April 14, 2021

George Galloway just couldn’t help himself. “I should mention before anyone else does that Nationalism and Unionism in Scotland are now led by RT [formerly Russia Today] hosts,” he wrote in a recent op-ed for the Kremlin-controlled broadcaster. “That Putin, eh, he thinks of everything. A two-horse race and he’s on both of them.”

Putin aside, Scottish voters are now having to contend with the return of two Scottish political heavyweights of yesteryear: Galloway and Alex Salmond, two RT hosts who now find themselves leading two new political parties.

Each is attempting to outflank their former tribes on the constitutional question, playing to their respective unionist and nationalist bases as strongmen who will hold the current crop of MSP’s feet to the fire. But in doing so, both risk doing more damage to the cause they claim to support. North of the border, there’s more than a lingering suspicion that both are using their creations as a vehicle for their respective egos, rather than as a genuine attempt to shake up the body politic.

The comparisons don’t end there. For while Galloway and Salmond are not quite the opposite of each other, they represent, in a phrase favoured by the former, “two cheeks of the same arse”. They are both, in effect, attempting to game the Scottish electoral system.

Unlike the House of Commons, where an MP simply has to record one more vote than their nearest challenger to win a constituency, the Scottish Parliament — as well as the Welsh Senedd — is elected using the Additional Member System. In Holyrood, there are 129 seats, of which 73 are elected using the traditional first-past-the-post system. Scotland is then divided into wider electoral regions, where 56 further MSPs are elected on a proportional basis. This “list” is designed to ensure that parties are not penalised for recording their support evenly across the country, rather than seeing it pooled geographically in a number of individual seats. Or so goes the theory.

But when the architects of devolution were deciding on this modified “d’Hont system”, there was a general assumption that the same parties competing on the list would also choose to stand candidates in the constituencies; this matters, because the number of constituencies a party wins is ratio’d out of their list returns to make the result more proportional.

Both Galloway’s party, All for Unity (also, confusingly, called Alliance4Unity), and Alex Salmond’s vehicle, Alba, are standing solely on the list. And at least in tactical terms, that may make electoral sense.

In Galloway’s plan, the SNP will likely take the overwhelming number of first-past-the-post seats, but with less than half of the vote. So if pro-UK voters simply cast their wider politics aside and vote for the leading unionist candidate in the constituency vote and the Alliance4UK candidate in the regional list vote, the SNP would be crushed. Nicola Sturgeon would be out on her ear and there would be no more talk of independence referendums.

Salmond’s offer to independence supporters is the inverse of Galloway’s claim. Because the SNP records so many first-past-the-post wins — and will likely do so again in May — they return very few MSPs from the regional list. In effect, goes the Alba narrative, thousands of true believers in independence have their list votes cast aside. But, says Salmond, if they decided to split their vote — SNP in the constituency and Alba on the list — Scottish nationalists could record what he calls a “supermajority” for independence. With so many pro-independence MSPs in Holyrood, Boris Johnson would be forced to capitulate and offer another independence referendum immediately.

On paper, there appears to be a logic to both arguments. But in reality, they are to varying degrees a combination of sleight of hand, misdirection and utter cobblers.

Both Salmond and Galloway fail to appreciate that Scottish voters are unlikely to put all other considerations to one side when they cast their ballot. Yes, there is tactical voting between Conservative, Labour and Lib Dem voters — Conservatives sweep up thousands of Lib Dem votes in the borders, many Tory voters in West Dunbartonshire are happy to vote for their local Labour MSP to keep the nationalists out and a fair whack of both Labour and Conservatives will cheerily vote for the avuncular Scottish Lib Dem leader in his NE Fife constituency.

