If Alex Salmond and his new Alba party did not exist, pro-Union parties would find it necessary to invent them. Perhaps, of course, that is what has happened. Be that as it may, Salmond’s emergence from the swampy waters of his own disgrace is the best thing to have happened for Unionism in a long, long time.
Salmond may be an innocent man in the eyes of the law, but he is not a good one in the eyes of the public. Remarkably, he is less popular in Scotland than Boris Johnson. That reflects, doubtless, the manner in which Nicola Sturgeon’s friends and agents have turned against him and the sad lack of charity still bestowed upon him by his longstanding Unionist opponents. Even so, it is quite an achievement. Scotland agrees on very little these days but it can still just about collectively spot a wrong ‘un.
Since Alba is chiefly a vehicle for cranks and conspiracy theorists and yesterday's very angry men, there is a case for thinking it serves as a useful purgative for the SNP which will, henceforth, be a better place for no longer having to accommodate Salmond and his camp followers. If we must have a nationalist movement, let it be dominated by as decent a party as is possible in such circumstances.
There is something in this, for sure, but the true winners from Salmond’s power-play are Scotland’s Unionist parties. This is so even if, as last weekend’s Sunday Times opinion poll suggested is possible, Salmond’s vanity party succeeds in taking as many as half a dozen seats on the regional list portion of May’s Holyrood election. Most, perhaps all, of those seats would likely come at the expense of the Conservatives and the Labour party.
Even so, this matters little. For in a universe in which it is seriously probable that the SNP will either win a majority itself or sit in a parliament that, thanks to the Green party’s representatives, enjoys a pro-independence majority anyway (as it does now), it matters very little if there are 26 Tory members or only 23. In like fashion, Labour’s aspirations of a return to relevance may still survive the capture of a smaller number of seats than the party would prefer.
What matters is what happens after the election. To put it another way, will half a dozen – or more! – Alba MSPs cause Nicola Sturgeon more difficulty than a similar number of bog-standard Tory or Labour members? To ask the question is to have the answer dangled before you: it is very much in Unionism’s interests for Salmond’s project to succeed.
In his typically bombastic fashion, Salmond today suggested that independence negotiations should begin in ‘week one of the new parliament’. I betray no confidences in saying this is not how Nicola Sturgeon views matters. And for good reason, since it is a madcap ploy.
Salmond, however, is hoist by his own petard. As leader of Scottish nationalism’s zoomer wing he has no choice but to outflank the SNP from the further fringes of the nationalist movement. However bold the SNP may be, Salmond must demand something bolder. However implausible the SNP’s promises or demands may be, Salmond must trump them with heroically impossible pledges.
And it is all a fraud and a con; a cardboard house built on sand. This Easter, Salmond offers himself as a nation’s redeemer. Only he can deliver independence and, lo, it turns out it may not even require a referendum at all. Speaking at what can only loosely be described as a press conference, the great man suggested that following ‘a clear and unmistakable instruction to the Scottish Government to open negotiations with Whitehall,’ tactics for achieving independence would ‘evolve’.
As he put it, ‘A section 30 referendum could be part of that, as could a plebiscite, or another democratic test as could domestic legal action or international and diplomatic initiatives, as could peaceful and popular demonstration.’ That is all a long-winded way of saying ‘I haven’t a clue’.
Monstrous and shameless as much of this is – Salmond really is increasingly a match for George Galloway and not just because they each do work for the same Kremlin-backed TV station – it is also, if viewed from one perspective, very funny. The SNP will not, at least not right now, be destroyed by pro-Union parties but it can be corrupted and undermined by other parts of the nationalist movement.
For the point of Alba is that is stains everything it touches. Its core sensibility is found in the kinds of people who consider sleeping in tents outside the BBC a profitable use of their time. For as long as Scotland editor Sarah Smith is free, Scotland shall be in chains. Well, whatever.
Sensible people – and this includes Sturgeon, whatever her shortcomings – see this for the nonsense it is. There is nothing ‘civic’ or ‘joyous’ about Alba and nothing fragrant about Alex Salmond’s manoeuvres either. A man who once had reasonable thoughts of leading Scotland to independence now offers himself as a pastiche of his former self. ‘I am big, it’s the SNP that got small’ he suggests. In its own way, this is a sad business.
