29 March 2021

Salmond’s game-playing could be a headache for unionists – or a nightmare for the Nats

By

Alex Salmond’s decision to enter the traces at the head of his new Alba Party is one of those events which feels inevitable, even if very few people were actually predicting it before the event.

He immediately absorbed the much longer-standing All for Independence party, whose central mission of gaming Holyrood’s absurd electoral system he has stolen, and is now out to deliver a separatist ‘supermajority’ in the next Scottish Parliament.

The logic is simple. As it stands, the SNP win nearly all the first-past-the-post constituencies. Their hundreds of thousands of votes on the lists, intended to provide a proportional balancing element, are thus wasted.

But because Scottish voters get to cast two ballots, instead of just having their FPTP vote totals used to calculate the list seats, supporters of a sufficiently dominant party can in theory throw the full weight of their list vote behind a proxy, which will win seats as efficiently as any other.

As a result, a well-organised bloc of voters could deliver something in the region of three-quarters of the seats in the next Scottish Parliament with less than half the vote.

Defenders of such game-playing like to point out that FTPT also inflates the margins of the winners. But that at least is an explicitly majoritarian system. Moreover, it is very easy for even a so-called ‘low-information voter’ under FPTP to work out who is competitive in their area and what a good tactical vote is, whereas election Twitter has spent several days exchanging complicated, Excel-based arguments about what the possible impact of Alba will be. If they can’t work it out, pity the poor voter.

It isn’t inevitable that this plan will work, not least because it takes a while to explain. Alba might cannibalise some tactical votes from the separatist Greens, although the parties are miles apart on other issues such as the ‘woke’ agenda. Salmond himself is a toxic and divisive figure who may be overestimating his appeal.

But if the squeeze does come in, there’s no easy way for the unionist parties to respond. Douglas Ross has made overtures to Anas Sarwar and Willie Rennie seeking for the three main parties to ‘cooperate’ during the election – a move which makes sense inasmuch as he needs to shore up the Conservatives’ image as the party that puts the Union first.

But Labour have shown no enthusiasm for such a bargain, and nor can we blame them. Evidence from the general election and numerous by-elections confirms that the total vote for the pro-UK parties is not a fungible ‘unionist vote’. When Labour collapsed in 2019, their support switched to the Nationalists and helped to unseat Tory MPs.

Sarwar will know that his party’s best hope for revival is winning over voters who currently vote SNP but who aren’t committed to independence, or at least for whom it isn’t top priority, and that an electoral pact with the Conservatives would be lethal to that effort. Individual unionist voters might vote tactically for the pro-UK candidate best placed against the SNP in each seat, as outfits such as ‘All for Unity’ suggest, but there will be no formal pact.

However, despair is a unionist vice so it’s important to maintain some perspective. Nicola Sturgeon and her advisers would certainly not have wished Alba into existence. It has the potential to make their lives very awkward.

Take the whole ‘supermajority’ idea. The voters aren’t stupid and nor is the Government. If the pro-separation caucus in the next Scottish Parliament was achieved by obviously gaming the system, it is scarcely going to bestow any great moral force on its demands. Westminster majorities are about wielding actual power, not ‘sending a message’. Indeed, if Boris Johnson is smart, he may even be able to use such chicanery to de-legitimise any post-election push for separation, especially if the SNP itself has fallen short of an overall majority. 

Westminster might also be able to justify thinking again about the decision to devolve wholesale the rules for elections. Taken alongside recent revelations about the mismanagement of the civil service, there is a growing case for Parliament to take some responsibility for the institutions which it has created and charged with exercising devolved competencies.

But before that there’s an election to fight, and Salmond will surely have ruined the SNP’s grid. His presence completely changes the dynamics.

For example, Alba has already announced that it doesn’t consider a legally authorised referendum to be the only pathway to independence. This will force Sturgeon to do what she has worked very hard to avoid and tell her activists what the plan is if and when the Prime Minister refuses to grant a Section 30 order. 

And whilst the defection of unsavoury characters might be welcome, the viciousness of the SNP’s attacks on such people also raises hard questions. Why, if these people were so awful, were you so loyal to them for so long? If Salmond is a reckless gambler, why did you ask Scottish voters to trust him about breaking up Britain?

This feeds into the impression generated by the scandal of the past few months, which is that the SNP’s formidable, phalanx-like discipline has led to their turning a blind eye to all manner of inappropriate behaviour for the good of the cause, and that this has in turn led to what one ex-Nationalist adviser refers to as ‘government by gang’

Most importantly, unionists must remember that a second referendum does not hinge on this election – not if the Prime Minister holds his nerve. As long as the Government develops a respectable case for refusal, they can put off the question of another vote until at least after the next general election.

Deprived of the discipline that a new campaign will impose, the separatist movement will finally have the space to have the brawl they’re itching for whilst the SNP will be left to confront their increasingly miserable record in office. Quis separabit? Not you, Alex.

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Henry Hill is News Editor of ConservativeHome.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.