I SAID YESTERDAY, and I stand by it, that people are within their rights to question Alex Salmond’s suitability for parliament. That’s a separate question from his right to legally clear his name. Theoretically, there should be higher standards for elected office. Then again, such moral standards are barely enforced in practice (Derek MacKay remained a parliamentarian, as did Patrick Grady, before even considering Westminster parties). And Nicola Sturgeon has herself conceded that these are now matters for voters.
Sturgeon’s supporters played an interesting game here, first announcing that Alba was an irrelevance destined for the electoral dustbin, then turning feverish overnight, talking up fascism in our midst, a Trumpian Scotland, and all the rest. Rather often, these scare words are not just damaging to the cause of legitimate anti-fascism, they are symptoms of imagining yourself against an establishment you have quietly joined. All challenges to the status quo thus become doubly terrifying.
And political blackmail is the alibi of those who refuse to think. For a generation, Labour students used to greet any criticism of Tony Blair with cries of, “You’re only helping the Tories!”
For me, the true danger of Alba is that it could amount to nothing. And, in establishing itself, it will have emptied the SNP of many of its most eloquent internal opponents, including Kenny MacAskill and, in all likelihood, many others to come. The party’s trajectory towards centrally controlled machine politics could go unchecked. Given the parlous state of Scotland’s opposition parties, this could accelerate the decline of Scottish intellectual life. The last seven years of SNP rule have seen stagnation on inequality, the constitution and most areas of policy. Too few seem to have noticed.
I don’t fully credit the view that the SNP opposition was immobilised by Leninist central control. At the last internal elections, they humbled leadership darlings like Alyn Smith. A democratic bloc was forming against Sturgeon’s post-neoliberal policies and her failure to articulate a roadmap to independence. However, the Salmond angle served to push these points from the agenda. Critics will now feel pressured to go or face a purge. My worry is that Salmond may lead them like the Pied Piper of Hamelin.
Equally, I may be wrong. A small beachhead in Parliament would make for interesting realignments, in a Holyrood seemingly armour-plated against change. It could disrupt the predictable gamesmanship of the next five years, with an SNP-Green coalition making quarter-hearted requests for a referendum, while opposition parties screech that an apocalyptic independence is nigh. Anything that goes against that grain becomes automatically interesting. That’s how far we’ve fallen.
I spoke before about “Salmond derangement syndrome”. Many missed the point: some seemed to believe I was saying Salmond himself was deranged. In fact, the term is not about Salmond at all, but about what an idea of Salmond does to the minds of his opponents. It derives from Charles Krauthammer’s notion of “Bush derangement syndrome”, which he defined as “the acute onset of paranoia in otherwise normal people in reaction to the policies, the presidency — nay — the very existence of George W. Bush.”
I am anxious to transcend the Salmond-Sturgeon divide, if only because it melts the critical faculties of so many leftists (on both sides). For all the socialist left’s many grievous faults and its Chicken Licken tendencies, I remain committed to building it because, with vast inequalities, climate change and the rest, we need a fundamental change of system. Neither Salmond nor Sturgeon offers much in that respect, so I’ll try not to get excited – or, I hope, deranged – by what is a fascinating Shakespearean drama, but, as of yet, not a real ideological contest.