When Alex Salmond lost his seat at the 2017 general election, he finished his concession speech with a quotation from Sir Walter Scott’s poem, ‘Bonnie Dundee’:
‘And tremble false Whigs, in the midst of your glee/You have not seen the last of my bonnet and me.’
Well, it is true that we have heard far too much from Alex Salmond in the years since but all roads, I suppose, led to the wholly unsurprising announcement this afternoon that Salmond is getting back into the game. Hell hath no fury like an ego ignored.
The Alba party – Salmond’s new venture – will contest seats on the list portion of May’s Holyrood election. Its chief purpose, Salmond says, will be to play its part in the creation of a nationalist super-majority that will shame even Boris Johnson – that famously shame-conscious man – into conceding an independence referendum it is very much not in his interests to concede.
But the ‘false Whigs’ de nos jours are neither the Liberals nor even the Tories but, instead, found within the nationalist movement itself. For Salmond’s project exists to hold SNP feet to the fire; it is a banner behind which the zoomers and the cranks and the conspiracy theorists will march. People who believe in ‘secret oil fields’ are now expected to march with Alex Salmond, oblivious to the manner in which he now serves Unionist interests, not nationalist ones. Who needs the security services when you have these people?
For there is something monstrous about the project. Salmond humbly accepted that his people were not seeking ministerial posts and for as long as Nicola Sturgeon leads the SNP this modesty seems prudent. But it remains the case that the core message of the Alba party is that Sturgeon cannot be trusted on the national questions. Given half a chance, she will slide back from her commitments; she will ask for more patience, more time, putting off national liberation until the day after the day after tomorrow. Only the presence of Salmond and his chums will keep her honest. What a thought that is.
Pause for a moment to reflect that Salmond thinks the first minister thoroughly dishonest. For all that he now argues we put behind us the court cases and the independent and parliamentary inquiries his own actions have forced onto an unwilling people, it remains the case that less than a month ago he was arguing Sturgeon had repeatedly broken the ministerial code; and, worse than that, done so in ways that had thoroughly corrupted Scottish public life. Two days ago – I repeat, two days ago! – he announced he was taking her government to court again, albeit on grounds that have not yet been satisfactorily explained.
And now he suggests Alba will help and assist the SNP wherever that aid may be deemed necessary? Are we to forget everything that has happened and everything Salmond has said? Apparently so. And are we to accept that he will, mysteriously or in the manner of some benevolent uncle, grant Sturgeon the authority to act in ways she would otherwise be incapable of acting for herself? Evidently so.
Which, in turn, forces us to assume that Salmond sees nothing ugly or boak-inducing about being the big-swinging-dick returning to parliament to put all the little people – and one little woman, in particular – back in their, and her, place. Ethically, this stinks.
It is a bold venture too, in as much as just 15 per cent of Scottish voters have a favourable view of Salmond. This is strongly correlated with eccentricity, a finding backed by the discovery one in five people who voted for independence in 2014 still harbour soft thoughts for their king over the water.
In that respect, then, there is an opportunity for Salmond. At a rough estimate, winning 25,000 votes in each region might be enough to win a seat on each of the eight regional lists. Some of these, however, would likely come at the expense of the pro-independence Green party and so would add nothing to the pro-independence numbers in the parliament. Winning that level of support would require around one in six of those presently minded to vote for the SNP on the list to back Salmond instead. A long-shot, I think, but not an impossibly long one.
What this does, however, is force Sturgeon to talk about the process and tactics of independence much more than she would really care to. It ensures that the first stages of the campaign will be dominated by Nat-on-Nat unfriendly fire. That creates space for Unionist parties to, in the first place, sit back and keep quiet; and, in the second, to tell voters that Scotland can do better than this and that there can be an alternative to the nationalists and the endless constitutional warfare. Neither Labour nor the Tories can defeat the SNP on their own; they need Alex Salmond to help them with that.
And endless talk of another referendum puts off some of the voters who are the key swing constituency in this election. These are people who feel the tug of independence but do not obsess over it; they dislike Boris Johnson and Brexit and they like Nicola Sturgeon. But they like her best when she’s talking about issues other than the constitution. They would like this election to be about how best to build back after the pandemic, not another referendum. Some of it, however, has to be about a referendum and Salmond’s intervention makes that even more inevitable than was already the case. Here too, he is a false friend to Nicola Sturgeon.
Triumph of the ego, then, and in that sense the contrast between the figure of stature Alex Salmond once was and the pitiful sight he presented this afternoon is so vast it is difficult to think of a comparable decline or fall from grace in recent British political history. There is always something sad or plangent about yesterday’s man pleading for his renewed relevance. But when yesterday’s man has only recently been acquitted of a dozen counts of serious sexual misconduct even farce takes on a darker hue.
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