappropriate behaviour with women. He consistently closes down this issue with reference to his acquittal on all charges of sexual assault at his criminal trial last year.
The fear of Alba has subsided, if not the loathing. And yet an unease persists. Mainstream independence activists insist that Salmond has done the SNP a favour, purging those who had been sowing division. They also know Salmond’s capacity for stirring. What damage could he inflict?
Of the eight polls conducted since the party launched, one has put Alba at 1 per cent, two at 2 per cent, three at 3 per cent, and two at 6 per cent. As psephologist John Curtice, a professor of politics at the University of Strathclyde, points out, the difference in these predictions could be between the party having zero to one MSPs or six. If the SNP fails to gain a majority, it will look not to Alba but to the pro-independence Greens for support, as it has done since 2016. But five or six Alba MSPs would be enough to make a noise: to undermine Sturgeon’s strategy on independence; to goad the SNP, as the left did to pro-independence leaders in Catalonia, with disastrous consequences.
Even if Salmond, who is standing on the North East list, were the only candidate to prevail, his presence in Holyrood would be unsettling. The defection of SNP candidate Eva Comrie and two National Executive Committee (NEC) members to become Alba candidates has fuelled distrust. MPs Joanna Cherry, Angus MacNeil and Douglas Chapman, who were predicted to jump ship to Alba, have stayed put. But what if others are biding their time, only to defect once elected? “If Salmond gets in, there’s always a risk he will provide a home for people who are unhappy with a particular policy or who don’t think their talents are being recognised,” one Sturgeon loyalist told me.
Alba is an alliance of the disaffected. In no particular order, the new party has attracted: those who believe the SNP is too cautious on independence; those who believe the SNP is too progressive; those who feel sidelined or traduced by the SNP (see Hanvey, who was suspended from the party in 2019 for using anti-Semitic language on social media); those who have been “radicalised” by online blogs such as Wings Over Scotland (whose founder is based in Bath, England); and those with a long-standing link to Salmond. They also share a visceral dislike of Sturgeon.
Alba’s most audacious move has been to position itself as a champion of women’s rights, allowing Salmond to deflect attention from his own troubles. More than half its candidates – 18 out of 32 – are female. They include the former SNP women’s convener Caroline McAllister, founder of the party’s Women’s Pledge group, which opposes aspects of the Scottish government’s planned reforms of the Gender Recognition Act (GRA). The women see the reforms, which would make it easier for trans people to obtain a Gender Recognition Certificate, as a threat to sex-based rights. That they regard a party led by Salmond as the answer to their concerns is testament to how badly the SNP has handled the issue.
Having assembled his ragtag bunch of dissidents, the challenge will be for Salmond to keep them under control. The initial launch was disciplined, with no news leaking in advance, but there have been gaffes a-plenty since. Hours after the party trumpeted boxing champion Alex Arthur as a candidate, journalists unearthed tweets in which he said “Romanian beggars” were as fat as “juicy overfed pigs”.
Alba’s women’s conference proved controversial, too, as another candidate, Margaret Lynch, was reported to have falsely claimed that two LGBTQ+ charities in Scotland supported lowering the age of consent to ten. The party went on to defend Lynch, prompting one candidate, Austin Sheridan (a former SNP councillor in Glasgow) to resign.
Always the insurgent, Salmond is rifling through his old playbook, dreaming up wheezes such as the Robert the Bruce ad, with its invocation of Bannockburn. But “blood and soil” nationalism – so antithetical to the “civic nationalism” promoted by the SNP – will appeal only to hardliners, and will repel those soft No voters that the movement needs to win over.
Salmond is used to having a party machine and strategic heavyweights at his disposal. Without them, the stunts he once excelled at are proving shambolic and embarrassing. In one recent photo opportunity, he and other candidates were pictured standing with the letters A, L, B and A in the wrong order: a small gaffe, but unthinkable in his prime.
