The maligned ex-leader sees an opportunity to return to frontline politics
In the eight years since he resigned as Scotland’s First Minister, in the wake of a referendum that did not bring about his dream of national self-determination, Alex Salmond’s legacy has not been well-served. From 2017, he broadcast an interview show on RT, the Russian state TV channel, before leaving the presenter’s chair only when the invasion of Ukraine last February made it untenable, even for him. Three years ago, accused of multiple sexual molestation charges and of attempted rape, he secured a verdict of not guilty across the board — at the cost of his reputation.
His popularity has since plummeted even further, aided by the scorn heaped on him by his protégé and successor, Nicola Sturgeon. His apparently inexhaustible self-regard allowed him to not only continue in public life, but to found and lead a rival nationalist party. Alba has so far had no one elected anywhere.
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Yet Salmond may be the only figure to save the SNP from further decline. The modern SNP is his creation, and in building the party he uncovered a well of longing for independence: many nationalists revere him still for that.
Nominations have closed in the race to succeed Sturgeon, with three aspirants for office. Humza Yousaf, the Health Secretary, is personable and faithful to Sturgeon — and to some of her less popular policies — but widely judged ineffective. Kate Forbes, the rapidly-promoted Finance Secretary, has refused to hide her Wee Free Presbyterian morality and has lost backers as a result, yet is presently ahead of Yousaf in the polls. Ash Regan, formerly a junior cabinet minister, is a distant third.
Though she is the outsider in the contest, it is Regan who offers Salmond a second political life. She would, she says, welcome him back into the SNP — apparently insouciant about his near-certain determination to use a new membership card to lead once more, officially or not. It would be a place from which he could start to repair his slumped popularity, running at a mere 10%. Indeed, it may be a deliberate strategy: the recreation of a male-female duumvirate, with Salmond, whatever his title (or none) again in the saddle.
Speaking to Sky yesterday, he insisted that he does not “have a dog in this race” as part of an interview in which he accused Yousaf of skipping the final vote on legalising same-sex marriage in Scotland due to “religious pressure”. In a recent op-ed, though, he did little to hide his preference between the three candidates.
None of that trio, however, possesses the effrontery, the unembarrassability, the chutzpah and the ferocity which the SNP requires to pull it out of the already visible weakening and cracking of its political structure. Were Scotland to gain independence, a recent report by 4-Consulting points to a quarter of a million job losses, a sharp drop in output and deep cuts in public services, all hitting the worst-off the most. This repeats the findings of many such surveys over the past decade.
Only a leader able to ignore the dreary realities of secession’s inevitable impoverishment could again convince their people of the existence of a happy land not so far away. More than this, they would have to possess the will to dragoon the party into unity, should they hope to hold the nationalists’ lead into the future. Sturgeon, leading Salmond’s party in his style, kept the independence bubble from bursting. Assuming her resignation to be final, only Salmond, now shorn of a large source of Russian income, fits the job description. He may not be on the ballot, but no other figure visible has a realistic shot of delivering the long-vaunted promise that defines the very existence of his party.