The top of Edinburgh’s Calton Hill is no stranger to nationalist politics. At a rally there in 2013, Alex Salmond addressed thousands of independence activists at the height of his political power and influence, preparing for the promised land that he ultimately failed to deliver in the 2014 Scottish referendum. Eight years later, Salmond, 66, returned for the Edinburgh launch of his new political project, the Alba Party.
Gone is the formidable SNP press machine and media scrum that once surrounded the former first minister. Instead, on 12 April, he was flanked by Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh, the former SNP MP who now co-owns the production company that produces The Alex Salmond Show on RT (Russia Today). Ahmed-Sheikh stayed by Salmond’s side as he drifted out of the public eye, then back in following the allegations of sexual assault against him and his war of words with the party he once defined.
Between cigarette breaks, a man wielding a huge Saltire was called upon to stand behind Salmond, next to the boxer Alex Arthur, who is one of the many hangers-on hoping to ride on Salmond’s coattails to Holyrood. “Once the gyms reopen, it’ll be me and him in the ring,” Salmond quipped, and the mood was very much of an ageing fighter climbing back through the ropes for one last shot at glory.
“The idea of a list independence party has been canvassed for some time and I think the logic is irresistible,” said Salmond, who was brought to Alba by Laurie Flynn, a former investigative journalist who made him an offer he couldn’t refuse. “I looked at them all, I considered them all and I spoke to them all, and I felt that Laurie’s proposal was the most soundly based. So I accepted the invitation of the committee to lead the party through the election.”
The polls suggest Alba will, at best, win one seat in Holyrood’s North East region, raising the prospect of Salmond’s grand political comeback amounting to five years as a lone MSP, answering constituency queries without any real political influence.
“Well let’s see where the polling is at the end of the campaign rather than the start,” he responded when asked about the poor numbers the party has attracted.
Alba has not been included in the Scottish leaders’ TV debates or been granted parity of coverage by the BBC and STV. Instead, the party relies on the ecosystem of pro-independence bloggers and outriders that has blossomed since the 2014 independence referendum.
“Let’s quote a former foreign secretary of the 19th-century, [George] Canning,” reflected Salmond. “‘I have called a new world into existence to redress the balance of the old’. For an emerging party in Scotland, we need the new world of the new media, called into existence to redress the balance of the mainstream media and television.”
Asked what he would do beyond independence if elected, Salmond returned to the hits of his time as first minister, pointing to his support for renewable energy in his Aberdeenshire heartland, which cost him the endorsement of Donald Trump.
“Pursuing that project was a high priority of mine, one which cost me any relationship with the former president of the United States of America, because according to Donald Trump I went from the greatest first minister on Earth to Mad Alec trying to destroy Scotland,” said Salmond, with a passable impression of the disgraced president.
It is Aberdeenshire and the wider North East of Scotland that Salmond hopes will propel him to Holyrood on the Alba ticket. Long before it became the party of choice in the central belt, the SNP had put down deep roots in the small towns that dot the landscape between Aberdeen and Inverness.
Above a jewellers on the main street in the market town of Ellon, Salmond’s old Westminster constituency office has been repurposed by Alba’s campaign team. In the lobby hangs a painting by the artist Gerard Burns of a girl carrying a Saltire, similar to the painting that graced his office during his time as first minister. Burns, whose work features children with Saltires, wolves and other animals in Scottish landscapes is an esteemed figure in parts of the independence movement and a personal favourite of Salmond.
In a small room off the main office is the makeshift studio that Alba has been using for online press conferences, including the party’s launch, which was mocked for its glitching software and inaudible questions.
In front of the branded backscreen sat Hamish Vernal, a 76-year-old veteran of nationalist politics who was an SNP member for 60 years and remembers the hard days of the pre-Holyrood era. A man who speaks fondly of the time when the party was made up of radical upstarts and a close-knit community of fellow travellers, Vernal defected to Alba in April. He was head of his local SNP branch until the call from Salmond came.
“I suspected this had been brewing for some time,” said Vernal, “and I said to Alex, ‘look, if you go down a political road in the future I am right with you’. So he never let dab, but then he phoned me up on the Tuesday lunchtime before the Friday launch and said, ‘this is what I’m doing’ and went through everything. He didn’t have to ask and I said, ‘that’s fine for me’, and on the Saturday morning I wrote my resignation to SNP headquarters.” Freed from the burden of governance and policy, Alba is a chance for some lifelong nationalists to get back to basics.
Vernal is as forthright as his party leader about the role played by the alternative nationalist media in the Alba operation. This includes the contentious Wings Over Scotland blog, which falsely claimed the SNP was working with third sector organisations to lower the age of consent to ten, and the personal blog of the former British diplomat Craig Murray. Murray, who was the UK ambassador to Uzbekistan, is shortly due to be sentenced for contempt of court after providing information which could identify the accusers in Salmond’s trial for sexual assault.
“He’s gotta use the bloggers, he’s gotta use social media, he’s gotta use what he can, because quite clearly the mainstream media are not predisposed towards Alex and Alba,” said Vernal.
Kirk Torrance, Alba’s self-styled digital Svengali with shades of Dominic Cummings, sat at one of the office desks. Torrance is one of the many in Salmond’s orbit who have joined Alba; the former first minister even endorsed Torrance’s most recent attempt at a tech start-up and claims to have data showing a tidal wave of support for Alba on its way.
“We get that data through talking to people,” said Torrance who, like Salmond, forecasts 20 MSPs in Alba’s Caledonian blue come election night.
The Scottish parliament’s voting system means that whenever a party wins a constituency, that seat is chalked off any they would have won on the electoral list, ensuring both constituency representation and a broadly proportional final result. Alba’s plan is to push as many unionists from the Conservatives, Labour and the Liberal Democrats as possible off the lists and – in its eyes – indirectly aid the SNP (through a “supermajority” for independence).
The SNP, however, are refusing to play ball.
Karen Adam is the SNP candidate in Salmond’s old Holyrood Banffshire constituency. She sees no need for Alba’s helping hand. This is not least because of Alba’s ties to anti-trans groups and an older, more socially conservative wing of the independence movement.
“I’ve seen exclusion in society,” said Adam. “I know what it feels like, just for being yourself. I grew up in a same-sex household, my mum was gay, so I also grew up in a time in the Eighties when homophobia was absolutely rife, and I remember being teased at school because of that home set-up.”
Adam sees Alba’s use of the trans issue as a straw man argument and said the damage caused by the breakaway party is limited.
“I don’t think there’s anything damaging about progressive ideals – we do have a problem with transphobia here in Scotland, that is something we have to work on. I know there are women who have concerns, but really the danger to women in our society at this time is men, and particularly men in their own homes.”
The message from the SNP is uncompromising: back the party and the project and help it achieve a clear majority for independence on its own.
Of the seven list seats available in the region, it increasingly looks as if the final place could be a showdown between Salmond and the Greens. Two solid performances in the TV debates by the party’s co-convenors, Lorna Slater and Patrick Harvie, have seen it consistently projected to win between eight and 11 seats.
What Salmond has to hope is that some of the 137,000 people who voted SNP on the regional list last time lean Alba blue, and not Green, come election day. “As soon as we get that argument across to these 137,000 people and others,” said Salmond, “then Alba will be weighing the votes, not counting them.”
The election on 6 May seems likely to be a good day for the independence movement, marking a new stage in the cold war with Westminster. But it will also be a referendum on whether the Alex Salmond show is a spectacle the voters of Scotland have any interest in.
Dominic Hinde is a journalist and academic based in Edinburgh and the author of “A Utopia Like Any Other: Inside the Swedish Model”