Even the centrepiece of Alba’s campaign – the concept of a “supermajority” – is potentially counterproductive. No one has defined exactly what it means. Salmond says it refers to a large majority at Holyrood. But some of his acolytes are under the impression that it means two-thirds of the parliament: the percentage required under the Scotland Act to make changes to electoral procedures.
Professor Aileen McHarg, an expert in UK and Scottish constitutional law and a Yes supporter, calls it “a slogan in search of a rationale”. She says that a two-thirds majority could be used, in the event of the Westminster government’s continued stalling, to trigger a “plebiscite” election on a second referendum. But getting a clear result on a single issue is difficult with the Scottish Parliament’s Additional Member System (AMS). “Where do you count the majority?” McHarg asks. “Is it the constituency vote? Is it the list vote?”
Even if the SNP backed such an election, and voters delivered the desired result, where would the movement go from there? Would a Unilateral Declaration of Independence (as happened in Rhodesia in 1965) on that basis be internationally accepted (as it would have to be for Scotland to thrive)? This seems far from certain.
Worse still, McHarg says, talk of a two-thirds majority could prove a hostage to fortune. “There is a risk of the UK government saying: ‘You said you would get a supermajority. Well, you haven’t got a supermajority, so we are not going to play ball,’ or: ‘You have a supermajority. You say you have a two-thirds support for independence. OK, we will agree to a Section 30 order, but we will make it subject to a two-thirds majority’,” she tells me.
What Alba wants is to “game the system”. As John Curtice points out, there is nothing new in this: politicians have been trying to do so since the Scottish Parliament was set up in 1999.
AMS is designed to help a wider range of parties gain representation, so those that do best in the constituencies gain fewer list MSPs. Salmond’s claim that a second vote for the SNP is “wasted” may be true, but, given no one knows exactly how many constituencies the SNP will win, it’s impossible to be sure. Furthermore, to create a “supermajority”, Alba would have to take its list seats from pro-union parties rather than its pro-independence rivals and, again, that can’t be guaranteed.
Curtice questions the contention that a supermajority would help the cause. “The problem with the ‘many nationalist flowers blooming’ argument is that because of the precedent of 2011 [when David Cameron agreed to a referendum on the basis of an SNP majority], the UK government might find it more difficult to say no to another SNP majority.”
Nor would Boris Johnson be confronting a unified movement with a coherent strategy. Alba was born of a schism, and any supermajority it was part of would reflect that schism. “The UK government would much rather face a divided nationalist movement that can’t agree about its tactics than it would a nationalist movement dominated by one party that is clear about what it wants to achieve,” Curtice says.
Those in the SNP mainstream insist that Alba isn’t cutting through. But they know Salmond poses a threat, and sense that this is just the beginning. “Alba doesn’t want to complement us, it wants to replace us,” one senior party figure tells me. “All it requires is for Alex to get into parliament and they can build from there, enlisting more MSPs and standing at next year’s council elections.”
Whatever the result in May, the period after the Scottish election is going to be tense. In late autumn, Sturgeon’s approval ratings were soaring and a succession of polls showed a sustained majority for Yes for the first time. But, since the New Year, support for both has slipped: the product of weeks of negative headlines, spawned by the parliamentary inquiry into the Scottish government’s mishandling of the original sexual harassment allegations against Salmond, and a frustration over lockdown. A recent Savanta ComRes poll suggests that 45 per cent would now vote Yes and 48 per cent would vote No, with the rest undecided. When “don’t knows” are excluded, 48 per cent support Yes and 52 per cent support No.
But this drop in support will do nothing to offset the impatience of hardliners. Indeed, it is likely to amplify their conviction that Sturgeon should have acted more decisively.
With the SNP committed to a second referendum in the next parliamentary session (but not until after the Covid crisis has passed), a showdown over tactics is inevitable. Salmond has said that Alba will ensure that there is no more “backsliding”. Whatever lip service he pays to the concept of a supermajority, it is clear that if he or any of his new political allies secure a place in Holyrood, he plans to make life for his former party as difficult as possible.
This article appears in the 28 Apr 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The new battle of ideas