But there is no wholesale transfer, nor would you expect there to be from such diverse political traditions. Indeed, because Scottish councils are decided on multi-member wards and with a single transferrable vote, where voters rank their choices, it is easy to track their second and third preferences. In the glut of council by-elections we have seen following the lifting of Covid restrictions, it is clear that as many  — and sometimes more — Labour voters would rather give their second vote to the SNP than to the Conservatives, even if the Tories are best placed to keep a nationalist out of office.

Moreover, as the vast majority of pro-union MSPs are elected on the list system, rather than winning constituencies outright, adding another unionist party such as Galloway’s and splitting the vote four ways, rather than three, is likely to reduce each party’s share and allow more nationalists in through the middle.

I suspect that George Galloway — whose itinerant political career has taken in the Labour Party, The Respect party, the Workers Party of Britain and now All For Unity — probably knows this. This is not, after all, the first time he has stood for Holyrood; in 2011, he managed to record 3.3% on the Glasgow list.

Fast forward to today, and the most recent three Scottish polls have All For Unity failing to cut through. But while it looks unlikely that Galloway will return any MSPs, he could still gather enough votes to keep some pro-UK members out. For a man who refused to join the Better Together campaign at the 2014 independence referendum because “I hate the Union Jack”, who has previously called for a United Ireland and last week saw a clip resurface of him calling on the UK government to deliver a second independence referendum, it is almost as if his new party is just another grift to keep himself in the public eye.

For Alex Salmond, however, even his most devout opponents accept that he believes fervently in Scottish independence. It is a cause to which he has committed almost his entire adult life. Whether, though, he is fully invested in seeing his protégé, Nicola Sturgeon, be the one to deliver it is another matter.

The fallout between the two former allies has been seismic. It centres on a complex and unedifying series of events, involving Salmond winning a civil battle over Sturgeon’s government over the way it investigated allegations of sexual assault against him, and culminating in Salmond being acquitted of multiple allegations of the same nature. Along the way, Ms Sturgeon traduced the character of her former boss, mentor and friend of 30 years — and she has carried the attacks into this campaign, highlighting his gambling habits and suggesting his new party was about putting “self-interest first”.

For his part, Salmond appears to have buried the enmity he showed throughout the investigation into the Scottish Government’s handling of the harassment complaints, during which he accused a group of Sturgeon’s allies (including her husband) of colluding to have him removed from public life and jailed. He now claims he simply wants Alba representatives to help get the SNP over the line with a majority that the UK government can’t ignore.

But is this likely? While a new nationalist party throws a spanner into some of the statistical modelling of polls and results, the general rule of thumb is that you need 5% of the regional vote to start taking seats. Get more than 5% of the vote and Alba begins doing damage to the pro-UK cause by displacing some pro-UK MSPs; receive less than 5% and the damage is mostly inflicted on the nationalist side by taking SNP and nationalist-supporting Green votes without anything to show for it.

The most recent three polls, in which Alba has recorded between 2-3% of the vote, suggest the latter scenario is increasingly likely. Indeed, it’s hard not see Alex Salmond’s power play as anything other than a revenge mission. When he stepped down in 2014, he handed his deputy a parliamentary majority. Nicola Sturgeon promptly squandered it in the 2016 Scottish election — a setback which allowed the UK government to deny all claims that an independence referendum should be rerun.

But even if Alba does somehow manage to return the sort of “supermajority” Alex Salmond claims to be hoping for, there’s nothing to say that it will pay off. The UK Government would be well within its rights to point out that gaming the system isn’t the same as gaining support. After all, in recent polls a majority of Scots have not been in support of separation. It would also, I suspect, be easier to counter a fractured nationalist Scottish movement composed of squabbling splinter groups than an SNP majority.

Come election day, though, far more important will be the fact that voters simply don’t like the sense that they are being played; that so-called big beasts think the political stage is theirs for an encore even if there’s no applause.

Looking elsewhere at the likes of Laurence Fox and the multiple reincarnations of Nigel Farage, voters would be forgiven for wanting men of a certain age to deal with their midlife crises by buying a sports car, rather than launching a new political party.