Nationalist liberators at War: Cui Bono?

Nationalist liberators at War: Cui Bono?

by Tom Gallagher
article from Monday 29, March, 2021

THESE ARE STIRRING TIMES for Alex Salmond and internal critics of Nicola Sturgeon’s record as the chief custodian of the nationalist cause in Scotland.  Salmond claims the formation of his Alba party is designed to bring about an independence super-majority on 6 May; a Holyrood parliament dominated by nationalists will keep her feet to the fire and mean that she will have no alternative but to embark upon securing another referendum for Scottish independence. He will thus be making an honest woman of Nicola, ensuring she revives her solemn vows  to the core objective of full independence, parking her obsession with divisive forms of identity politics.

To be smoked out of her lair and forced to treat with a man whom she now claims to regard as a menace to womanhood, as well as her ownership of Nationalism plc, will be an impossible pill for her to swallow.  Clearly, as shown by her reaction to the news of Alba’s formation, she regards it as a hostile takeover of what she hardly bothers to disguise as her movement. She had no hesitation in describing him as a discredited figure who was making an inappropriate return to the forefront of politics.  On Saturday she placed him in the rogues gallery normally reserved for Westminster adversaries.

Clearly Team Nicola had been taken completely unawares by his bombshell move. Too much navel-gazing and absorption in Woke issues ensured that her lieutenants failed to join the dots when Laurie Flynn, a pro-Salmond blogger, registered the Alba Party with the UK Electoral Commission in January. Mhairi Hunter, Sturgeon’s constituency watchdog even chirruped that his  planned 2pm statement on 26 May was as likely to be about an impending new book as anything else.

Sturgeon must have hoped that given the effort she had put into ensuring that the Holyrood and Hamilton inquiries did not fatally wound her, Uncle Alex could be safely bundled back into his attic and the key thrown away. The election campaign would be fought along tried and proven lines of the Maid of Scotland versus Big Bad Boris in London. A favourable media would ensure she could frame her handling of the Covid pandemic as a success despite so much evidence to the contrary.

Now with Salmond and a growing number of ex-SNP office-holders and candidates stalking the land, she has to abandon a strategy designed to solidify the SNP vote and tighten her grip on national affairs. The man who announced last Wednesday he was taking the Scottish government to court is now trying to snatch her crown. The election campaign is likely to be overshadowed by two giant egos slugging it out for control of the worthy house of nationalism, easily the grandest property in the Scottish political village.  She knows that if he grabs even part-possession, the writing is on the wall for her.

She learned the ABC of carnivorous politics from him thirty years ago. He was the master until she very quickly decided, after becoming First Minister in 2014, that there was only room for one political big beast. Finding him now as a sworn adversary, she knows that if he is given an inch, he will take the proverbial mile. She will fear a lacklustre selection of SNP candidates being outclassed  by the committed nationalists he will be able to throw into the electoral contest. She will have no idea just who she can rely on beyond her own faction.  Who might declare for Alba once elected? She will have seen how Salmond has stood up well to her systematic bid to discredit him. He has shown staying-power while losing none of his wiliness. If she was phlegmatic and more worldly-wise, she would at least make an attempt to dial down the hostilities and see if some kind of uneasy truce could be arranged.  Such an approach with adversaries has enabled Angela Merkel to last as Chancellor of Germany for eighteen years.

By contrast, Sturgeon in power has shown herself to be a rigid ideologue averse to any compromises except on her terms. With her readiness to plunge the SNP into uproar over her cultivation of a militant form of transgender politics, she has made too many enemies  to allow for a rebirth of pluralism in the SNP. It is her way or the highway.

Salmond is different, however exacting a boss he was in the past, he is likely (aged 66)  to be more of a benign patriarch of a relaunched movement  than a hard-driving chief executive. Plenty of activists would yearn for a leader who was a happy warrior rather than a prim and humourless autocrat whose commitment to independence is shrouded in ambiguity. At least there is the prospect of a return to a modicum of internal democracy.  Conferences would be less robotic. The party would revert to being  a Scottish patriotic front rather than a crusade for a Global Reset. The Yes movement enthusiasts from the heady days of  the 2014 referendum could be restored to the fold. Other groups, frightened off by the Wokeness and tight husband-and-wife grip on the SNP, could be enticed back. So could members over 45, some of whom struggle to relate to Nicola’s post-modern priorities. Many of them are to be found in rural and small-town Scotland which an urbanite like Sturgeon, with her ambitions for a global career, plainly struggles to relate to.

