For as long as 186 of us remain online

Alex Salmond addressed his new Alba Party’s first conference on April 3, 2021. This is the text of my Scottish Mail on Sunday sketch of the speech. 

*****

Alex Salmond’s conference speech lasted exactly five minutes and 20 seconds and although it was free I would still like my money back. This was meant to be his first great address to his new party, whose name he has finally learned to pronounce correctly. (It’s Alba as in ‘Al-a-buh’, not Alba as in ‘absolute bunch of roasters’.) 

Salmond’s appearance was billed as his ‘keynote speech on the constitution and the Alba route to independence’. If this was his idea of keynote, he should take himself in for retuning. 

Instead of rousing oratory about Scotland’s sovereign destiny and Alba’s policy proposals for realising it, we were furnished with a brisk rundown of their candidates so far. Given the calibre of some of them, brisk was probably wise.

The stream of proceedings was initially supposed to be piped into the Zoom huddle arranged for journalists and an assortment of bloggers. After flashing through a series of screens from someone’s computer — including a document clearly marked ‘memorandum’ — suddenly a familiar face appeared before us. 

Former Conservative activist, former Labour activist and former SNP MP Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh compered the event. She was unveiled as an Alba candidate four days ago and remains a member at time of publication, something of a record. 

Ahmed-Sheikh greeted ‘all those watching online’, with ‘all’ doing rather a lot of heavy lifting. At its peak, the livestream attracted 186 viewers. Thousands of men will have gone to all sorts of lengths yesterday to avoid the first post-lockdown traipse round Ikea but only 186 opted for an activity more soul-destroying than perusing overpriced Swedish shelving. 

The warm-up act for the main event was meant to be Laurie Flynn, founder of Alba, who was to treat us to a poetry reading. Regrettably, when the screen cut to him, Flynn was on mute and, unaware of the fact, he waxed on in oblivious silence, like Scottish nationalism’s answer to Marcel Marceau. 

The stream jolted back to Ahmed-Sheikh before Alba members and reporters got to hear a word of stirring political verse. Alas, for us, no modern-day McGonagall/ But at least the attempt was somewhat comical. 

An awkward segue later and there was Salmond, bedecked in tweed before a cobalt background, and chirping: ‘More independence-supporting MSPs. What’s not to like?’

The former First Minister looked for all the world like a second-hand car dealer fronting his first regional TV advert and wishing he could afford to have it aired during Coronation Street rather than the second ad break in a 3am rerun of Columbo.

Mere seconds in, the Zoom stream froze, sending the press over to YouTube, where Salmond was busy bragging that Alba’s membership figures now exceeded those of the Scottish Liberal Democrats. His boast might have been more impressive if he wasn’t lording it over a party that could have held its annual conference during lockdown without breaking the rule of six. 

‘After a week, we are legion,’ he declared. ‘The Alba Party are many.’

No doubt Salmond thought a little Scripture apt for Holy Saturday and the Gospel of Mark as good as any. Unfortunately, the verse ‘my name is legion, for we are many’ refers to a demon Christ casts out of a possessed man and into a nearby herd of swine, causing the luckless porcines to drown themselves in the sea. A more fitting parable might have been one about turning five loaves, two fishes and Tommy Sheridan into a functioning political party. 

The ex-leader of the SNP accused his ex-party of ‘ridiculous posturing’ for not welcoming Alba’s regional list campaign. While acknowledging that ‘the heavy lifting has been done by the SNP’, he insisted ‘the cause of Scottish independence’ was ‘beyond party’ and had ‘never been the SNP’s sole preserve’. 

He reminded them of ‘the Scottish Constitutional Convention, where the SNP did not participate’. He would know, of course. He was the deputy leader when the party withdrew from the process.

Back over on Zoom, one of the journalists was abruptly made host of the session, and protested this unsought promotion. She was swiftly replaced — by another member of the fourth estate. By the end of the whole affair, I was the only scrivener never bestowed this honour. I’ll try not to take it personally. 

Ahmed-Sheikh promised a ‘special statement on Tuesday’. It may be even briefer than yesterday’s — SOS.

*****

Originally published in the Scottish Mail on Sunday. Letters: scotletters [insert @ symbol] dailymail.co.uk

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