ALEX SALMOND’s Alba party will hinder the SNP’s efforts to secure Scottish independence, an expert on the UK’s constitution has said.
Speaking to Redaction Report, Coree Brown Swan from the Centre on Constitutional Change argued that the pro-independence Alba party standing in Thursday’s Holyrood election represents a fracture in the nationalist movement.
“I think it makes the prospect of independence more risky,” she said. “ And we know from 2014, that voters were definitely influenced by perceptions of risk.”
“I think having Alex Salmond calling for a referendum or calling for independence without a vote makes the case seem more risky. I don’t think it helps them in the sense that it’s not really a credible option.”
The Alba Party was launched by former First Minister Alex Salmond in March in the wake of a bitter feud between Salmond his former protégé and sitting First Minister Nicola Sturgeon. Salmond resigned from the SNP in 2018 following accusations of sexual assault, which he strenuously denied.
After being cleared of all charges of sexual misconduct in court in 2020, an inquiry was launched by the Holyrood Parliament into the SNP’s handling and botched investigation into the initial allegations. During this process, Salmond accused Sturgeon and other branches of the government of conspiring against him.
This highly personal fallout has aggravated existing divisions within the independence movement, with those frustrated with what they perceive as an overly cautious strategy from the SNP leadership may now considering turning to Alba. The party’s flirtation with the idea of a ‘wildcat’ referendum, one not sanctioned by the UK government, is also a draw for some voters.
Siphoning off SNP supporters is not Alba’s central strategy, however – owing to the technicalities of Scotland’s additional member electoral system, voters cast ballots for both their constituency and their region.
While the former follows the traditional first past the post electoral method, the latter of these is proportionally representative. Although the SNP received the highest number of votes on both ballots at the last election in 2016, they received only four seats from the regional ballots, falling just shy of an overall majority.
The Alba party is promising to deliver a ‘supermajority’ to pro-independence voters – guaranteeing a mandate for a second independence referendum by only standing in regional seats to maximise the impact of the nationalist vote.
Polling in the past few weeks has projected Alba to claim between three and six seats. Together with the SNP and the Green Party, this could mean that around 60 per cent of seats at Holyrood would be held by pro-independence MSPs.
The SNP appears unstoppable in its bid for a fourth consecutive term in government, currently commanding around a 48 per cent share in the polls, according to a poll tracker by the FT. The only question seems to be whether or not they can clinch a parliamentary majority. The opposition Conservative and Labour parties, sit at just 21 per cent each, and seem consigned to fighting for a lowly second place.
“So I think I think SNP successes this election is pretty much a sure thing,” says Swan. “Unless something dramatically changes over the next week.”
“It’s really fascinating to me that Labour and the Conservatives don’t even make a pretence of forming a government – of being anything other than a party of opposition in this election.”
The SNP, firmly assured of victory and what they consider to be an iron-clad mandate from the Scottish electorate to hold a second independence referendum, have flatly rejected any suggestion of working with Alba to do so.
Speaking to Redaction Report, Scottish Secretary for Transport Michael Matheson said “The issue of a supermajority in my view is nothing more than a political game that’s been created by Alba and their supporters.”
“The reality is that no one needs a supermajority, it’s a majority that’s required.”
“The message from the SNP is very clear: the most effective way to secure an SNP majority government in the Scottish Parliament is to use both votes for the SNP. Anything else poses a risk to the prospect of an independence referendum in the future.”
Although powers concerning constitutional matters are reserved by the Westminster government, the SNP has made it clear that the fourth election in a row delivering them as the largest party in Holyrood would hand them the right to hold a second referendum.
This approach may not be so straightforward in practice, however. Even if the Conservative government grants permission for an independence referendum, polls have shown Yes and No votes tied neck-and-neck, and nationalists losing a second just a few years after the first could prove a fatal blow for the independence movement.
Matheson, however, is assured that a referendum is inevitable in the near future. “Boris Johnson and his London cronies have taken an approach which is very much a case of let’s just deny democracy in Scotland, and ignore the fact that there is the prospect of a majority of independent supporting parties in the Scottish Parliament,” he said.
“I think it will backfire on them. It will cause them even greater difficulty if they continue to try and deny the democratic rights of the Scottish people to have an independence referendum, and to become an independent country should they choose to do so.”
“I think another independence referendum would likely be very, very keenly contested,” says Coree Brown Swan. “Unlike in 2014, there’s not a whole lot of undecided voters; you’d have to change people’s minds in both directions, and I think given the current political climate, that’s going to be difficult to do.”
Perhaps even more significantly, the economic fallout from the coronavirus crisis raises questions as to how long the country might need to recover before a second referendum, and how this might hinder the economy of an independent Scotland.
“I think [the next few years] have to be focused on recovery,” says Swan. “And that might give Nicola Sturgeon a little bit of wiggle room with her base to say ‘we need to focus on the immediate follow up of Covid before we start talking about independence.’”
The Alba Party did not respond to a request for comment from Redaction Report.
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