What does Alex Salmond’s new party mean for Scottish independence?

Steven Young

March 29, 2021

Last week was a rollercoaster for Nicola Sturgeon. On Monday, the report from James Hamilton QC into her handling of the accusations against Alex Salmond concluded that she had not breached the ministerial code. Then, on Tuesday, the Scottish parliamentary committee ruled by five votes to four that the First Minister had in fact misled them, meaning she did breach the ministerial code. That very same day, Nicola Sturgeon easily survived a vote of no-confidence. In theory, the Salmond controversy could be put to rest and all parties could re-focus their attention on the election campaign that is underway.

Alex Salmond has other ideas. At the end of the week, he announced that he will be running for the Scottish parliament as the leader of the Alba Party, which will be aiming to field at least four candidates for every region in Scotland. The Alba Party will not be running for constituency seats, which are decided by a first-past-the-post vote. As a brand-new party, and with the election less than six weeks away, quite simply, they would lose. Running for the regional seats, decided by the Additional Member System – which was designed to prevent majorities and force cooperative politics between parties – gives them at least a slim chance of picking up a seat or two.

The Alba Party aims to create a ‘supermajority’ for independence. While the idea of such a supermajority should be cause for celebration for Nicola Sturgeon, the thought of her predecessor coming back into the Scottish parliament likely fills her with dread.

Of course, Salmond’s plan could backfire dramatically. Until now, the unionist parties have been the ones threatened by a split vote, especially with the introduction of George Galloway’s Alliance for Unity adding to an already crowded field. Now, however, the SNP and the Greens could find their vote diminished by the re-emergence of Salmond. Let us not forget, this is the man who led the SNP to an overall majority in 2011, despite the design of the voting system. The plan to create a supermajority for independence could therefore end up setting the movement back.

There is little chance that this serves Nicola Sturgeon’s agenda of independence. The Alba Party could fail to win a seat but siphon off enough of the SNP’s and the Greens’ vote to cost them a seat or two. And these seats could end up going to a party that Sturgeon loathes even more than Alex Salmond – the unionist Tories.

Worse still for Nicola Sturgeon, the Alba Party could win seats. If they displace the SNP or the Greens, they could become the power brokers in Holyrood, with the SNP relying on them for support. This could end up highlighting the divisions in the independence movement over such things as the speed of the independence drive and the ins and outs of the Gender Recognition Act. This could also be troubling for anyone with an ounce of concern for fiscal responsibility and post-Covid recovery.

The SNP has already started to loosen the purse strings ahead of the election, with a promise of a four per cent pay increase to NHS staff in Scotland (of course, Nicola Sturgeon never misses an opportunity to get one up on Boris Johnson). They have also promised to give every school child in Scotland a laptop or tablet with free internet connection if they win the election. It is clear the SNP is not shy about spending UK taxpayers’ money. Under pressure from the Alba Party, public spending may rise ever further and push the SNP to focus even more on the drive for independence at the expense of all else, not least Scotland’s economic recovery after months of lockdown.

The best-case scenario for Nicola Sturgeon is that the Alba Party wins very few votes and makes little difference to the result. But Salmond is a formidable force in politics, and five and a half weeks of airtime is enough at least to do some damage to Nicola Sturgeon, even if he wins no votes at all. Already we have seen two SNP MPs defect to the Alba Party to run for the Scottish parliament, suggesting this party could become a thorn in the side of Sturgeon and Ian Blackford. Last week, Nicola Sturgeon waved goodbye to Ruth Davidson, arguably the greatest enemy of the independence movement. It’s ironic that her replacement for that title may not be the enthusiastic Douglas Ross, but the vengeful Alex Salmond. The man who was once the figurehead of the movement could be its downfall.

Author

Written by Steven Young

Steven Young is a freelance writer.

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