The decline of Alex Salmond, former first minister of Scotland and one of the nation’s most influential politicians of the past 20 years, can be summed up in two numbers.
Salmond led the Scottish National party to an overwhelming 59 per cent share of the vote in his northern home constituency of Aberdeenshire East in the 2011 election for the parliament in Edinburgh. Last week, by contrast, just 3 per cent of voters in the area backed Salmond’s new Alba party.
The results of Thursday’s Scottish parliamentary election, in which Alba took an even more meagre 1.7 per cent of the vote across the country, were an emphatic rejection of the man who led the SNP and its independence cause from the political fringes to Scotland’s centre stage.
“Alba absolutely bombed,” said Mark Diffley, a consultant on Scottish political opinion.
Alba’s failure has wider implications for Scotland and the constitutional future of the UK, reinforcing the dominant role of Nicola Sturgeon, Salmond’s successor as SNP leader and first minister, and her relatively cautious approach to pushing for a second referendum on independence.
Salmond, who led the SNP government from 2007 to 2014, fell out spectacularly with Sturgeon, his former protégé, after two female civil servants in 2018 accused him of sexual harassment during his time as first minister.
In 2019, the Scottish government’s investigation into the complaints was ruled unlawful because it was “procedurally unfair” and “tainted by apparent bias”.
At a criminal trial last year, Salmond was acquitted of all 13 sexual offence charges against him. But analysts said a factor in voters’ rejection of Alba appeared to have been Salmond’s struggle to fend off questions about his conduct while first minister.
At his trial, Salmond admitted to what he said were consensual sexual encounters with much younger and more junior colleagues at his official residence. But during the campaign he repeatedly declined to say if he regretted any of his actions or to offer any apology.
“People saw Alex Salmond as an unattractive leader for a mainstream political party,” Diffley said. He cited polls that suggested a majority of voters thought the first minister was unfit for public office and gave him approval ratings even lower than UK Conservative prime minister Boris Johnson in Scotland.
In a telephone interview, Salmond said journalists had been “pouring massive amounts of dung” over him, but dismissed the idea his personal ratings had been the key factor.
“It wasn’t the reason that Alba didn’t make the breakthrough,” Salmond said of the questions about his conduct. However, he complained that media focus on the issue had been unhelpful. “It was more a diversionary thing . . . in the sense that it stopped Alba from getting the message across,” he said.
Salmond said more important problems for the new party, which he launched to media fanfare on March 26, had been a lack of “time and television”. And he cited in particular the decision of the BBC not to include him in television election debates.
“I think the BBC is a disgrace to public service broadcasting,” said Salmond, who since 2017 has hosted a political chat show on Kremlin-backed Russian broadcaster RT.
Despite heavy media coverage the public appeared unpersuaded by Alba’s central pitch of attempting to use Scotland’s two-vote parliamentary election system to maximise independence support in the devolved parliament at Holyrood.
Alba stood only for Holyrood’s 56 “regional list” seats, which are intended to make the parliament more proportionally representative, while calling for voters to back the SNP in the 73 first-past-the-post constituency seats. Salmond said doing this would create a “supermajority” for independence that was much bigger than the proportion of Scottish voters who actually want to leave the UK.
But Sturgeon denounced the approach as an attempt to “game the system”, while Salmond was unable to explain what he meant by a supermajority or why winning one would compel the UK government to agree to talks on independence.
Alba’s failure was a major relief for the SNP, particularly since the new party did not take enough votes to stop the governing party taking the two regional list seats it won alongside the vast majority of constituencies.
Salmond had hoped to tap impatience within the independence movement at what he sees as Sturgeon’s overly cautious approach to challenging Westminster’s refusal to approve a rerun of the 2014 referendum, in which Scots backed staying in the UK by 55-45 per cent.
“Nicola lost her nerve on independence back in 2017 and has never recovered it,” Salmond told sympathetic bloggers at the weekend.
But the defection of some of Sturgeon’s most high-profile critics within the SNP, including Kenny MacAskill, a member of the UK parliament and former Scottish justice secretary, has further secured the first minister’s grip on the governing party and its strategy.
“Alba’s failure to make any impact in the elections eases pressure that Nicola Sturgeon might otherwise have faced to push for a referendum early in this parliamentary term,” said Nicola McEwen, professor of territorial politics at Edinburgh university.
“I’d expect her to use the time to focus on Covid recovery . . . and in the meantime build a case for independence that addresses the tricky questions that don’t yet have answers,” McEwen said.
Salmond insisted Alba would continue as a political home for disaffected independence supporters. Party candidates decided on Tuesday that it would contest local government elections next year.
And he waved aside any suggestion that last week’s result showed Alba had no future. “That’s just election number one,” he said.