Public Affairs & Government Relations

FTI Consulting Public Affairs Snapshot – Should auld acquaintance be forgot? What Alex Salmond’s re-emergence means for the SNP and Scotland

After what appeared to be an eternity of bitter quarrelling between Scotland’s former First Minister, Alex Salmond, and his onetime protégé Nicola Sturgeon, the current First Minister, many thought that, following the publishing of James Hamilton’s report which cleared Mrs Sturgeon of breaking the Ministerial Code, this high-profile feud would be consigned to the history books. But big personalities almost never go quietly in politics, especially when they are coupled with an even bigger ego. Merely a few days after Hamilton’s report, Mr Salmond launched The Alba Party ahead of May’s Scottish Parliamentary elections.

All the world’s a stage

In the closing weeks of February, and for almost all of March, inboxes, front pages, and news reels became inundated with the developments emanating from the cross-party inquiry into the Scottish Government’s handling of sexual harassment complaints made against former First Minister, Alex Salmond. The inquiry did not address these claims specifically, of which Mr Salmond has been cleared, but rather when Mrs Sturgeon first heard about such claims and whether she subsequently intervened in an investigation into them whilst simultaneously misleading the Scottish Parliament. Mr Salmond, for his part, accused his successor of such acts and even went as far as postulating a conspiracy against him, fuelled by the current First Minister.

Following scenes reminiscent of the final season of The Thick of It, both Mr Salmond and Mrs Sturgeon fired shot after shot respectively in front of the Committee conducting the inquiry in what was arguably one of the most dramatic periods in Scottish political history. The conclusion reached by the Committee was that Mrs Sturgeon misled the inquiry and that her Government’s handling of the complaints was “seriously flawed.” But the independent report conducted by James Hamilton – Ireland’s former Director of Public Prosecutions and the Scottish Government’s advisor on the Ministerial Code – found that she did not break the Ministerial Code and so exonerated the First Minister of what would have otherwise been a resignation-worthy act.

With the First Minister still in position – after beating what seemed to be an ill thought out no confidence vote launched by the Scottish Conservatives – the stage appeared to be set for the SNP to ride into the sunset, obtaining yet another stint in Government following May the 6th.

But the SNP’s hope for a clean run at the election was short lived when, on the 26th of March, Alex Salmond announced his return to front-line politics in the form of The Alba Party.

Independence Wars: A New Hope or Revenge of the Sith?

The Alba Party intends to run only on the regional lists in the election, the proportional representation mechanism that effectively ‘tops up’ those parties which miss out on constituency seats.

“Arithmetically our argument for the independence supermajority is unassailable. More MSPs supporting independence: what’s not to like?.” – Alex Salmond, leader of The Alba Party

 

This is perhaps the most significant tactic of Mr Salmond’s new party. The SNP would easily defeat Alba at constituency level given the strength of their support and  the short amount of time between Alba’s launch and polling day. But Alba can claim, and indeed has claimed, that the one million or so votes that go to the SNP on the regional lists have been ‘wasted’ at previous elections. This is because it is much harder to secure top up seats on the regional lists for a party which wins the majority, if not all, of the constituencies within in a region. This top up mechanism is the specific purpose of Scotland’s d’Hondt Additional Member Electoral System. It is for this reason that the SNP returned just 4 out of 56 regional list MSPs in 2016. By running on the regional list only and appealing to SNP voters to split their vote and support Alba on the list, Mr Salmond is aiming for a ‘supermajority’ of pro-independence MSPs to enter the Scottish Parliament, making Westminster’s rejection of a second Scottish independence referendum much more difficult. It could also result in the SNP becoming reliant upon their now public enemy number one for support to govern should they fall short of a majority, which Mr Salmond may not offer unless Mrs Sturgeon resigns her leadership.

The main question pro-independence supporters will be asking themselves is whether they will succeed in their goal by staying together largely within the SNP, however fractious that coalition is becoming, or will a plurality of independence parties likely be better placed to achieve their eventual objective. In any case, there will be winners and losers on either side of the independence debate, as well as in the multiple factions within them. The Green Party, who have aligned themselves with the cause of independence and propped up Sturgeon’s Government, are watching the polls closely given their own reliance on list votes to secure any presence in Holyrood. What is certain, however, is that the numbers have never mattered more.

Ready your calculators

Following the announcement of Alba’s launch, the party quickly solidified their position on how voters should cast their two votes at the election, as did the SNP.

The former has urged pro-independence supporters to vote SNP at the constituency level and Alba on the regional list, increasing the chances of a ‘supermajority for independence.’ The latter, however, rubbished such a move, urging supporters to vote SNP in both instances. This was not just because of the SNP’s disdain for Mr Salmond’s venture, but rather the fact that, although they return few regional MSPs, regional numbers still matter in obtaining a majority for the SNP. Indeed, it is important to note that the SNP only won a majority in 2011 with the help of the 16 regional seats it obtained, and has only functioned as a minority Government since 2016 due to the 6 regional seats that the pro-independence Green Party has held. The SNP, therefore, cannot ignore the regional list completely, and picking up even a couple of seats this way in May could be the difference between them securing a majority or falling short.