It shouldn't be forgotten that heavy-handed encroachment on basic liberties  began when Salmond was in power: the Offensive Behaviour in Football Act and the Named Persons Act both spring to mind.  But it is likely that if he returns to influence law-making, the Woke offensive led by Sturgeon and her acolytes will at least be blunted. Arguably, he became a near-victim  of a bid by powerful figures in the state and the justice system to organize a show-trial meant to manufacture a scapegoat in order to show Scotland was fully en courant with the #MeToo movement.  Some of the dissidents in Sturgeon’s SNP have been more vociferous in opposing the excesses of identity politics than members of any other party.

This upheaval in the nationalist family may ensure that state interference in the lives of citizens may lessen in severity. But Scottish democracy overall is likely to come off worst if a nationalist super-majority is obtained.  If 65%-to-75% of the 129 seats at Holyrood are secured by two nationalist parties who, combined, obtained around 45% of the vote, then the authority of the parliament to boldly head towards separation, is called into question.  As Effie Deans has shown, a Mark 2 SNP known as Alba will have gamed a voting system. It will be a clash of personalities masking a movement which has split into two formations in order to win a jackpot on a dysfunctional electoral system.

What of the opposition parties in the pro-Union fold in light of this bifurcation of Scottish Nationalism? My initial feeling is that Labour stands the best chance of profiting from chronic Nationalist disunity. The power-struggle is likely to be played out most graphically in urban areas, the places where the SNP supplanted Labour a decade ago. The new leader Anas Sarwar has been careful to position himself as someone who has  even less time for Boris Johnson than for the SNP First Minister. He sees no grounds for an electoral understanding with the Tories even though it may give him a chance to oust Sturgeon in the seat where they are both standing. Besides, polls show Labour voters are far less inclined to vote tactically to defeat the SNP than are Conservative or Lib Dem ones. It means that Douglas Ross, the Scottish Tory leader, will have to work out a way to prevent  list seats probably destined for his party going instead to Alba. A pact with the pro-UK Alliance4Unity whose leader George Galloway is the best-known opposition leader in Scotland, has been advocated by political activists without strong party affiliations. But Tory cooperation is likely only to  occur as  a result of  pressure from Westminster on an obdurate Ross.

A Scottish media which has grown increasingly liberal-left in orientation will face repercussions for its formulaic news operation if a populist formation like Alba consolidates itself. Numerous journalists, some in senior BBC roles, are clearly comfortable with Sturgeon’s  drive to base her policies around middle-class, managerial and Woke concerns.  As new posts in the sprawling public sector are created to enforce diversity norms, these are ones journalists feel qualified to fill. Upon being cleared of grave charges of sexual abuse in 2020, the continuing hostility of many journalists towards Salmond was plain. They promoted the narrative that he still had major questions to answer which was at the centre of Sturgeon’s defence of her own conduct in the Salmond affair. From some quarters, furious anathemas descended on Salmond for launching his new party. Alex Massie of the Times and the Spectator wrote two articles within 24 hours , the one in the Spectator using very explicit language to make his distaste clear.

Regularly wrong-footed by Salmond, the media may obtain its revenge by excommunicating him and Alba from television and radio debates during the election. If SNP-inclined broadcasters succeed, grim conclusions will have to be drawn about the nature of Scottish democracy given the restrictions in place on  public campaigning. George Galloway has threatened litigation if Alliance4Unity is frozen out of these debates. He has stoked media envy by becoming a powerful media voice independent of the conventional media platforms.

I suspect a politically-engaged Fourth Estate in Scotland will be unable to halt the momentum of Alba. Whether it  thrives or perishes will depend on its own internal dynamics and crucially how Sturgeon responds to it. Currently, her aggressive stance could mean that she ends up being an important recruiting-sergeant for her old adversary’s comeback vehicle

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Tom Gallagher is Emeritus Professor of Politics at the University of Bradford. He is the author of  Theft of a Nation: Romania Since Communism, Hurst publishers 2005. His latest book is Salazar, the Dictator Who Refused to Die, Hurst Publishers 2020 (available here) and his twitter account is @cultfree54

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