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by Professor James Mitchell
05 April 2021
Family Feud: The weird coalition that is Alba

Family Feud: The weird coalition that is Alba

Winnie Ewing, doyenne of the nationalist movement, used to describe the Scottish National Party as a family. 

But she didn’t mean the dysfunctional, warring family that is the movement we now see. 

It can be very messy when families break up and today’s SNP and nationalist movement is a far cry today from the happy family of 2014. 

Better Together could hardly have invented more abominable revelations to undermine the case for Scottish independence than Scotland has witnessed recently.  But this was not dreamt up.  It happened entirely within the SNP’s watch. 

Those who suffered were innocent women, public servants who made complaints and were badly let down by the party in government and senior officials in the Scottish Government.

If we are to believe the official SNP version, former leader Alex Salmond's behaviour (appalling, although not criminal) was previously completely unknown. 

Families often stick their heads in the sand, pretend they knew nothing of what was going under their very noses at the time then scramble in a tawdry finger-pointing blame game.

Alba’s launch cannot be explained entirely by these events. They explain the catalyst for its launch. 

While the SNP would have us believe that Alba is simply Alex Salmond’s revenge, there is more to it. 

Alba has attracted over half the members that the SNP had when Salmond became leader in 2004.  It may be dwarfed by the SNP’s current membership but this is not insignificant for a new party.

Alba appeals to the disaffected, disgruntled and aggrieved within the SNP.  But note, the appeal has been to the discontented within the SNP, not the wider public. 

This is a feud in the family, not the wider community.  It may spill over into the wider nationalist movement, the extended family, but the public looks on in amazement as the model happy family turns in on itself.

Internal feuds can be vicious.  Understanding much of the bitterness requires knowledge of past battles. Old wounds are being reopened. 

Was Ian Blackford settling an old score from over two decades ago with his attack on Kenny MacAskill for joining Alba?  An SNP national executive had overwhelmingly voted no confidence in Blackford as SNP treasurer in 2000.  Blackford had threatened to sue Alex Salmond at the time and MacAskill was brought in as acting national treasurer to deal with the party’s ailing finances.  It was a long time ago but perhaps never forgotten by those involved.

It was never hard to find SNP activists with grievances against SNP headquarters on a range of policies. What has arisen more sharply has been the feeling that the party has abandoned old-style participatory policy making. Members are willing to accept a policy they dislike if they feel they have been heard and that policy is not made by a small clique around the leader.

There has rarely been a period when SNP headquarters was without critics but rarely has it been so strongly felt. Unease and resentment has grown due to a number of policies and, crucially, on strategy perceived to have been imposed from on high. This was the basis on which Alba was launched. 

The issues are well known: the currency of an independent Scotland; the type of economy implied by the ‘Growth Commission’; mishandling of the transgender issue (regardless of view on the issue); perceptions of the lack of preparation for a second independence referendum. 

Party loyalist Pete Wishart tweeted that Alba was a "weird coalition".  He was right. 

Alba has brought people together from different wings of the SNP with a range of complaints. 

But the aggrieved have one common cause which unites the Alba coalition. 

The SNP used to be a party of self government, not only in its belief that Scots should govern themselves but also in how the SNP should run itself. 

Members (or really activists) had an input into the deliberative process. Even if they disagreed with the outcomes, they knew they had been heard.  The same approach that was adopted in government has been used in party management: lack of transparency; closed policy making; and an intolerance of dissent. A Faustian pact saw the activists giving the leadership free rein so long as the party progressed towards independence.  The end justified the means.

Gripes and complaints were heard offstage but rarely erupted until doubts started to emerge as to whether Nicola Sturgeon was taking the party to the promised land of independence. 

The loss of SNP overall control in Holyrood in 2016 was followed by losing 21 seats in the Commons in 2017 and then there were bitter disputes over the Growth Commission in 2018.  All contributed to growing unease. 

The transgender question added to criticisms with many women activists feeling that the leadership had railroaded a policy through with little appreciation or care for sensitivities and unintended consequences in pursuit of a youth vote presumed, with little if any evidence, who supported the policy. 

It did not help when ultra-loyalists – always a group liable to do more harm than good to the leadership – insisted that the party should put their faith in Nicola. Even before the Salmond business, the family was showing signs of unease.

But the really divisive matter – as always in the SNP – concerns strategy.  The 2014 referendum result saw the SNP membership soar despite defeat. There was a sense in the extended family of the nationalist movement that 2014 had been an important step towards independence rather than a defeat. Hence, the losers behaved like winners. 

There was a sense that independence was within sight.  Brexit and Boris Johnson’s premiership were seen as favourable conditions, but while support for independence increased, it failed to reach the coveted 60 per cent in the polls and has been falling back again. 

There is a fear that defeat might be grabbed from the jaws of victory and this has fuelled resentment and encouraged outlandish conspiracy theories.

Apart from grievances about the SNP, Alba appears to be developing a more hardline approach to independence than the SNP.  What makes this extraordinary is that Salmond has long been seen as the arch-pragmatist. 

The SNP has no Plan B for when London rejects a second referendum.  Mike Russell’s claim that the SNP not only had a Plan B but was considering Plan A to Z was characteristic bombast. Alba has no Plan B either but hints at a more assertive stance than offered by the SNP.

Alba was sparked by the Salmond affair but its roots lie in frustrations and grievances inside the SNP.  Much might have been avoided had the SNP been more open, transparent and participatory. 

If Alba wins a few seats then others are likely to join. The family feud will continue and could jeopardise the outcome of a referendum if one is held. 

A "supermajority" consisting of SNP, Alba and Greens would increase pressure for a referendum but might make victory less likely. 

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