It’s over a week since I suggested that “…none of us can predict what the suddenly unpredictable Alex Salmond might do next”, and sure to form the embattled ex-leader of the Scottish National Party surprised friend and foe alike last Friday with the launch of his new Alba Party. Or so it seemed to me. In fact, some activists in Scotland were aware of this possibility for the last couple of months, if events at Holyrood failed to remove Nicola Sturgeon and her allies from the leadership of the SNP and usher in the triumphant return of Salmond and his supporters. Now with his own political movement at his back the former First Minister is free to once again contribute to the establishment of an independent Scotland. If the electoral cards fall that way. And, of course, only coincidentally rehabilitate his own personal reputation in the process.
The claimed reason for the existence of the Alba Party stems from the complex bipartite electoral system for the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh, which uses a form of first-past-the-post and mixed-member proportional representation, resulting in representatives being separately elected from constituency votes and regional list votes. The former level favours the SNP, while the latter level favours the Labour Party, the Conservative Party, the Lib Dems and the Scottish Green Party.
This seemingly odd outcome is driven in large part by the strong showing of the SNP in the constituency contest which results in the electoral system, using a modified D’Hondt method, granting its eclipsed rivals a compensatory boost in the regional list contest. Which is a simplified way of saying that London legislated for devolution in Scotland using a partly very un-British electoral system that was deliberately intended to prevent a large nationalist majority in the devolved legislature by ensuring that unionists would get representation through the backdoor additional member method.
A strategy that of course is not too dissimilar to the one pursued by the United Kingdom authorities in Ireland during 1920-21 with the introduction of a system of proportional representation single transferable vote for local elections and the planned home rule partition elections north and south. And we all know how well that went for our UK overlords.
So Alex Salmond’s intention is for his new party to compete in the list vote while leaving his old party to fight at the constituency level, the hope being to secure a nationalist “super-majority” across the board. And reaction to that novel strategy has been, to say the least, mixed. The SNP is leading the charge against the Alba Party but the Greens, the pro-independence beneficiaries of the regional vote, are not too far behind since they could conceivably lose much of their already meagre representation in Holyrood. However, on the flip side, other more determinedly nationalist groupings, such as the upstart Action For Independence, are already stepping aside for Alba (no doubt helped by Salmond’s canny decision to open his party to dual membership of other organisations) and the pressure is on for other groups to do the same.
Will it work? In theory it makes some kind of electoral sense. But I would be more inclined to see the benefits of such a plan if two anti-union parties contesting the constituency seats and the regional lists had agreed beforehand to some form of formal voting pact. With the supporters of Salmond on one side and Sturgeon – and Patrick Harvie and Lorna Slater – on the other it is difficult to see how this will work out. Unless of course the wisdom of the crowd takes hold, and voters make up their own minds no matter what pundits on either side might say, as happened with the unexpected Sinn Féin surge in our own last general election.
There is much, much more I could write. Not least on the slightly shambolic press conference announcing the establishment of the Alba Party, with a weary-looking leader looming in shadowy lighting, the fun about the pronunciation and frequent mispronunciation of the group’s new name, and the appearance of the now divisive if possibly still influential Wings Over Scotland author Stuart Campbell among Salmond’s most ardent on-screen admirers (someone whose mere presence was almost guaranteed to wind up the supporters of Sturgeon). Unfortunately time does not permit. But the worsening turbulence in Scottish nationalism is well represented in these two posts, and the vitriolic comments beneath, by the rhetorically gifted Wee Ginger Dug and the psephology focused Scot Goes Pop.