Of independent mind: what impact will Alba have on the election, the SNP and the push for independence?
The Alba Party made its first public utterance on February 8.
Posted on its Instagram account, under an arty looking black and a white picture of a cup of tea, were the words “join us for a cuppa”.
Less than two months later, Alba has more members than the Scottish Liberal Democrats, and, if some of the polls are correct, could soon have more MSPs than them too.
Regardless, the party has disrupted what was set to be a fairly uneventful election campaign.
When Alex Salmond launched Alba at a press conference on the afternoon of March 26, the SNP responded, calling it “perhaps the most predictable development in Scottish politics”.
Predictable it may have been to them, nevertheless, the announcement still caught many by surprise.
What the SNP may not have forseen is that so many of their long-serving activists would have downed tools in the middle of a campaign and switched sides.
One insider told Holyrood that most of his branch had now defected. Alba’s appeal was, he said, down to the SNP’s failures.
“It’s felt like there’s been a forest fire waiting to happen in the SNP for some time. It’s been arid. The way in which the party has been run over a number of years has really alienated the core membership.”
However, another SNP source told Holyrood that Alba was nothing more than “gonzo nationalism” which was only interested in speaking to “its own echo chamber”. Any defectons, they argued, could be the best thing to happen to the party in years.
Talk of a pro-independence, list-only party heated up in early 2019, following Salmond’s victory over the government in the Court of Session.
Stuart Campbell, the pro-independence blogger behind Wings Over Scotland, brought it up when he appeared on Salmond’s RT show in June 2019.
Central to his proposal was the claim that 954,000 list votes for the SNP in the 2016 election were “completely wasted,” returning just four MSPs.
While Labour and the Tories won 45 MSPs with a combined list vote tally of 960,000.
“If those votes went to another pro-independence party they could deliver a much better return in terms of securing a Yes majority at Holyrood,” the blogger wrote.
The problem with that theory, as Campbell pointed out, was that SNP voters largely didn’t want to vote for groups like RISE or the Greens. However, he asked, what would happen if there was a more mainstream indy party “with a widely-recognised brand”?
In June last year, Mark Whittet, the lawyer behind the little-known Scotland’s Independence Referendum Party commissioned a poll asking how successful his list-only party would be if Alex Salmond was top of the ballot paper.
Survation found that prospect would win over 28 per cent of existing SNP voters, and could ultimately lead to 23 MSPs.
MP Neale Hanvey, who left the SNP to join Alba, told Holyrood that he had been “aware of that conversation” about a new list-only party for some time.
“There’s no real surprise that this has happened,” he said.
He added: “It’s obviously something that I’ve processed over a period of time. But in terms of the Alba party itself, that is not something that I knew about until very recently and its existence immediately excited me.
“I’m not suggesting for a second that it was an easy decision because it absolutely was not. There is a huge amount to consider in taking a huge political step. I am not a gambling man at all.”
Hanvey told Holyrood he became aware of the existence of Alba in the run-up to the launch. He declined to say exactly when or how he became aware or who approached him.
“That’s part of the story I don’t want to tell just yet”.
Holyrood understands that in the days before Salmond's announcement, a number of SNP MPs and supporters thought to be sympathetic to Alba’s aims were “tapped up” and given 24 hours to think through switching sides.
In the end just two of the party’s Westminster parliamentarians crossed the floor, Hanvey and East Lothian MP and former justice secretary Kenny MacAskill.
The Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath MP’s relationship with the SNP was estranged. He was elected in 2019 despite being suspended by the party in a row over anti-semitism. He was then readmitted months later, and at the start of the year made the frontbench spokesperson on vaccines.
He was sacked just days later after donating to a crowdfunder to support legal action in a defamation case against several figures, including fellow SNP MP Kirsty Blackman.
Another of Alba’s candidates, Chris McEleny, has also often had a tricky relationship with the party.
“The SNP’s been my family for the last 15, 16 years,” he said. Though he admitted it hadn’t always been a happy family.
“I was booed onto the stage at the SNP conference in 2019 for wanting to have a debate on independence but I never walked away from the party, I genuinely believed I had to stay and I had to continue to press the points I was making, that we had to be a lot bolder on our independence strategies.”
