There is a plot afoot in Scotland which, if successful, would dent Keir Starmer’s bid to become the next prime minister. A letter from Alex Salmond, the former first minister and leader of the Alba Party, has been sent today to all SNP MPs, suggesting a pro-independence electoral pact between the two parties and the Scottish Greens to maximise the anti-Union vote.
Alba is a small party compared to the SNP and the letter will inevitably be received with a certain amount of derisive huffing. But Salmond’s logic is not easy to refute and senior SNP figures, including the two candidates defeated by Humza Yousaf in the party leadership contest in March – Kate Forbes and Ash Regan – have privately shown interest in the idea.
Salmond, who led the SNP for two decades, quit the party in 2018 and became leader of Alba in 2021. In his letter to MPs, seen exclusively by the New Statesman, Salmond writes: “The proposal is as follows: all existing seats held by independence-supporting MPs will be fought by that candidate or their party’s chosen representative. That will account for some 47 of the 57 Scottish seats. The remaining ten would be distributed among the participating parties with the SNP again receiving the lion’s share. Each party would agree to have as the first paragraph in their manifesto that they are standing seeking a popular mandate to negotiate independence from Westminster.”
He adds: “At a stroke, the entire dynamic of the election will change. The focus will no longer be on how many SNP seats will be lost to Labour but how many of the ten remaining unionist seats will be lost to the Scotland United coalition. Election debate will be centred on independence and how to get it, and not on the record or current internal difficulties of Scotland’s major party.”
If the pact resulted in a majority of Scottish MPs favouring independence, it would give the next UK government a headache over whether to accept a new referendum and would probably reduce the number of Labour MPs elected in Scotland, which could prove crucial to the party’s chance of an overall majority at Westminster.
Everything starts with the numbers. An Ipsos poll last month put support for Scottish independence at 51 per cent and opposition at 45 per cent – though other polling companies, including Survation, YouGov and Redfield & Wilton, have recently put the unionist side ahead by between three and ten percentage points. But contrast this with the position of the SNP: Ipsos found that support for the party had fallen by ten points since December to 41 per cent, with Labour now in second place in Scotland on 29 per cent.
The eminent pollster John Curtice says that the four polls conducted since Yousaf became SNP leader “have all detected a widening of the gap between the level of support for the SNP and that for independence. On average these polls put support for the SNP in the next Westminster election at 39 per cent and support for independence at 48 per cent. The widening of the gap suggests that the alignment between the two has weakened.”
These are the numbers behind Salmond’s move. He believes that support for independence remains robust despite the chaos inside the SNP. Inside the party there is frustration with Yousaf’s gradualist strategy on independence. The First Minister believes it is crucial to first decontaminate the SNP – following recent scandals – and provide calm and effective government before seeking another referendum. Many nationalists, however, are getting impatient.
Electoral pacts are often proposed but rarely actually happen. In this case the SNP leadership would have to relinquish its hostility to Salmond personally following his falling out with Nicola Sturgeon. That might be too much. But the arrival of all of those letters gives Yousaf and the SNP, at the very least, something to think about. Labour will be fervently hoping that nothing comes of this.