Yesterday afternoon I spent an enjoyable couple of hours in the company of my old friends at Edinburgh Pensioners for Independence. Even as a virtual event, these meeting are always pleasant and stimulating. There’s no better way to refresh one’s thinking and sharpen one’s arguments than an open discussion with smart, well-informed and politically engaged people. I almost always come away from such gatherings with some new idea or with my perspective on an issue altered in some way. Yesterday was no exception.
The main topic of our discussion was, as you’d expect, the upcoming Scottish Parliament election and in particular the bloody great boulder that has been thrown into that pond with the entry into the contest of Alex Salmond and the Alba Party. On which topic we were already behind the times even as we talked. One of those unfortunate diary clashes that are unavoidable when activists arrange to meet meant that we missed whatever live coverage there was of Alex Salmond’s speech outlining the Alba Party’s approach to the constitutional issue. Which doesn’t trouble me too much as, while not seeing and hearing the speech being given means I miss whatever non-verbal cues, it is the words that really matter. It is what is said rather than the manner in which it is said which will survive. It is the words as they appear on the page that will be examined, analysed and commented upon over the coming weeks and months. It is the text that forms the contract. Alex Salmond’s promise to the voters abides in the words stripped of any nuance added by facial expression or body language.
(Having said all that, I had better provide readers with a link to a downloadable copy of Salmond’s speech in PDF format.)
As a consequence of the diary clash I didn’t get around to reading Salmond’s much anticipated speech in full until this morning. As is my customary practice I read it several times and highlighted a number of passages which I thought particularly important. Having properly absorbed the material my initial verdict was that it was not as it might have been, but not as bad as I’d feared.it might be. The default position of the hopeful cynic.
Before getting down to the substance of what was said, It may be useful – to me if not to readers – if I briefly outline my thinking on the matter of alternative independence parties as this has evolved. This process of evolution can appear to be inconsistency and can easily be portrayed as such by comparing any two points in the process separate by a certain period of time. What that period of time might be depends on how quickly events are moving. Things have been moving pretty damned fast in Scotland’s politics of late. If one is open-minded enough that one’s perspective can adapt to the prevailing circumstances then it is entirely possible that an individual’s views on an issues can turn through 180° overnight.
When the alternative independence parties began to come to my attention I was dismissive. I was immediately reminded of the 2016 election and the RISE foolishness which could have been disastrous for Scotland’s cause by splitting the pro-independence vote. For this to happen, however, the party standing candidates only on the regional ballot would have to hit a percentage of the vote sufficient to deprive the SNP or Scottish Greens (SG) of a seat but not enough to take a seat themselves. This was highly unlikely. As then, the parties that first popped up to exploit frustration with the SNP in the 2021 election looked to pose no more than a very small threat to the pro-independence majority in the Scottish Parliament. So I was just as dismissive of then as I had been of RISE. It was a bad idea. But one that was unlikely to do any serious harm.
A number of things then happened which shifted my perspective in various directions. There was an attempt to get all the independence parties united under the same non-party party. That never looked like a promising venture. I’d been urging a united Yes front for some time. But unifying the movement only to split the vote seemed self-defeating. Sure enough, partisan rivalries proved to be the insurmountable obstacle I’d expected. But having failed to bring on board any of the other independence parties except Tommy Sheridan’s Solidarity, the ‘umbrella’ non-party party didn’t fold as one might have supposed. Instead, predictably, it morphed into a party in its own right so as to keep alive the ambitions of its candidate(s)..
There were now several such parties. Which altered the situation described earlier in regard to RISE in 2016. More list parties meant they might collectively take enough votes to threaten SNP/SG seats while the further ‘sub-splitting’ of that vote-share among however many parties managed to jump on the bandwagon made it all but impossible that any of their candidates would be returned. At this point my previous indifference turned to serious concern.
