Will Alex Salmond make a grand return for Holyrood election?

George Kerevan, The National – 12th October 2020

WHAT is Hamlet without the Prince of Denmark? What is the Old Cause without the Young Pretender? And what is the direction of Scottish politics without a certain Alexander Elliot Anderson Salmond?

Currently, the normally ebullient Mr Salmond is keeping his own counsel while various public inquiries regarding the Scottish Government’s handling of alleged complaints against his conduct, and two court cases against journalists who covered his recent trial, wend their way to a conclusion.

Plus, of course, the Covid-19 crisis has knocked conventional politics for six. But anyone who expects the former First Minister and hero of the independence struggle to remain in purdah forever, is making a huge miscalculation. Salmond will be back.

Like a latter-day General de Gaulle in temporary retreat at Colombey-les-Deux-Eglises, Alex Salmond expects to hear his nation’s call once more. Currently he is writing a book covering his trial (which resulted in his acquittal on 12 charges of sexual misconduct (including attempted rape), one charge being withdrawn by the Crown and one found not proven.

But no-one assumes Salmond has retired to enjoy literary pursuits. Witness his regular (and popular) current affairs programme on the RT channel. It is both journalistically punchy and wide-ranging, indicating that Salmond is still very much in the political game.

Meanwhile, the clock is ticking towards the May 2021 Holyrood election. The latest ComRes poll suggests the SNP will win 66 seats and the Greens 11, giving the pro-indy parties a 25-seat majority. In terms of votes, 52% of the electorate on the regional list favours independence. While politics is a deeply uncertain business, it is difficult to see much changing in the next seven months. Unless, of course, Alex Salmond decides to enter the Holyrood contest under his own party banner.

Presently, two new pro-independence parties plan to run next year on the regional lists. They believe – with a deal of credence – that the SNP will win so many first-past-the-post seats that its list votes will be completely wasted. A second indy party could well scoop up these redundant votes and transform them into a Holyrood “super majority” for self-determination. The fly in the political ointment is that there are too many parties competing for that pro-independence list vote.

Aside from the Greens, there is Colin Fox’s Scottish Socialist Party (SSP). But two newcomers are in play. First up is the Independence for Scotland Party (ISP) founded and led by Colette Walker, a disabled indy activist and former SNP member. The ISP are a small but professional outfit animated by what they sees as the capture of the mainstream SNP by identity politics at the expense of campaigning for independence.

The ISP have been followed by Action for Independence (AFI), founded by former SNP MSP Dave Thompson, who quit the party after 55 years because of his frustration with the current leadership.

The logical thing would be a merger of the efforts of the SSP, ISP and AFI, lest pro-independence electors get confused and declare “a plague on all your houses”. This is certainly the view of the AFI, which – unlike the two other groups – see themselves as an umbrella body rather than a party with a full political programme.

The Alliance has already been joined by Tommy Sheridan’s Solidarity organisation. Sheridan is a toxic figure for some in the movement but he is a shrewd political operator who still retains a degree of popularity in working-class indy circles. I would not be surprised if the Alliance made some sort of electoral pact with Fox and the SSP, given the latter group is now much reduced in membership. However, the historic animosity between Fox and Sheridan may preclude such a development.

Walker’s ISP says it wants nothing to do with the Alliance, especially because Sheridan is involved. This suggests the strategy of creating a pro-indy list party may flounder over personalities.

WHICH brings us back to Alex Salmond. He is the only possible figurehead who could impose unity on the indy movement’s competing factions. Dave Thompson of the AFI, for instance, is known to be close to Salmond. A Salmond-led party standing on the regional list would most likely see the competing groups withdraw and fold into his initiative.

Also, Salmond would command the media agenda in a way no other politician could, except Nicola Sturgeon herself. With Salmond in the fight, a Holyrood super-majority for indy parties come May might not be guaranteed – but it would certainly become very possible.

But will Salmond run? Nobody truly knows his intentions, although some conspiracy theorists point to the early retirement from Holyrood of several leading independence hardliners as proof they are preparing to jump ship should Salmond declare.

There are those who believe he is contemplating announcing a new electoral movement at the start of the New Year. This might seem late in the day – barely four months from the election – but it would be quite canny. The longer Salmond leaves announcing his insurgency, the less time his opponents or the media have to organise a black propaganda operation against him.

In these circumstances, the likely model would be for Salmond to launch a top-down, centralised movement under his edict. What this lacks in grassroots democracy would be offset by campaign efficiency and a single, clear political message.

The real revolution implicit in a Salmond party would only become apparent after the May election. The Scottish Parliament would not be polarised between the First Minister and Douglas Ross, but between Nicola and Alex. That is between a cautious, legalistic approach to winning a second referendum, and Salmond’s full-frontal offensive.

Imagine if Salmond tabled a motion setting a date for a second referendum, whether or not Boris agreed. Would neophyte SNP MSPs dare vote down such a proposition? If they did, folk would be run over as rank and file SNP members switched allegiance. What if Nicola bows out in the wake of the fall-out from the current Holyrood investigations into the handling of the allegations against Salmond?

Or quits because she has done her stint and wants to move on. The scene then would be set for a titanic struggle on right-left lines between her successor (Kate Forbes? Angus Robertson?) and Salmond in full opposition mode.

The SNP front bench could no longer hide behind vague platitudes about reform when faced by populist, Salmondista demands for radical change in the wake of the mass unemployment that we can soon expect. The Unionist minnows would be left wittering on the sidelines.

Above all, the nation’s political agenda would no longer be defined by Westminster, the BBC or the Daily Mail. It would be defined at Holyrood by Scottish parties debating issues that mattered to Scotland alone. And if that led to the sovereign Scottish people telling Westminster to go to hell, so be it. You win independence by taking it, not by asking politely.

Are these thoughts in the mind of Alex Salmond this Monday morning? At 65, does he contemplate a dramatic return to the colours? Yet General de Gaulle was 68 when he became president of France and went on to construct the Fifth Republic. Stranger things have happened.