As several generations of political opponents can testify, it is never fun to be on the receiving end of Alex Salmond’s venomous tongue. Few can deliver controlled rage as powerfully and eloquently as the former first minister.
Since his fall from grace and subsequent exile, however, Salmond has become a much-reduced figure in the Scottish independence movement. His public outbursts have resembled smoky puffs from an ageing, exhausted dragon. His post-SNP venture, the Alba party, has been a failure.
For those of us who remember the glory days, there was therefore something thrillingly vintage in Salmond’s weekend address to a Burns Supper in Dundee. This was the old man in incendiary form, eyes narrowed in contempt, voice like a flick knife, jowls wobbling with every word.
It was – and not for the first time – his successor Nicola Sturgeon who was the target, and in particular her controversial gender recognition reforms. A YouGov poll for this week’s Sunday Times showed that Sturgeon’s personal approval rating had fallen from +7 to -4 since October, following the fierce dispute over the legislation and the case of the rapist Isla Bryson, who claimed to be transgender after being charged and was initially put in a women’s prison. Backing for the SNP in a prospective Holyrood election has dropped from 50 per cent to 44 per cent in the constituency vote and from 40 per cent to 36 per cent in the regional vote. Support for independence has sunk from 53 per cent to 47 per cent. This still leaves the SNP well ahead of the opposition, but in the context of recent Scottish politics these are precipitous declines.
“Thirty years of gradually building, building, building until we get independence over 50 per cent and then thrown away with some self-indulgent nonsense, which even if it was right – which it isnae – would hardly be tactically the most astute manoeuvre when we’re meant to be taking Scotland to its next date with destiny,” Salmond told his audience. He criticised the reforms to ease the process of legally changing gender as “some daft ideology imported from elsewhere… and improperly understood by its proponents” that “borders on the totally absurd”.
There is no denying the power of his words. He will see Sturgeon’s miscalculation as putting at risk not just the prospect of independence but his own legacy. There are plenty of people in the SNP who will agree with him.
It is undeniable that the tectonic plates in the nationalist movement are shifting. This is in part because Sturgeon’s once sharp political instincts seem to have deserted her. Unease over the First Minister’s judgement is also related to her insistence that either the next general election or the next Holyrood election be treated as a de facto referendum on independence, which would require pro-independence parties to secure more than 50 per cent of the vote. Even if this ambitious target was reached, there is little sign the UK government would accept it as a mandate to begin separation negotiations. And campaigning on a single, divisive issue is likely to alarm swing voters who are worried about the state of the NHS, among other public services.
The SNP is in a crisis of the kind it has not experienced for many years. Sturgeon’s iron grip on the party has weakened. Her preferred leader at Westminster, Ian Blackford, was ousted and replaced by Stephen Flynn, who sought neither her approval nor permission before acting. She has had to publicly reassure opponents of the gender policy, such as the respected MP and women’s rights campaigner Joanna Cherry, that they should continue as SNP politicians, after close allies including Shirley-Anne Somerville, the education secretary, said they should consider leaving. And even as the party’s poor track record in government comes under greater scrutiny, its policy for achieving independence is drifting. There will be no managed transition when she finally leaves Bute House – it will instead be a dogfight.
In another sign of Sturgeon’s waning authority, I understand two senior politicians from what would normally be viewed as opposite wings of the party have collaborated on a pamphlet that argues against her de facto referendum plan, and instead makes the case for greater patience and a return to the gradualist approach that has served the movement so well in recent decades. It will be published later today.
This chaos is unfamiliar territory for the modern SNP. Perhaps, now the threads have begun to fray, it is an inevitable reaction to years of demanded loyalty and an effective ban on independent thought. Sturgeon may continue in office, but things will never be as they were and it must be unclear whether, after nine years in the top job, she has the capacity to adjust her leadership style. If Salmond wasn’t so angry, he’d probably laugh.