It was also about this time that I began to consider what outcome I’d like to see in the Holyrood election. Obviously, the first priority was – and remains – ensuring that the British parties are kept out of power. It is vital that the pro-independence majority be maintained. The second priority was, as I then saw it, a pro-independence Scottish Government with a working majority and an incontestable mandate for a manifesto committing to the actions which would bring about the restoration of Scotland’s independence. I regarded it as essential that we have such a Government and that it be armed with the strongest possible mandate as I envisage this Scottish Government being the one which confront the British state.
Obviously, any splitting of the independence vote would weaken the Scottish Government’s mandate. To establish what I termed a ‘super-mandate’, the party of government would ideally have over 50% of the popular vote on both ballots. The SNP was always going to be the party of government – barring an unthinkable catastrophe – so the first task had to be ‘persuading’ the SNP to adopt the Manifesto for Independence. Or at least the critical parts thereof. SNP members having been stripped of all influence the only force which might prise the SNP out of its Section 30 rut was a united Yes movement. It quickly became clear that this was not going to happen. The Yes movement is riven by factionalism. Not even the influence of All Under One Banner (AUOB) – which had succeeded in bringing together tens of thousands of Yes activists for marches and rallies – was enough to get the various faction to set aside their agenda and egos for the common cause of ending the Union. Now Scotland was a brave try. But the task it faced was, with hindsight, quite impossible. Getting the Yes band back together proved to be no easier than reconstituting porridge after it has been eaten.
Any hope that Nicola Sturgeon would undergo an epiphany and transform herself into the leader the independence movement needs were quickly and comprehensively dashed. The SNP’s hyper-cautious inertia was not going to be overcome by the pleas of a handful of bloggers and relatively tiny groups such as SNP Members for Independence. For present purposes I think it permissible to draw a tarpaulin of discretion over the other troubles besetting both the party and the First Minister. Troubles which, contrary to the spin put on things by and on behalf of the SNP leadership, have not gone away. But do not look like having a significant impact on the party’s electoral fortunes. That’ll happen when voters have no choice.
I would characterise my thinking then on the entire constitutional issue and the election as despair and despondency spiced with anger and only the odd morsel of desperate hope occasionally floating to the surface. And so it remained until now. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
For several weeks I’d been aware of rumours – later firmed up with hard information – that Alex Salmond was either going to join one of the existing list parties then on the go or make a return to frontline politics at the head of a new party. In fact it was a bit of both. The Alba Party already existed but immediately became Salmond’s party when he joined it as leader. This was a major development. It is on possible to overstate how much of a political force to be reckoned with Salmond is. A fine orator and superb political strategist, his entry into the election and return to the constitutional fray was bound to cause considerable upheaval. The situation was changed yet again, and my thinking had to change accordingly.
But quantifying the effect of Salmond and Alba on the election and/or the independence movement is not easy. It was always to be expected that he would attract a very large following. In the event, this included a number of more or less prominent figures defecting from the SNP – including two MPs. The other list parties withdrew. In this sense at least the picture was simplified. Crudely sketched, the main divide in Scottish politics remains the constitutional issue. In the 2021 Scottish Parliament election perhaps more than in any previous election we have (small ‘n’) nationalists pitted against Unionists. But it’s not just a matter of two camps. That would be too easy. That’s not how we do things in Scotland.
The nationalist side is itself divided between SNP/Sturgeon and Alba/Salmond. We might label these respectively the ‘moderate’ and ‘radical’ pro-independence parties. Although ‘moderate’ hardly does justice to the desultory patheticness of the SNP’s approach to the constitutional issue. And ‘radical’ may be overstating more than somewhat Alex Salmond’s revolutionar credentials. Which is not to say that there is no difference between the two. In presentational terms the differences are huge. But I’m more concerned with the practicalities. I’m more interested in what the politician or party can do, rather than how they look.
My reservations about Alba relate to potential effectiveness in advancing the fight to restore Scotland’s independence. The breathless excitement with which some commentators have greeted the return of Alex Salmond surprises and slightly disgusts me. There has been an almost total failure to question claims made by and on behalf of Alba even as those claims escalated into the realm of the fantastical. I’ll look at those claims in a moment. First, let’s visit the other camp on the field of electoral and constitutional battle.
