It is being said that Alex Salmond has set up Alba in order to “game the system”, so that Holyrood has a supermajority for Scottish independence after this spring’s election.
This doesn’t seem to us to convey the flavour of what he’s up to.
Suppose for a moment that Nicola Sturgeon herself had come up with Alba instead. The system would then indeed be gamed for independence, because the SNP might well get two bites at the same electoral cherry.
For it is a feature of the D’Hondt system that it can be manipulated in that way. In simple terms, a party that has exhausted its vote in the constituency ballot, the first part of the vote, and will win nothing much from the top-up list, can simply invent a new party, put it up for that list – and hope that the extra seats come in. Call our imaginary Sturgeon vehicle the National Scottish Party, and you see the point.
It is as though Boris Johnson were to set up a party called Albion as a supplementary one to the Conservatives. Except that he wouldn’t – because under first past the post, whatever its faults, doing so would make no sense.
Watch for someone to try to pull the same trick as Salmond in the Welsh Assembly elections and, up to a point, in Northern Ireland, where a variant could be found for the STV system used in its own Assembly elections.
By the way, the accusation of manipulating the system will sound especially loudly if the unionist parties win a bigger share of the vote combined than the nationalist ones, which is possible.
But to return to Salmond, he hasn’t formed Alba simply to push for Scottish independence. It has another purpose, too: to be the weapon by which he takes revenge on Sturgeon.
On their quarrel over his private life, and the Scottish Government’s handling of the claims against him, he will use any Alba MSPs elected to harry and hound the First Minister and her supporters, by any parliamentary means available to him.
There is a parallel with George Galloway’s Alliance for Unity. It exists to support the Union – but not only to support the Union. It’s also there to deliver a parliamentary platform for Galloway himself, with the resources and opportunities it would open up.
On independence itself, he will campaign for it, of course – but at his own pace. Which, at present, is faster than Sturgeon’s. In a nutshell, she’s frightened of losing a quick second referendum and Salmond isn’t, at least at the moment.
It isn’t hard to see the way the new Holyrood will shape up if Salmond is in it – whether or not the SNP win a majority, fall short, or gain a supermajority (however Salmond chooses to try to define that elusive animal).
He will push Sturgeon to move faster on independence: legal action, illegal ballots – he will have all sorts of stunts and tricks to propose to her, claiming all the while that his only motive is to further their common cause of an independent Scotland.
Whether or not it is still his main cause, or whether revenge comes first, we will see, but the signs are not good for Sturgeon. “Scotland hasn’t failed, its leadership has failed,” he told the Scottish Parliament inquiry into his case. If it’s failed, how can it lead Scotland to independence? Salmond has deliberately left the question hanging in the air.
If he wins a seat in May, he will use it to put pressure on SNP MSPs, too. An MP has already defected to Alba. Might SNP MSPs or candidates do so? How will they respond as he seeks to whip up support for a quick referendum among party members and SNP voters?
How many of all these already raise a glass to Bonnie Prince Salmond – King over the Water? And even if he doesn’t win, and his party bombs, how much further damage will he wreak on Sturgeon during the campaign, before a vote has even been cast?