I was on the phone to a senior independence activist when the news broke that Alex Salmond was starting a new political party. We discussed it in real time. Strangely, I don’t our first reactions have turned out to be wrong.
We both held the view that the current situation in the SNP and the independence movement was pretty dire and that some kind of disruption was needed. But we both thought Alba would have problems being the disruptor, largely because of how aggressively the SNP leadership had fought to vilify Salmond.
But that wasn’t the only problem. Neither of us loved the name, or the branding. It felt a little rushed and very targeted to a pretty niche market. Nor was it clear what it’s purpose was – I was always sceptical about ‘supermajority’ as a sales pitch given there were two established indy parties. I thought it would have worked better as a ‘hold their feet to the fire’ sort of message.
From there the problems didn’t dissipate. There was a clear media campaign to paint Alba as ‘untouchable’ – in as far as they got media coverage it was bad. Another problem was that Alba was set up in anger.
Anger at the apparent lack of interest among the SNP payroll in doing anything to progress the cause of independence. Anger from social campaigners and the left at the constant lurches to the right under Sturgeon. Anger from long-time SNP members at the stripping away of the party’s democratic foundations. Anger from feminists at the identity politics obsessions of the SNP leadership.
It doesn’t matter how legitimate all these angers are, anger must mutate very quickly into positive energy around about an alternative or it becomes corrosive and harmful. Alba struggled to define the one thing it was offering an alternative to. The left wanted land reform and all the other things the Sturgeon administration refuses to do, the indy-first contingent wanted aggressive moves on a timetable, the feminists wanted to fight the GRA.
That is a very difficult message to bring together, a difficulty compounded by the tendency towards anger. But the biggest problem is the permanent problem for new-start political parties – it is difficul to penetrate the public consciousness, and Alba had no chance unless it could get beyond ‘blog readers’ (not intended pejoratively at all). It won over a strand of the most committed activists but could never survive on that alone.
Our conclusion on the phone was that they would get one chance to do this – last year’s Holyrood election. Building after that would be difficult because neither the local elections nor the UK General Election had a voting system which gave Alba much chance, and trying to build patiently for five years until the next Holyrood elections was a very big ask for members.
So it proved. Alba may not be dead, but politics is brutal – if enough people think you’re dead, you might as well be. I had to explain to someone recently that no, the SSP was still going. They just looked confused.
So is that it then? Alba is vanquished, Sturgeon is triumphant over all and from this point onwards you are simply living inside her consciousness, either believing or not believing her promises? Well, it’s never quite that simple… Here’s a few conclusions I think it is possible to draw.
If you are the monarch and you’re watching the beheading of the previous monarch with glee, you are failing completely to understand what is going on
I’d be scared if I was a loyalist
If you are the monarch and you’re watching the beheading of the previous monarch with glee, you are failing completely to understand what is going on. If Sturgeon feels no anxiety over Salmond’s fall that would be naïve.
The ferocity with which rather a lot of SNP activists turned on Salmond (the recipient of sustained, undoubting adulation from his troops for decades) is a salutatory lesson on life after power. If that can happen to a figure who took the SNP so far, it should be an ill omen for someone who’s achieved next to nothing.
Assuming we get to next October and there is no referendum, will members buy yet another excuse? There must be some kind of end point for their credulity and the implications of them feeling betrayed by the loyalists may leave loyalists horribly exposed.
There is no-one in Scottish politics who does not think the Sturgeon era is approaching its twilight (if it’s not there already). Without the allure of power, the power of patronage, overwhelming control or a valid achievement to her name, what future for her in the movement? Without her patronage what of the hangers-on and the indy industry which has profited by promising she would deliver?
The anger will go somewhere
Angry people don’t stop being angry – so where does that anger go next? Neither option is particularly palatable. Either it finds other avenues within the indy movement or it turns to despair and resignation.
And before anyone celebrates the idea that despair and resignation takes this group out of the movement for good, it is worth bearing in mind that we’re talking about six thousand of the most hands-on indy activists here.
This is another fallacy of the loyalists – that total victory is actually total victory. There is not and never will be any such thing. Victory leaves people defeated and that brings consequences. The consequences for the cause of independence may be substantial.
What now for the SNP?
One of the outcomes of the establishment of Alba was to create an enemy that the SNP could galvanise its members around. If Alba disbands or even if it just looks like a fringe affair, the SNP will be left in a room with itself. But it has expended an awful lot of capital to get there and that leaves problems.
In fact the number of SNP people who send messages which can only be read as ‘look, I know my party is a shitshow and my government is terrible but we can get rid of all of this as soon as we get to independence’ is a real warning. What holds the SNP together if it achieves independence is a long-term question; what holds it together if it doesn’t achieve independence next year is a more pressing one.
As I’ve written, the plan will probably be to string people along a bit longer on the apparent promise of a ‘plebiscite election’, but whether that will be enough to stymie the growing murmurs in the party is questionable. How far can the membership be pushed? I suspect we’re about to find out.
As the say in American politics, right now the SNP leadership is the dog that caught the car
Can the indy movement be repaired?
Many people in the indy movement believe that the current lack of togetherness can be solved with a new initiative. Many outside the movement have plenty advice to offer on why our problem is that we failed to build institutions and initiatives. The first is ill informed, the latter sheer ignorance. Both seem to think that, post-Alba, everyone can just get along again like nothing happened.
But the indy movement has tried again and again and again in different ways to achieve coherence and togetherness. Every time that has happened the SNP leadership has stepped in to prevent it. The indy movement was rich, diverse – and seen as a threat to the SNP payroll. By definition, anything that I or others did that was successful became the target of leadership attack. And they have all the guns.
Those who think that a collapse of Alba could lead to the reestablishment of a broad, civic independence movement are almost certainly wrong under the current regime.
When the political establishment comes together and seeks to destroy someone, they seldom miss their target. Sturgeon loyalists and the unionist media united as one in seeking to get as many knives in Salmond’s back as they could. That turned out to be rather a lot of knives.
Always the gambler, he took a hard run at thumbing his nose and working round the back of them to establish a position in Scottish political life without their permission. The problem with a big gamble is that it’s hard to pull it off twice if it doesn’t work the first time.
Salmond seems to have gambled that there would be enough legacy support in the independence movement for him to overcome the public momentum difficulties Alba faced and he seems not to have been correct in that. How he can attempt that gamble again is a question for which I don’t really have an answer.
This leaves the movement with a serious problem. Salmond and Sturgeon between them have created a culture in which the movement is not really allowed to have multiple power centres, unifying power round an individual figure. Sturgeon very clearly did not want any question being asked about whether she was in total control.
The consequence is that if Salmond is finished as a potential power base and Sturgeon becomes either discredited or leaves, there is no-one in the independence movement with the stature to take that place – there is barely anyone among SNP politicians with much stature at all. Can the movement learn to exist without someone to follow? It will take an awful lot of ‘retraining’.
Problems, problems everywhere
It is not a done deal Alba is toast – in theory a failure to deliver an indyref next year could create another major split in the party and put Alba in play. But the smart money is probably against that. Yet the idea that the end of Alba automatically puts the SNP in a stronger position is not necessarily sound.
As the say in American politics, right now the SNP leadership is the dog that caught the car. It wanted total control, to get total control it told elaborate stories about how independence is always five minutes away, and now it has backed itself into a corner where it is promising – unequivocally – that next year is a dead-cert. Many of them have actually said ‘no ifs, no buts’.
It wanted the dance floor clear and it got it. If it doesn’t have the moves, it may start wishing it had a bit more company out there to hide behind.