In Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, a vain military hero is banished from Rome after one piece of arrogance too many. Furious and isolated, he teams up with a conquered enemy to seek vengeance on his own people, joining with the Volscian army he has trounced earlier in the play. Boiling with spite, and united with the hobbled foes who literally made his name – an honorary title for destroying their city – Coriolanus and the Volscians march on Rome. Terrified of their former champion, his old friends and comrades gather to beg for their lives.
This, it seems, was the plan for the Alba Party. Retribution for Alex Salmond, in league with the sort of people he expunged from the mainstream of Scottish nationalism in the 1990s: zoomers, magical thinkers and conspiracy theorists. Having outfoxed the SNP’s romantic “fundamentalists” as a young party leader, Salmond’s comeback has turbo-charged their digital rebirth, from neo-Celtic symbols to Bannockburn cosplay. He made his name as a slick “gradualist” tactician and media operator, but today Salmond depends on the reach of troubled bloggers to spread the Alba message. A rocky LBC interview last week was dominated by questions about his behaviour towards women, his ties to Russian state media, and claims by another Alba candidate that Scottish LGBTQ organisations are in thrall to a secretive global movement to legalise sex with ten-year-olds.
All pretty horrifying to his former friends, but they don’t seem terrified. On the contrary, the open split within nationalist politics comes as a blessed relief (for now), and seems likely to benefit the SNP in the forthcoming Holyrood elections. The emergence of Alba has effected a bloodless purge of troublesome MPs, councillors and activists, including the veteran left-winger Kenny MacAskill and the Fife MP Neale Hanvey, best known for anti-semitic Facebook posts. The Alba defectors reject Sturgeon’s cautious pursuit of a second referendum on independence and complain of the party’s intolerance of dissent. Alba seeks a more aggressive approach, beginning with its efforts to game Scotland’s electoral system to artificially under-represent unionist opinion. The party also caters to well-organised opponents of the SNP’s planned reforms to gender recognition law. If there is a typical Alba member at this early stage, they want full Scottish self-determination yesterday and think the self-definition of Scottish trans people has gone too far, too fast.
With its huge polling lead, the SNP leadership seem relaxed about losing these peevish factions – the commentator David Leask likens the process to a “political enema” – and their exit improves the SNP’s standing with younger progressive voters and Middle Scotland liberals. It is quite possible the main electoral impact of the split will be to mask the disappointments of SNP government by boosting turnout among its more casual supporters, thus avoiding the problem Sturgeon faced in 2016 (soaring popularity, complacent voters). Lacking any serious challenge from the unionist parties, the opportunity to run against her former mentor may even be a stroke of good fortune. A recent Scotsman poll put Salmond’s net favourability rating at -51 per cent, 23 points lower than Boris Johnson and more than 70 points behind Sturgeon.
If the Volscian remnant poses little immediate danger, Rome should still be concerned. Whatever happens on 6 May, Sturgeon will find herself leading a movement as well as a party, and there are signs that both are losing their One Scotland appeal. Alba and the broader “alt-Nat” tendency are symptoms of a deeper structural problem within Scottish nationalism’s most important coalitions. Both were secured by Alex Salmond as SNP leader: first in the 1990s (victory for pragmatic “gradualists” and enough progress to keep traditional “fundamentalists” onside), and then in 2014 as a figurehead of the sunny, lite-populist Yes campaign. It was Salmond’s resignation after the No result in 2014 that led to the passionate merger of these two coalitions, as grieving supporters of independence flooded into the SNP and gifted his successor a vast and highly energised electoral base. Sturgeon is also a canny pragmatist, but it was high emotion that formed the “YeSNP” party-movement she now leads and the mixture was always prone to volatility.
Over the past few years, the cocktail has begun to unmix itself. In December 2019, Rory Scothorne observed that “the various elements of Scottish nationalism that the SNP has tried to push to the fringes – such as socialists and a populist hostility to ‘minority’ issues like trans rights – are coalescing around a new style of nationalist activism that feels, from the demonstrations I’ve attended, more like a kind of ecumenical religious revivalism than serious movement politics”. With the addition of a former first minister, back from the depths of political disgrace, this revival has its Messiah – and its Judas. There will be no Team Scotland triangulation to mask the enmity on both sides, and this very fact casts doubt on all the other kinds of Team Scotland triangulation that keep nationalism moving forward.
This is where the real danger lies, and to appreciate the problem we need only glance a few weeks forward. What happens after the May election, as disappointed Alba supporters are gradually reabsorbed into the “Yes family”, if not the SNP? Will their loyalty revert to Salmond’s nemesis, Sturgeon, or settle on some other standard-bearer of “real” nationalism, in Alba or in one of the other dissident grouplets and marching clubs? The new party insists its sole purpose is to assist the SNP in achieving a spurious “supermajority” in the Scottish Parliament, and on paper the two parties could happily co-exist as parallel bodies pursuing the same ends.