The percentages by which the regional vote swings to Alba, therefore, are key. As a rule of thumb, parties typically require anywhere between 5 and 7 per cent in each region to obtain one MSP. Anything less than this and their quotient – determined by the d’Hondt system – will never materialise into seats, arguably becoming, as Mr Salmond has stated, “wasted.”

Without the SNP’s support, there is no chance of every SNP constituency vote converting to an Alba regional vote. However, if Alba starts to take anywhere from 6-7 per cent upwards, it could have a considerable impact on the outcome of the election. Current projections – heavily dependent upon assumptions, of course – have Alba obtaining roughly 6 regional seats should they achieve 6-7 per cent and 9 regional seats if they bring in 15 per cent.

Paging Scottish Unionism

Whilst pro-Union media outlets and commentators initially took delight at Alba’s launch and its apparent proof of an independence split, reality appears to have since reasserted itself.

“Everybody knew Alex Salmond was a gambler because he’s never made any secret of it” – Nicola Sturgeon, First Minister of Scotland, and Leader of the SNP

 

The realisation that Alba could very well achieve its independence ‘supermajority’ has done very little to unite the Scottish Conservatives and Labour around a distinct pro-Union message. As leader of the Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party, Douglas Ross continues to place his party’s anti-independence stance at the heart of their campaign.

Mr Ross’ poor personal ratings do not bode well for May 6th either. Scottish Labour has finally found some semblance of identity under their new leader, Anas Sarwar, who has accused both Mrs Sturgeon and Mr Ross of obsessing over the constitution, whilst Scotland suffers the effects of coronavirus, declining health outcomes, the highest rate of drug deaths in Europe and poor education results. Indeed, Mr Sarwar’s approval ratings leapt by 9 points following the first leader’s debate. His message of focusing on real problems could be effective, but it will do little to stop the Nationalists excusing their failures because of ‘London rule.’ Salmond’s entry into the election campaign follows a similar appearance from former MP George Galloway – with the launch of All for Unity – an attempt to attract Unionist votes away from the mainstream parties on the regional list, and deliver anti-independence MSPs. Galloway’s approach was rebuffed by the Conservatives, Labour and the Liberal Democrats alike, and they remain concerned he could thwart their own chances of list seats. Current predictions have the party struggling to poll high enough to make any sort of impact beyond one or two seats, however with the margins for the last seats on the lists extremely close, even this is worrying the mainstream parties. The 4 per cent that Galloway could gain would simply be taken from other mainstream Unionist parties.

Both mainstream pro-Union parties are trying to maintain a brave face, but the realisation is slowly sinking in that, should Alba obtain their 6-7 per cent prediction, it is both of them that will suffer as they are moved down the list of seat distributions. Ultimately, it will be the Union, which they both vocally support, that will also suffer.

Conclusion

Nicola Sturgeon accused Alex Salmond of being a serial “gambler” shortly after the launch of his party. An interesting choice of words for a First Minister trying to persuade the Scottish nation that the issue she has wholeheartedly inherited from him – Scottish independence – is the right path.

It may be that Alba turns out to be a damp squib that mirrors the likes of UKIP in 2015 or the Brexit Party in 2019 (despite the success of both parties at European elections). But to suggest such a comparison misses the fact that the first past-the-post system at General Elections ensured these parties were not successful, despite their total percentage support across the country. The Scottish electoral system provides a helpful by-pass to that challenge, hence, arguably, why Alba exists in the first place. Those on the pro-Union side who took delight at the apparent splitting of the independence factions have clearly forgotten about the impact of populist movements on election results over the past 5 years.

With the SNP making this election all about their demand for a second independence referendum, the stakes resting on this result could not have been higher. Alex Salmond has put a proposal to the Scottish electorate which, if they follow him, could deliver a far higher proportion of independence supporting MSPs than support for independence in Scotland would naturally have delivered.

This could present an extremely difficult situation for the Unionist parties to respond to. If there is an overwhelming number of MSPs who support independence following this election then the case for another referendum will be made loudly and will have to be answered one way or the other.

However, it may also throw the Unionist parties a lifeline. Salmond has made it clear he is gaming the system. If the parties get their messaging together they may be able to discredit the result on the basis that it is a quirk of the system and does not reflect the will of the Scottish people, but they will have to be quick out of the blocks following the election with a clear response.

Either way, the hope that this Holyrood election would settle the independence question for good or bad may now be unrealistic, with the late entrance of Alba providing both problems and get out clauses for all parties.

 

The views expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and not necessarily the views of FTI Consulting, its management, its subsidiaries, its affiliates, or its other professionals.

©2021 FTI Consulting, Inc. All rights reserved. www.fticonsulting.com

 

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