MacAskill, Hanvey and McEleny’s appearance on Alba’s candidate list was no real surprise, and you don’t have to look far to find SNP colleagues happy to see the back of them.
However, it was upsetting for some in the party that one of Alba’s first Holyrood hopefuls was Cynthia Guthrie.
The businesswoman isn’t widely known, but was thought of very highly in the SNP. At the party’s business lunches, she’d often be given the seat right next to the First Minister.
Alba didn’t have the smoothest of starts. Their launch was blighted by technical difficulties, and some of the very first candidates were forced to apologise after the unearthing of highly offensive comments on social media.
Former boxer Alex Arthur had to say sorry for “any unintended offence” after someone found a year-old tweet describing “Romanian beggars” in Edinburgh as “big juicy over fed pigs”.
Singapore-based economist Jim Walker had to say sorry for a tweet calling Nicola Sturgeon a “cow”, sent just days before he was announced as a candidate.
The launch itself was dominated by questions over Salmond’s past behaviour – though he was cleared of 13 sexual offences at the High Court last year, he admitted that his behaviour had not always been appropriate.
He responded to the questions by promising that the “range of candidates” would demonstrate “the full measure of our commitment to equality and to the role of women and Scottish society”.
West Dunbartonshire councillor, Caroline McAllister, was still the SNP’s women’s convenor when she watched the launch.
A week later she was announced as an Alba candidate on the West of Scotland list.
Asked if she had concerns about Salmond, she told Holyrood: “If we all decide to ignore jury verdicts and base our judgments on speculation, rumour and personalities, then we’re on a slippery slope. Alex Salmond was found innocent, he won his judicial review.”
McAllister is also the founder of the SNP Women’s Pledge group, which opposes aspects of the Scottish Government’s planned reforms of the Gender Recognition Act.
She told Holyrood there were a number of reasons for her switch, but the biggest factors were those reforms, particularly over self-ID and the Scottish Government’s hate crime bill.
It’s impossible to talk about the creation of Alba without mentioning those two policies, and the rift they’ve created in the SNP.
While the Hate Crime Bill was passed by MSPs and is now law, one party insider said the presence of Salmond’s party in the next parliament could effectively kill off the GRA legislation.
“Certainly under the current SNP Holyrood membership there was absolutely no majority
for GRA reform, for self ID in the current format,” they said. “I think there might be whipping problems in the future.”
The source added: “Of course there’s now somewhere to go. You don’t have to go and sit in the Mark McDonald seat, you can go and join Alba. The party leadership will have to play a much more collegiate game with everyone.”
Our source said there had been frustration among some members over the way the party had been run at a corporate level, both with well-known rows over conference motions, and selection processes, but also over “the neglect of systems and people”.
“This as much as anything has been a failure of Nicola Sturgeon to control the pressures within the SNP and the Yes movement. A lot of people have felt mistreated and looked down on.
“I don’t think Alba are going to have a huge difficulty in getting votes. and I can see them getting six or seven seats without a heck of a lot of trouble”.
Another SNP insider told Holyrood there were positives and negatives to take from the emergence of Alba.
They said: “The election campaign should have been an opportunity for the SNP to move on, vindicated by the Hamilton report, and focus on recovery from the pandemic.
“It’s enormously frustrating that the election is bogged down by counterproductive fantasies around supermajorities when we should be talking about radical policies like the creation of a National Care Service.
“The SNP leadership understand that you need to build public support for independence by taking devolution seriously - the ‘show don’t tell’ approach - but there are a minority within the movement who think all you need to do is bang your drum loud enough until everyone else gives in.
“This gonzo nationalism has no prospect of speaking beyond its own echo chamber - particularly when it is a vehicle to rehabilitate a disgraced and deeply unpopular ex-politician and whose policy platform starts and ends with a backlash to trans rights.”
The source added: “Defections from the SNP’s awkward squad, who were always a marginal force internally, have left the party more unified and have ironically strengthened the position of the leadership.
“The real risk is not to the party but the cause of independence.”