Sad as it may be, it also merits all the mockery it receives. According to Salmond, Boris Johnson ‘has already declared he will ignore an SNP victory as a basis for a referendum’ but ‘even if he can ignore a party, he cannot ignore a parliament and a nation. Our task is therefore to give voice to Scotland’s modern Community of the Realm. To demand self-determination.’
There is a lot of entertainment there. First, the idea Johnson can ignore Nicola Sturgeon but not Nicola Sturgeon and Alex Salmond is itself amusing. Second, more significantly, Salmond appears wholly unaware of how his project undermines the legitimacy of both the parliament in which he wishes to sit and the cause to which he has devoted his life.
For Salmond’s success at this election would make it easier, not more difficult, for Unionists to ignore the election result, shrugging off any notional ‘mandate’ it might otherwise grant the First Minister. A simple thought experiment suffices to demonstrate as much.
Suppose the SNP win 64 of the parliament’s 129 seats on around 50 per cent of the popular vote (in the constituencies where Alba is not standing). Then suppose Salmond’s party succeeds beyond even his dreams and takes 36 seats on the regional lists. There would indeed then be a pro-independence ‘supermajority’ of the sort Salmond decrees will force London to capitulate.
In such a scenario, at least 100 MSPs would back independence. I strongly suspect they would swiftly discover they enjoyed less leverage than would have been the case if the SNP had won a majority. For such a parliament could easily be discounted as being wholly unrepresentative of the people it notionally represented. Unionist parties could win 50 per cent of the vote and finish with barely more than a quarter of the seats. It would not be a Scottish parliament at all; it would be Salmond’s folly, superficially amusing and even attractive but fundamentally useless and even worthless.
Any demand emanating from such a parliament could be dismissed without a first thought, let alone a second one. It would lack any legitimacy for it would be understood that it had been created by, in effect, granting pro-independence supporters the chance to elect MSPs with both their votes, while consigning Unionists to elect theirs with only one. A parliament of zoomers, elected by voters playing silly buggers. (The same dynamic plays out even if Alba wins only a handful of seats, albeit it does so less dramatically.)
Such a parliament would be a shambles and possibly one of sufficient magnitude to tarnish the entire independence cause. It would be a feeble thing but also a laughable one. For Salmond, as so often, has his eyes on the wrong target. London is not his problem; the 50 per cent of Scots who do not thirst for independence, or even a referendum on the question, are his problem. In 2014, all parties consented to the proposition that a plebiscite was a fit and seemly thing to happen. No such consensus exists today, in part because of people like Alex Salmond. But that consensus matters, for it provides the basis for a referendum the result of which can be respected (this time!) even by those who lose it. And without that consent, disaster looms.
London, then, and Whitehall too – the polite ways of saying ‘England’ – are not the true difficulty; Salmond’s compatriots are the real problem. As they have always been. They are Salmond’s chief opponents and his first-order enemies are within the party he led for a quarter of a century.
Once upon a time, Salmond appreciated independence could only be achieved via sobriety; now he lumbers around, drunk on his own fantasies of victimhood, ego, and revenge, forgetting all the things that made him such a force in his pomp. A reboot that would have been better left unbooted, frankly.
There are good arguments for the Union but few are as simple as pointing to Salmond and his cronies and asking the people of Scotland if they really fancy years more of that. The SNP leadership understands this, which is why Sturgeon thirsts for any opportunity to strangle Alba in its crib. The nationalist movement is most likely to be undone by its own excesses. To that end, Salmond is a mortal threat to Sturgeon, not Johnson. So much so that the latter could be forgiven for very quietly wishing Salmond the very best of fortune.
Salmond is not a kingmaker, he is a wrecker but the people whose dreams he will destroy are not those of his notional opponents but, rather, the aspirations of the people who stuck with the party he led for so many years and with so much success. Once upon a time he would have seen that; now he risks bringing an entire movement into disrepute. As I say, he is an unexpected present for pro-Union Scots and one whose success can cause them no harm whatsoever.