The former first minister's latest ruse won't interest the SNP
Alex Salmond has never lacked for chutzpah. His call this week for a pact between pro-independence parties in Scotland shows he remains a politician of conspicuous gall — and one with a keen eye for an opening.
Salmond’s latest wheeze landed on Tuesday in a letter to SNP MPs. At next year’s general election he proposes that “all existing seats held by independence-supporting MPs should be fought by that candidate or their party’s chosen representative.” Each party — whether SNP, Green, or Salmond’s Alba startup — would stand on a single pro-independence ticket “seeking a popular mandate to negotiate independence from Westminster”.
At a stroke, Salmond continued, “the entire dynamic of the election will change […] the election debate will be centred on independence and how to get it, and not on the record of current internal difficulties of Scotland’s major party.” The leader of the party which won 1.6% of the popular vote in the last Scottish elections two years ago has spoken.
Salmond’s plan certainly succeeded in getting attention: according to Andrew Marr, the “plot” could “dent Keir Starmer’s bid to become the next prime minister.” There is undoubtedly logic in what he suggests.
Currently, the pro-independence cause in Scotland looks vulnerable. Some polls suggest it has lost 10% of its support in the wake of Nicola Sturgeon’s departure. Meanwhile, the SNP faces the perennial danger of going into a general election that, as the bigger UK-wide contest takes over, the cause of Scottish nationalism simply gets lost. It happened in 2017 when the SNP shipped 21 seats. It could happen next year, too.
Add in the SNP’s declining reputation for competence and probity in the wake of the police investigation into its finances and Salmond’s idea to make independence the only issue in town begins to hold some appeal. As he points out, support for splitting up the UK is now higher than support for the SNP. At least a campaign based on a full-blooded demand for independence would persuade the 45% of pro-independence Scots to actually turn out.
But there are also quite a few flaws with Salmond’s ruse. Firstly, it’s hard to see what’s in it for the SNP. While the plan would give Alba the support of the many thousands of SNP supporters in the two seats it currently holds (and is currently on track to lose), Humza Yousaf’s party would gain just about nothing — except being allied with a deeply unpopular former leader most of them would rather ignore.
Further, going full bore for independence is a characteristically Salmond-esque gamble. It is true to say that independence support is holding up. It’s also true to say that it is nowhere near the top of the list of Scottish priorities. So a hyper-nationalist campaign as envisaged by Salmond would only risk alienating the thousands of soft SNP voters who want Scottish MPs to nebulously “stand up for Scotland” at Westminster, not to actively set about leaving it.
The SNP — bolstered this week by the return of Salmond’s former spin doctor Kevin Pringle to its core team — will likely choose a different route. Yousaf is already set on relentlessly attacking Starmer’s focus on red wall England. In that context, the SNP campaign will argue that Scotland needs its voice heard. It’s a simple message. It stands a better chance of uniting the SNP coalition of voters than Salmond’s more muscular approach.
In short, Salmond is not going to be the man who stops Starmer’s progress to an overall majority next year. A pan-nationalist “plot” to block Labour’s path to Number Ten is not going to happen. But don’t count out the SNP from doing the task themselves. Scotland remains all to play for.
Eddie Barnes is a columnist for the Scottish Daily Mail and campaign director for Our Scottish Future