Alba could be a threat to the Union — and an opportunity

FEUD: The Salmond-Sturgeon psychodrama is being foisted on the country

This is the text of my Scottish Daily Mail column for Monday, March 29, 2021.


It is becoming increasingly difficult to distinguish between the SNP and an episode of Jerry Springer. You know you shouldn’t gawp but it’s hard to look away, what with lurid allegations, bitter feuds, conspiracy theories and political bed-hopping, as the problem family of Scottish politics airs its dirty linen in trash-talking TV interviews.

The only things missing are a DNA test and an on-stage brawl, and I wouldn’t rule out either.

Amid the pervasive tackiness, history is being rewritten with suddenly updated character assessments. A few years ago, Nicola Sturgeon said of Alex Salmond ‘there’s no man I know who is less sexist’ — there was ‘nobody in my political career that’s been more supportive’.

Yesterday, she told a Sunday newspaper: ‘There are some people, and they do tend to be men, whose egos don’t allow them to exit the stage when the time is right for the sake of other people and, I would argue, for his own dignity.’

Over the weekend, she branded him a ‘gambler’ and said there were ‘significant questions about the appropriateness of his return to public office given the concerns that have been raised about his behaviour previously’.

Given her well-documented struggle with incredibly precise amnesia, the First Minister might have trouble recalling at what point she decided Salmond was an egotist and a gambler. Was it before or after she asked us to trust him to set up and run an independent state? Alex Salmond: the man so unfit for public office they made him First Minister twice.

If Sturgeon deems it inappropriate, as a matter of principle, for Salmond to return to Holyrood, she will have no problem promising, as a matter of principle, not to cooperate with or seek the support of any parliamentary group he leads after May 6.

That might not be quite so straightforward. The emergence of Salmond’s Alba Party means anyone hopeful for an election about policy and delivery can forget it. The SNP will get back to undermining public services only once they’re finished undermining each other.

But if Alba performs at the upper end of expectations, Salmond could be back in the Scottish parliament as the head of a delegation of separatists loyal to him. If by chance that delegation enjoyed the balance of power in parliament, Sturgeon would be placed in an invidious position. Having torn him down, she could expect to pay a heavy price in exchange for his votes.

That is, of course, if Alba excels and, absent any polling data, all we have to go on now are its launch and its candidate rollout. The former was laughably outdated — a 3G presentation in a 5G world — while the latter has been far from impressive.

On Times Radio yesterday, Salmond vowed a ‘calibre of candidates that people recognise’ and ‘an orchestra of different talents’. The wind section is certainly oversubscribed, not least with Kenny MacAskill, a man whose opinion of himself is so high it must get nose-bleeds.

Then there is Neale Hanvey, who was suspended during the 2019 election campaign over tweets he later admitted were anti-Semitic. The SNP showed him what it thought of that behaviour when it promoted him to the front bench.

Presentation is not everything. Salmond is making a tactical appeal rather than one to values or aspirations. You don’t have to love his party or him so long as you can be convinced they are the surest means of stacking Holyrood with more flag-botherers.

The Holyrood electoral model is extremely difficult to game — unless you stand exclusively on the list and in support of a party dominant in the constituencies. This goes against the purpose and spirit of the additional member system. It’s almost as if devolution wasn’t thought through before it was set up.

What is Alba likely to mean for the SNP? Frustratingly, the answer is: it depends. Professor Sir John Curtice wrote at the weekend that ‘the SNP’s chances of winning an overall majority’ were ‘potentially put at risk by Salmond’s intervention’, because the party has only ‘a 50-50 chance of an overall majority’ and a few list MSPs ‘could make all the difference’.

Sir John suggests a ceiling of six or so seats for Salmond’s outfit but also flags up an alternative scenario: ‘He could end up with too few votes to win any seats at all, but still cost the SNP the list votes they need for a majority.’

The hinge question is: can SNP voters, most of whom regard Salmond as a creature of the past, or worse, be convinced to vote for him and take seats that might otherwise go to pro-Union parties? Many nationalists will outwardly shun Alba but some, in the privacy of the polling booth, might just lend them an X.

Unionists who figure this a fitting juncture to order in an emergency supply of popcorn should spend some time with the electoral arithmetic. It’s not a cheery companion but it is an informative one.

Data scientist James Kanagasooriam, whose work the Scottish Tories have drawn on, believes 6 per cent is the pivotal figure for Alba. If it polls below that on May 6, it will likely do more damage to nationalists. If it polls above that, it ‘has the potential to be lethal to Unionist parties’. The reason is simple: the list is where pro-Union parties got three-quarters of their seats in 2016.

This piles on the danger for Unionists toying with a list vote for All for Unity, which brands itself ‘the Unionist equivalent of Alba’, and could split the anti-SNP vote enough to elect more Alba (or Green) MSPs.

The Scottish Conservatives are fighting to retain the voters Ruth Davidson brought over in 2016, including those Labour by instinct who felt the party was directionless. If Tory leader Douglas Ross loses these voters, his party may lose its perch as the main opposition.

Since he cannot replicate Davidson’s plucky personality or confident rhetorical style, Ross is going in hard on Unionism. The strategy is what Spurs manager José Mourinho calls ‘parking the bus’: a deep-lying defence in which the Tories will focus on low-blocking Labour rather than making excursions into the SNP’s half.

There are two elections taking place right now, one between the Nationalists and Alba for the former’s chance to fashion a majority government and the other between Labour and the Tories for second place. Alba could have as much influence over the second contest as the first.

There is already a good deal of speculation about what Alba means for the national question. Salmond says it can contribute towards ‘a super-majority for independence’ at Holyrood. It is deceptively constitutional-sounding but it has all the legal force of a blancmange.

The number of separatists elected to the Scottish parliament — be it 29 or 129 — has no bearing on a reserved matter. The only parliament that may grant a second plebiscite (or surrender to the extra-electoral activities Salmond floats, such as ‘peaceful street demonstrations’) is the sovereign Parliament at Westminster.

Neither the Scottish Tories nor the UK Government will say this because they want to maximise the Conservative vote and nothing does that like ginning up the troops against Indyref 2. In doing so, they fight on terms set by their opponents, and tacitly concede a Holyrood election is where these matters are decided.

Some say this is a product of Downing Street not having a strategy on the Union, but that is not true. It has 15 strategies; it just can’t stick to one for longer than three months.

Alba is Boris Johnson’s opportunity to put that right. He should realise the peril posed to the SNP’s stability from what is in effect a Plan B party. The instinct from ministers like Michael Gove has been to go softly-softly on Nationalists but now is the time to show some toughness.

Sturgeon holds her fractious coalition together by nothing more sophisticated than a carrot dangling on a stick — keep voting SNP and Indyref 2 will get closer. Snatch the carrot away by punting independence into the future (decades, not years) and you deprive Sturgeon of her only strategy at the very moment a rival party arrives on the scene.

The separatists can’t tear the UK apart if they’re busy tearing themselves apart.


Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Letters: scotletters [insert @ symbol]

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