WHEN I SIGNED OFF last week, the Scottish election was emerging as a drab affair, short on serious drama. Even the most maladjusted trainspotters were struggling to get excited by the gooey eyed SNP-Green will they/won’t they subplot. Then came Friday at 2pm, and everything changed. For better or worse – on balance, I incline to the latter – this election just got interesting.
The Alba Party caught everyone by surprise. I had to watch the launch on an iPhone screen, sitting in the car with a cat box on my lap as we took the kitten for his check-up. Through much of it, my hand was clasped over my mouth, if only because of the tech malfunctions, streaming glitches and aesthetic mishaps. Whole agonising minutes went past with our former First Minister Alex Salmond, a man cleared of multiple sexual harassment charges, grinning and breathing into the camera, as SNP staffers and other concerned citizens posted abuse in the comments section. On a purely human level, I felt a sense of pity.
There are legitimate questions about Salmond’s suitability for office. Of course, he has the right to justice and to clear his name. But you don’t have to indulge Kafkaesque presumptions of guilt to ask questions about his admitted behaviour, which, if not criminal, could be deemed inappropriate for someone who aspires to a lead a movement that prides itself on moral cleanliness as its dividing line with Westminster. And leadership is his aim: he says he wants to help draft any forthcoming White Paper on independence.
If we can somehow transcend those questions, where does this leave us? For Salmond, this is a gamble that could end in the sort of political humiliation that sunk Robert Kilroy Silk or James Goldsmith. As of today, his superficial popularity ratings are low. They have been improving recently, but largely among people who are opposed to independence, who see him as an effective constraint on a remote, haughty SNP leadership. Opinion polls will soon give some impression of whether he can turn his limited but keen support into votes.
The Alba Party’s ideological profile is hazy, although an upcoming policy conference may provide some clarity. Superficial first impressions are a mixed bag. Salmond’s presentation talked up business and had the aesthetics of a failed Scottish bank. Equally, the new party has attracted support from social democrats like Kenny MacAskill. I read a Lib Dem press release dismissing the new Party as a leftist revival of the ’79 Group.
Sadly, I doubt old fashioned ideological differences matter here. Salmond and Sturgeon are cut from the same centrist liberal cloth. They appeal to different section of establishment opinion; together, they formed a compound. Post-breakup, varying social groups and forces will look to channel Salmond and Sturgeon for their own purposes. Leftists may view Alba as a break from Sturgeon’s dreary post-neoliberalism; nationalists as a break from Sturgeon’s constitutional coquetry; unionists as (an ironic) break on SNP government. Will this add up to a serious vote? It’s late in the day, but theoretically, yes it could.
Of course, Salmond is largely correct about the regional list. No matter how loud anyone screams, the empty slogan “SNP 1&2” was always a poor tactical approach for achieving what Salmond calls the “independence supermajority”. Indeed, rather than ensuring the Yes movement’s control over Parliament, it seems engineered to ensure Sturgeon and Murrell’s control over the Yes movement. Which has only led to years of dallying and domestic failure, the latter effectively conceded by the SNP’s pre-election flood of policy offers.
The Alba Party may channel a sense that another five years of the same old games would be a poor show. Unionists and nationalist leaders are both at the same obscene grift. Both have their own incentives to talk up a referendum that few expect to happen under an SNP-Green coalition. For separate reasons, it suits everyone to pretend in public what few believe in private. Perhaps, for this reason, the ranks of the exasperated will welcome the spectre at the feast.
However, I had hoped to transcend the Salmond-Sturgeon dynamics that have dominated the last months. Above all, because the whole affair served to ruin the minds of many of my fellow leftists, to turn them into enfeebled petitioners to a patronage-ridden government that promotes the economics of Charlotte Street Partners while achieving little of substance for its working-class voters.
Nonetheless, even those who consider Salmond blameless must concede that he can’t be the hegemonic leader the movement needs. Perhaps his best hope is to play the role of a Nigel Farage.
Since the internet is full of literal-minded types these days, let me clarify that I don’t mean this as a slight or even as an ideological description. What I mean is, Salmond will look to be the outsider who catalyses change in a complacent establishment. Does Scotland need that shake up? Yes, surely it does. The independence movement is crying out for a new, oppositional force. Still, if it takes Salmond, perhaps that’s an indictment on the rest of us.