When he was acquitted on sexual assault charges at the High Court in Edinburgh last March, I predicted: ‘Alex Salmond is back from the dead and he will have his revenge’. The past 12 months has seen a relentless onslaught against Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP establishment and anyone who thought that would culminate in the equivocal findings of two inquiries (one clearing Sturgeon, the other damning her) will have been disabused this afternoon.
Salmond has announced his return to politics in time for May’s Holyrood elections, under the banner of an outfit calling itself the Alba Party. The party will stand only on the regional list and is pitching itself as an effort to help secure an ‘independence supermajority’. Salmond himself will stand in the North East of Scotland. The SNP didn’t win any list seats there last time. (The list balances out first past the post seats and the Nationalists won nine of the 10 constituencies.) There were, however, almost 140,000 list votes for the SNP in the region (45 per cent of the total), and Salmond will be gunning for as big a chunk of that vote as possible.
The list system makes it very difficult for minor and new-start parties to break into parliament. There is an effective threshold in each region of around five per cent. In the last election, no minor parties got even close to that in any region and, indeed, the combined vote of all 11 minor parties (plus all independents) amounted to just 4.5 per cent Scotland-wide. Salmond might be able to beat the system on the strength of name recognition and local ties. He lives in the North East and represented the area in a succession of seats (Holyrood and Westminster) for 30 years. When he lost his Commons seat of Gordon in 2017, in a nationwide setback for the SNP, he still managed 19,000 votes.
Salmond is not as popular as he once was. Only a quarter of Scots believed his position at the Holyrood inquiry and a Survation poll from February, which asked whether Salmond or Sturgeon would make the best First Minister, found 12 per cent for him versus 60 per cent for her. There is also the matter of what calibre of candidate Alba offers. The three announced in addition to Salmond today were not household names, though councillor Chris McEleny has a certain cache within the nationalist grassroots.
Whether Alba can break through or not, it is a headache for Sturgeon to have Salmond on the ballot. It keeps the question of the inquiries, their outstanding questions and splits in the nationalist movement to the fore. (It was noticeable that one of the Alba candidates focussed, and Salmond favourably commented, on concerns about reform of the Gender Recognition Act, a raw issue within the SNP.) However, if he does make it to Holyrood, perhaps with a few Alba colleagues, it could be much more severe than a headache for the SNP.
Given the distribution of list votes in 2016, an Alba party able to peel away enough SNP supporters would be likeliest to deprive the Scottish Greens of seats. The Greens won six list seats last time and have largely functioned as an unofficial coalition partner to Sturgeon’s minority administration. Were Alba able to supplant the Greens, and the SNP failed to secure an outright majority on its own, it would leave Sturgeon relying on Salmond’s outfit to pass budgets and legislation. Salmond has made clear that Alba will be primarily for the swift achievement of independence and said in his press conference that a referendum was ‘by no means the only route’. Sturgeon is vulnerable on this front. She has been promising indyref2 was just around the corner for some time now, but with nothing to show for it. A contingent of Alba MSPs at Holyrood would put her under further pressure, a constant reminder of what the more impatient sections of the SNP see as her softly-softly approach to Westminster.
Salmond faced a series of questions about his behaviour this afternoon and he pivoted, first, to the favourable outcomes of two court cases, then, to the election being a forum for the voters to have their say on his ‘character’. This is, of course, the same argument Sturgeon has been making in response to criticism of her government during the Holyrood inquiry, even calling the election ‘the ultimate scrutiny’. Salmond and Sturgeon spoke more or less with one voice as SNP leader and deputy from 2004 to 2014. The two politicians who have done the most damage to Scotland’s political institutions, and to the confidence the public can have in them, are still speaking in unison, only from different platforms. In a way, it’s quite the achievement: the SNP has reshaped the Scottish political scene so thoroughly that there might be space for competing versions of nationalist populism.
Whether Alex Salmond still has what it takes — whether enough Scots still trust him — will be tested in the coming weeks but this is the culmination of his revenge. He made clear this afternoon that ‘Alba is not out to become a governing party’. From Nicola Sturgeon’s perspective, it may look much more like a wrecking party.