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1 November 2023

Alex Salmond is still haunting the SNP

The former first minister will use all his considerable political wiles to make the most of Ash Regan’s defection.

By Chris Deerin

The SNP has deservedly gained a reputation for playing fast and loose with important information that might in time cause it embarrassment.

During the Alex Salmond saga, Nicola Sturgeon was criticised for failing to keep a record of meetings and phone calls with her predecessor. Sturgeon claimed the conversations were a party matter, but although she was eventually cleared of breaching the ministerial code, it was still ruled that these had been government business. 

Her administration was accused on several occasions of delaying or withholding official documents from parliamentary inquiries. There have been concerns over missing papers around the ongoing ferries scandal, too.

The latest case involves the alleged deletion of WhatsApp messages relating to the Covid-19 pandemic. Sturgeon and other senior government figures, it is claimed, have either wiped their exchanges or used the app’s auto-delete function. In August 2022, the Scottish Covid inquiry issued a “do not destroy” order. Too late, it seems.

Humza Yousaf, who was health secretary in 2021, says there had been a Scottish government policy that advised the deletion of social media messages after 30 days. It has now been confirmed that messages involving government business should have been uploaded to a system of record before they were binned – the official wording is that they “shall be retained as long as they are required to support the Scottish government in its business requirements and legal obligations”.

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If it’s all rather muddy, it nevertheless adds to the growing appearance of SNP slipperiness. This is extremely unhelpful for a party that desperately needs to restore its reputation for straight dealing, integrity and competence, and that is also in the middle of a police inquiry into its funding. The SNP may not be the only party that has cut corners – consider the farrago over Boris Johnson’s own mobile phone – and it’s clear that guidelines and behaviour need to be improved in the informal social media age. However, the Nats have ruled uninterrupted in Scotland for 16 years and should be judged accordingly by voters north of the border.

This all represents more of a challenge to independence supporters than it does to unionists. Although the SNP has fallen in the polls since Sturgeon’s resignation, backing for independence remains high, at between 45 per cent and 47 per cent. If these voters feel the governing party has been in power too long, is unlikely to advance the case for independence in the short to medium term, and is proving increasingly hard to trust, who should they vote for?

Alba, the breakaway party founded by Salmond in 2021, is doing all it can to attract their attention. Ash Regan, the SNP MSP who stood against Yousaf in the leadership contest and came third, announced at the weekend that she had defected to the party. This wasn’t necessarily a huge surprise – Regan’s platform during the contest had much in common with the hard-line approach taken by Salmond and his acolytes, leading some to suspect her campaign was actually in cahoots with the former leader.

Appearing on stage at Alba’s conference in Glasgow, Regan said that “it has become increasingly clear that the SNP has lost its focus on independence, the very foundation of its existence. I could not, in good conscience, continue to be part of a party that has drifted from its path and its commitment to achieving independence as a matter of urgency.”

I’m not sure Regan brings huge credibility to Alba – although she is a former junior minister, her performance during the leadership campaign at times verged on eccentric, and she has been a peripheral figure ever since. The party won’t pose a significant threat at the forthcoming general election, and polls currently suggest it’s unlikely to make much of an impact at the 2026 Holyrood election either.

However, Salmond will use all his considerable political wiles to make the most of the defection and, amid the SNP’s manifold troubles, to present Alba as an alternative and welcoming home for disillusioned SNP voters over the next few years. His party will face competition from the Scottish Greens, who are in coalition with the SNP at Holyrood and could benefit from left-wing defectors despite their patchy record in government.

Salmond’s no-nonsense approach – firm on independence, opposed to gender reform, pro-business – might certainly appeal to a certain kind of SNP activist. But Alba’s bigger problem could be the leader himself. The former first minister is profoundly unpopular in the country, unforgiven by unionists for his bruising approach to the 2014 referendum and tarnished for many others by the details that emerged during his sexual assault trial (though he was acquitted of all charges). He is, also, an ageing, ego-driven throwback to an era and style of politics that few voters want to see restored.

The SNP faces more problems than can easily be enumerated. But the idea that you’re “dodgy”, once it’s implanted in the electorate’s mind, is especially toxic and hard to shift. Perhaps the party’s one bit of luck, as it seeks to cling on to drifting pro-independence voters, is that if anyone is viewed by most reasonable people as being even more toxic, it’s Alex Salmond.

[See also: The man behind Humza Yousaf’s new strategy]

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