But ideologically, the very existence of one is kryptonite to the other. Acknowledging the reality of two different and bitterly opposed nationalisms, with distinct social visions and priorities, does more than spoil the SNP’s reputation for internal unity (not to say conformity). The Alba split means that for the first time since devolution, we have open conflict between competing visions of what Scottish nationalism is about, who it’s for, and which elements of the modern world it understands itself to be struggling against.
Progressive voices on the pro-indy left are ambivalent about these developments. As Tejas Mukerji writes, “perhaps an explicitly right-wing pro-independence formation is something to be welcomed – both in isolating and siloing the most toxic elements of the movement, and for spurring on a real response from the left”. But assuming Alba flops, he continues, “the reactionary discontents of Scottish nationalism becoming politically homeless yet again will pose a serious challenge for the entire independence movement”. Wherever these sentiments find expression, the post-split SNP is likely to be electorally strengthened and strategically weakened.
Sturgeon and her circle have gained space to reassert the party’s liberal and progressive vision of independence, but lost the opportunity to present this vision as simply and universally “Scottish”. It’s not just that one flavour of nationalism must now be measured against another, but that the underlying premise of “standing up for Scotland” loses its supra-political character. The civic-democratic ideal that enjoys hegemony in Scotland today – an argument from self-determination, where the specific content or opinions of the national “self” are neither here nor there – loses its commonsensical power as we begin to hear angrily opposed accounts of who, exactly, speaks for Scotland and in what accents.
All the pro-devolution parties played a role in crafting the earlier “voice for Scotland” narrative, and we can find Labour mouthing the words at key points of the journey. Deepening Scottish Labour’s commitment to a Scottish parliament in 1988, Donald Dewar argued that “what is needed is a political solution which recognises and buttresses the Scottish identity within the framework of the United Kingdom”. Insisting that devolution was not a slippery slope to independence, Dewar warned against those – meaning the SNP – who would “create a constitutional crisis with the intention of stampeding the country into a quasi-nationalist stance”. “The most important virtue”, he insisted, “will be realism and an ability to reflect what Scotland wants”.
But this vision of “the Scottish identity” and “what Scotland wants” was the product, not the antidote, of a quasi-nationalist stance, and it was Scottish Labour who declared it “realism”, above politics and beyond unionist objection. The devolved political culture to which it gave rise continually referred to “Scotland” as a single category or ideal, and it was this durable frame, far more than Salmond’s PR gifts, that laid the groundwork for the easy appeal of the Yes vision in 2014. That vast, decentralised campaign took on the character of a social movement precisely because its message and ethos boiled down to being “pro-Scotland” in a positive and confident manner.
The emerging danger for the SNP lies in the difference between politicising Scottishness as an “identity” – as in the cross-party movement for devolution – and, as with Alba, mobilising competing political claims to that identity, in a context of mistrust, paranoia and internet brain-poisoning. The nation conceived as a spotless sender of messages, entitled to its “voice” in advance of what it is saying, begins to give way to the nation as embodied social conflict, some of it quite ugly and bigoted.
It makes for uneasy times in the Scottish cultural sector. For decades, writers and musicians have occupied the happy niche of giving substance to the preferred Scottish display-identity, that of a marginal, progressive polity wounded and ignored by Thatcherism. A mild shudder passed through this world when the Proclaimers, heroes of 1980s vernacular rebellion, pledged themselves to Alba, but the Reid twins have always been close to the SNP’s fundamentalist wing. In a second referendum campaign, their younger peers in the pro-Yes Scottish cultural arena may face the discomfort of choosing sides, refusing invitations and dividing audiences.
Especially fraught are fixtures of the devolved literary scene such as the Scots Makar, Scotland’s national poet. Under normal circumstances, the successor to Jackie Kay would by now have been appointed by a panel of first ministers including both Salmond and Sturgeon. The cancellation of this unthinkable meeting highlights the closeness of cultural and political power in a small country, and the special pressure Scotland’s civic nationalism invests in unifying artistic symbols. For the first time in decades, writers, artists and intellectuals feel an unfamiliar pressure to “take sides” between competing conceptions of the national “self” in self-determination, and to justify alignments that went without saying (and without argument) only a few years ago.
Shifting the debate to this level poses a much greater threat than the Alba adventure: having to grapple with the warts-and-all “content” of what Scotland wants, including the reactionary elements flowing into Salmond’s party, is very different to pledging support for the democratic rights of “Scotland” as political form. The special magic of national identity is being able to hymn the latter while bracketing awareness of the former, but there are times when the two cannot be reconciled.
That’s how Coriolanus got banished in the first place. Measuring his service to Rome against his open contempt for its citizens, his wily opponents the tribunes ask “what is the city but the people?” and provoke him into treason against both. For decades, Scottish devolution and its accompanying quasi-nationalism has centred on the “city”, insisting that the rights of the people – all the people – are embodied in the representative proto-state. But more than one “people” can claim that mantle, with quite different visions of who the city is for, and who its enemies are.
Scott Hames is the author of The Literary Politics of Scottish Devolution: Voice, Class, Nation (2019)