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Why Alex Salmond’s shambolic party launch has rocked Scottish politics

Tuesday 30 March 2021

Streaming ineptitude overshadowed the former first minister’s online press conference, but his ambitions should be taken seriously


Do you remember when Elon Musk tried to launch a bulletproof car – sorry, cybertruck – only to smash its windows to smithereens in front of thousands of people? The launch of Alex Salmond’s new political party on 26 March was a little like that.

In fact, despite appearances, the two men are surprisingly similar. They have both, in their time, created sleek and effective machines: one literal, the other political. They both court controversy and appear to cherish the limelight. Certainly few expected Salmond, after fighting (and being acquitted of) sexual assault charges, then failing to have his successor and former friend the first minister Nicola Sturgeon removed from office, to fade willingly into history.

Still, most observers of Scottish politics certainly did not expect to spend their Friday afternoon wincing at a shambolic live-streamed press conference hosted by the former first minister and yet there, at the behest of his ego, we were – to watch a “new political force”, Alba, stumble into the world. 

The party and the supermajority

The stated aims of the party are predictable. The idea of “a successful, socially just, environmentally responsible, independent” Scotland is uncontroversial and chimes with the themes of the SNP’s message and that of the Scottish Greens, the other main independence party. Scottish nationalism has long been presented by its advocates as more inclusive and progressive than the Brexit nationalism of Nigel Farage and finds allies, instead, in the Catalonians who seek independence from Spain. 

What is more interesting is the way in which Salmond hopes his party will have an impact. Salmond says Alba can help bring Scotland to independence by creating a supermajority, which means there will be more pro-independence members of the Scottish Parliament (MSPs) than there were during the last session. 

It is possible: Alba could theoretically increase the number of pro-independence MSPs without taking seats from the SNP, because MSPs are elected to the Scottish Parliament through an Additional Member System (AMS), not First Past the Post (FPTP). It works like this….

Each person gets two votes. First, they choose a named candidate. One of these named candidates is elected for each of the 73 constituencies, using FPTP. Salmond wants his supporters to cast this vote for the SNP. Secondly, they vote for a party for their region. Those second votes are shared out proportionally between the parties (who have a list of their candidates), to elect a total of seven candidates in each of the eight regions and 56 nationwide. This essentially means smaller parties can also be represented in Parliament.

Alba will only compete for those second, regional seats. It will need to capture those “wasted” votes that did not contribute to the election of a pro-independence regional candidate and then some more if it is to help build the supermajority. The pitch here is that Alba is a help rather than a hindrance to the SNP; sweeping up the bonus pro-independence votes the bigger party can’t currently capitalise on.

The call to arms

At this point of the press conference, Salmond was in his element. His speech was loaded with classic examples of nationalist language and symbolism: the Saltire (a flag for all Scots, co-opted as a symbol for those in favour of independence) planted on a hill and in the wind (ah, the blustery romance of the Highlands), under which followers should rally (as if going into battle, Braveheart-style). He rattled through the populist notion of Scotland’s people as something singular, ignoring the reality of diverging opinions and different identities, and cast the Tories led by Boris Johnson as the arch-villains to his own indyref heroism. That Scottish Labour and the Liberal Democrats also favour the union was not mentioned.

The party logo itself is a stylised St. Andrew’s Cross that looks a bit like the logo of Halifax, the bank. But it is the name that has caused most controversy. Alba is the Gaelic name for Scotland. Except, it’s not pronounced as Salmond says it here. You see, it’s actually closer to AL-UH-BA than AL-BA. That might not seem important to sassenachs (southerners), but to Gaels who feel both that their culture is co-opted and identity subsumed into a political scene dominated by the central-belt of Scotland’s biggest cities, it is. It’s one thing for a Scot to struggle with Gaelic pronunciation, but quite another to call others under a banner that they can’t even read properly.

The technical ineptitude

In fact, the event was far from the slick political operation Alex Salmond was used to when in charge of the SNP. The whole launch was kind of… hilarious? While waiting for it to start, viewers were treated to graphics that looked like they had been made on Microsoft Paint. Every now and then, they would see a computer desktop accidentally shared, or a warning that the broadcaster’s internet was unstable, instead of the video of Salmond talking. The promotional video cut out, leaving Alex Salmond silently staring down the camera for a full minute, interrupted only by a squeaking door that recurred throughout the next hour and a half of questions. It was excruciating. It certainly was a marked difference from the professional marketing that comes out of the political behemoth that is now the SNP, under Salmond’s leadership as well as Nicola Sturgeon’s. 

The row with Sturgeon

All this matters because, while Salmond pitched Alba as being there to give the SNP a helping hand towards the goal of an independent Scotland, the party is built on a fracture with the SNP. 

Alba’s candidates so far – four, including Salmond, announced at the press conference and seven more defecting from the SNP since – will gain votes in the list from SNP supporters who disapproved of the sexual harassment procedures against Salmond, who feel Sturgeon has not done enough to bring about independence, and who disapprove of the Scottish government’s recently passed Hate Crime Bill.

Salmond wanted it on record that he intends “everything that Alba says and does in the election and in its aftermath will be entirely positive, entirely constructive”. But it can’t be. For so long, the party was dominated by the personalities of Salmond and Sturgeon, and now its members are split in their loyalty to one or the other. An element of competition is inevitable. And that competition is likely to get nasty – almost as nasty as arguments between pro-union and pro-indy camps. 

An SNP spokesperson responded to the launch, saying that “This is perhaps the most predictable development in Scottish politics for quite some time.” Salmond shot back, saying that predicting something after the fact is easy and that nobody had seen Alba coming. It sounded petty. 

In the chat running alongside one livestream, Salmond’s supporters called victims of sexual harassment “liars”. Journalists were called vile, evil and contemptuous. The SNP youth wing was even compared to a virus.

What about the women?

A number of the virtually assembled journalists asked Salmond what his determined finger-tip hold on Scottish politics meant for women who were victims of sexual harassment or assault. 

After all, the launch came in the same week that two inquiries published their judgements on how the first minister and her government had handled sexual assault allegations against Salmond. The Hamilton Report found Nicola Sturgeon had not broken the Ministerial Code, but a committee of cross-party MSPs said she had misled Parliament in her reporting on government handling of the allegations. The committee inquiry notably included testimony from victims of sexual harassment that told of how difficult they had found it to come forwards with their complaints.

Salmond was not interested. He didn’t want to address whether his continued candidacy in Scottish politics may leave women feeling less safe and made it quite clear that he wishes everyone would just move on. No wonder, for although the man was acquitted of all charges of sexual assault, the scandal has changed how many voters regard him – and no amount of re-branding can fix that.