The Unionist side is also divided. Not among the three British parties who pretty much act as a unit seeking to preserve the Union at whatever cost to Scotland and its people. The bloated bluebottle in the Unionist ointment is the comi-tragic figure of George Galloway and his All For Unity party. Galloway is seeking to emulate Ruth Davidson who contrived some electoral success for the British Conservative & Unionist Party in Scotland (BCUPS) by becoming, with much-needed assistance from the British media, Queen of the BritNats. More tedious that gorgeous George is seeking attention by being even more fanatically British Nationalist (BritNat) than even the most fervent of ‘Scottish’ Tories.
And he’s having some success. In fact, he looks like taking enough of the British Nationalist vote to deprive BCUPS of a few list seats. Which, incidentally, is why the British have brought back former Queen of the BritNats, Ruth Davidson, to replace the hapless Douglas Ross as the hopefully more acceptable face of British Nationalism. In many ways the divisions within the two main camps ar just as interesting as the nationalist/Unionist divide.
That’s where things stand at the moment. Or where things stood when I started this article. Something might have happened when I wasn’t looking.
My thinking yesterday was that I had all but totally abandoned hope that the SNP/Nicola Sturgeon would improve their parltry, uninspired and uninspiring offer to independence-supporting voters. I was on the verge of resigning myself to another five years of pusillanimous procrastination with the issue of a new referendum kicked down the road and out of sight in the long grass.
The offer from Alba/Alex Salmond was hardly more tempting. Sure, it looked and sounded great. But having questioned what Alba MSPs might actually do for Scotland’s cause and had nothing that qualified as an answer, I was very doubtful about the usefulness of the party. Unfortunately, looking useful next to the SNP is very easy. But if you’re looking for something more than a not-the-SNP gesture then it seemed unlikely you’d get it from Alba.
That’s where I was yesterday. Stuck between a party that could restore independence but wouldn’t and one that might but couldn’t. The only certainty being that the anti-democratic British Nationalists in whatever guise have to be defeated. I’m obliged to accept that my ideal outcome to the election is not going to happen. Nor anything close. There will be no super-mandate. Which leaves a supermajority as the only option worth considering. But I’ve considered it and found it wanting in many ways. I still maintain that a super-mandate would have been the star prize. That’s gone. I mourn its passing. I move on.
The question now becomes one of what might be made of a supermajority. It can’t be a direct substitute for a super-mandate. But can it be some kind of alternative? That would depend very much on what it is proposed be done with this supermajority and if the proposals were more than fantastical wishful-thinking. And so I awaited Alex Salmond’s speech, in the hope of being given enough information to make some kind of judgement. Although not a choice.
There is no choice now. Just as those who want our nation’s independence restored have no alternative but to vote for the SNP on the constituency ballot, we have no choice but to vote Alba on the regional ballot. Not because it’s the best option. But because the best option has been trashed. We have to be pragmatic. The circumstances have changed. Our thinking must also change. Or, to be more precise, the course of action be take must change regardless of whether we have any enthusiasm for the new course of action, and regardless of how vigorously we may have argued against that course of action in the past. There is nothing embarrassing about doing a U-turn if the road ahead of you has been destroyed.
If you’re going to do something, aim to do it as well as it can be done. When I thought a super-mandate was still an option I sought to make it the most massive mandate it’s possible to make. The same attitude must apply to a supermajority now that it is all that’s left to us. I continue to harbour serious doubts about what a supermajority can actually achieve. But I reckon it’s safe to assume that whatever a supermajority might do it’s more likely to be able do it if it’s a big a supermajority as we can make it.
Which brings us to Alex Salmond’s speech and the claims he makes for a supermajority. It matters little what either a super-mandate or a supermajority can do if there’s nobody with both the political will and the political power to do it. In part two I’ll look at what Salmond said in some detail. And ask the awkward questions.