He’s one of the most controversial figures in British politics and almost led Scotland out of the United Kingdom in 2014. And now Alex Salmond is back, leading a new political party and champing at the bit for a second shot at sovereignty.
“This is the moment,” Mr. Salmond said in an interview Wednesday during a break in campaigning for the May 6 Scottish election. “The biggest danger for independence is not taking this moment.”
Mr. Salmond, 66, has been fighting for Scottish independence for more than 40 years. He led the Scottish National Party to power in 2007 but resigned as party leader and Scotland’s First Minister in 2014 after the Yes side lost a referendum on independence by 45 per cent to 55 per cent.
Now, with polls showing support for independence hovering around 50 per cent, he has leapt back into the political fray and launched a new nationalist party called Alba – the Scottish Gaelic word for Scotland. He knows Alba has no chance of winning power next month, but he’s hoping the party can eke out enough seats to play a role in forcing British Prime Minister Boris Johnson to agree to a fresh vote on sovereignty.
“This is an era of political change,” he said after invoking the names of great Scottish warriors William Wallace and Robert the Bruce. “Catch that mood and you’ve got a big chance of winning.”
Mr. Salmond is facing a daunting challenge. Alba is barely registering in most opinion polls, and he has become a divisive figure in the independence movement.
Since leaving office he’s been dogged by a string of controversies – including launching a show on the Kremlin-backed RT television network – and a lengthy criminal case involving allegations of sexual assault. That has made him a pariah to many SNP members, including Nicola Sturgeon, his onetime deputy who took over as party leader and First Minister in 2014.
Mr. Salmond was acquitted of the charges last year, but he sparked a parliamentary inquiry after alleging that Ms. Sturgeon and other government officials conspired to ruin his reputation and “put him in jail.” Ms. Sturgeon rejected the charge and was cleared by a majority of the committee, but the animosity on both sides has intensified.
Ms. Sturgeon, 50, has said she won’t work with Mr. Salmond if he’s elected. “He seems unable to acknowledge [that] the kind of behaviour he conceded during his criminal trial – where he was acquitted of criminality – was inappropriate,” she said recently. “This presents a pretty big barrier to me ever having any kind of dealings with him.”
Mr. Salmond shot back by criticizing Ms. Sturgeon’s record in office and accusing her of being weak on independence. “I think she’s far too timid on the independence question,” he said Wednesday. “This is the time for independent, adventurous new thinking, and there are tens of thousands of people in Scotland waiting to be led in that direction.”
Polls show the SNP is on track to regain power, but Mr. Salmond is counting on Scotland’s unique electoral system to deliver Alba enough seats to be a thorn in Ms. Sturgeon’s side.
Each voter in Scotland casts two ballots – one for a constituency member of the Scottish Parliament, who is elected through the traditional first-past-the-post system, and another one for regional MSPs, who are allocated according to how each party performs. There are 73 riding MSPs and 56 regional MSPs – seven in each of eight regions.
In the past few elections, the SNP has won a majority of the 73 constituency seats, but voters have opted for other parties at the regional level. That has prevented the SNP from winning an outright majority in the legislature, and Ms. Sturgeon has governed with the support of the Green Party, which also backs independence.
Mr. Salmond is hoping that if Alba can win a handful of seats in the regional ballot – it isn’t contesting any riding seats – it would give the legislature a strong majority of pro-independence MSPs. “Together the SNP and Greens and Alba could have 80 or 90 MSPs out of 129,” he said.
If Alba does enter the legislature, Mr. Salmond has vowed to immediately call for Scotland to begin negotiations with Britain on sovereignty that would include a referendum. If Mr. Johnson refuses to engage, Mr. Salmond said the Scottish government should hold its own referendum and sue Britain in international courts. He added that Alba is already working on a constitution for the new country.
Ms. Sturgeon has dismissed Mr. Salmond’s tactics as impractical and said Alba is causing confusion among independence supporters. She wants a referendum some time before the end of 2023, after the pandemic has faded.
Ailsa Henderson, a professor of political science at the University of Edinburgh, said most polls indicate Alba will struggle to win seats. However, she said Mr. Salmond’s presence in the campaign has affected the debate around independence. “It does appear that [Alba] are representing a view within the independence movement that is impatient,” Dr. Henderson said. “To the extent that they are likely to have an impact, it could be on changing what the SNP claims it will do or how it might approach things if they win the election.”
Mr. Salmond laughed off the polls and said it’s time to finally decide Scotland’s future in a referendum. “You say to people: ‘Let’s put it to the touch, to win or lose it all.’ ”
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