In every devolved election to have taken place since the reconvening of Scotland’s parliament, the pro-independence radical left has had some kind of representation, even if in over half of them they failed to win seats.
For the 2021 Holyrood election, the SSP has announced that it will not participate in any form whatsoever, while Sheridan willingly dissolved Solidarity into the big-tent “Action for Independence” list, led by former SNP MSP Dave Thomson – and has now stood down altogether. That will make 2021 the very first election since the beginning of devolution where the Scottish radical left has no national presence whatsoever. To complement this state of affairs, the largest broad-church anticapitalist formation in Scotland, the Radical Independence Campaign (RIC), finds itself liquidated in a manner which has left the Scottish left badly split. This is made even worse by large numbers of left figures opportunistically tailing the SNP leadership, the Salmondite tendency or the edifices of Labourism.
It is in this context of complete left-wing collapse and atrophy that the emergence of Alex Salmond’s Alba party should be understood. The very real and legitimate discontent within the independence movement generated by the SNP leadership’s perceived failures could never find true leadership in the radical pro-independence left, creating a market space, an opening which Salmond has now all too keenly exploited.
Its launch also ought to be an opportunity to meditate on the greater nature of reaction that is found in Scottish public life. The prejudices animating its candidates are to varying degrees widely prevalent in our society; be it bigotry against GRT communities, antisemitism, regressive views on women’s bodily autonomy or an overwhelming, barely concealed transphobia. Until now, these tendencies had always found greater political articulation on the side of the Unionist camp than it had in the pro-independence camp. In this respect, Alba’s greatest contribution is to make space for a similar articulation within the indy camp.
Why does this matter? Where previously these bigotries operated in an embryonic manner within the SNP, slowly growing and absorbing legitimacy and passivity from its surroundings, they are now fully realised and undisguised in the discourse of the movement. However, what is left of the SNP is now likely to be more hospitable to intersectionality and tolerance for minorities than it may have been earlier. If the Alba party makes a significant breakthrough into Scottish politics and doesn’t immediately face confrontation and opposition from the radical left and social progressives, it will successfully drag all of Scottish politics to the right. The key task for us on the radical left is to devise strategies which will allow us to do this in the most effective manner.
What about Alba’s overtures to the “economic left”? Scotland is for all intents and purposes a political monoculture, where every single party (including the Tories) is nominally and/or functionally committed to some form of “social democracy”, so Alba’s self-professed social-democratic identity means very little to those trying to seriously parse its actual political orientation. The very first person to speak at the Alba party launch was Cynthia Guthrie, a corporate figure and owner of multiple businesses who also worked for the arms manufacturer Ferranti, and her opening pitch revolved around the need to make Scotland a more enterprising country for capital. Additionally, one of the party’s most high profile recruits was Jim Walker, who got into hot water for calling Nicola Sturgeon a “cow” on twitter but who can also be distinguished by his neo-mercantilist theories of Asian economic development, his love for Mises, Hayek and the mostly debunked “Austrian school” of economics. At the end of the day, Salmond picked Jim Walker as a candidate but didn’t pick the Marxian economist George Kerevan – demonstrating which side the leadership of Alba can be relied on to lean towards in the real world.
When Salmond said that “the Yes movement of 2014 had been reborn”, many derided him for harping back to what had ultimately been a loss. But his attempt to bring together small town, socially conservative, Eurosceptic voters and those decidedly antipathic to Sturgeon becomes somewhat more coherent once understood as a political project trying to revive the old SNP coalition that formed the base of the party before its epochal breakthrough in urban and working class Scotland. However, no amount of effort to rewind the clock can disguise the gaping void at the very heart of Alba’s raison d’etre – its strategy for independence.
The fundamental conceit at the heart of Salmond’s view of the independence struggle is exposed when his “Alba declaration” proclaims that the scope of Scottish people to assert their national rights is limited to being expressed through the Scottish parliament alone. Not only does this run counter to our own developed understanding of republicanism as a political philosophy – it runs against the most basic concepts underpinning any kind of popular sovereignty whatsoever. Salmond is ultimately just another member of the entrenched political caste he purports to rail against, and his vision is no more radical than that of the SNP. When Salmond insists that independence ought to be a matter for a “whole parliament, rather than a party”, he is contributing to the mystification of the ruling institutions of Scottish life, many of which have seen their public confidence damaged by the very scandal that Salmond was at the heart of.
Salmond’s basic scheme for achieving independence is essentially a more aggressive form of the SNP’s plan: an absence of political strategy disguised as self-congratulatory moralism. The idea that a parliamentary “supermajority” will somehow force the British state or international community to confer legitimacy upon any attempt at secession is never backed up with any concrete political theory or strategy. It is bordering on magical thinking. A “supermajority” Holyrood parliament could well demand the UK start negotiating the terms of separation immediately – but to what end could they force Downing Street to abide without leverage? At least the SNP’s supposedly more conservative 11 point plan culminates in a set of tangible aims – to force the UK government into a legal battle over the right to hold a referendum. What both plans lack is a strategy to make the political price of Westminster intransigence too high – a price that could never be exacted against the British state by a party or parliament alone without mass popular participation and civic disobedience.
Some have raised the prospect of Alba drawing out tensions in the independence movement by staking out conflicting positions to the SNP leadership on the key subjects of referendum strategy, GRA reform, a Scottish currency, Scotland’s relationship with the EU and trade. The Unionist press salivate at the prospects of these arguments derailing the popularity of independence altogether because they refuse to engage with the serious issues beyond personality conflicts and implicitly understand that Sturgeon’s positions on these matters are not the positions of somebody who is seriously planning for a referendum or believes that independence itself is imminent. These issues are of great importance and the left must emphatically prosecute its own arguments on each and every one of them in order to avoid being completely sidelined by the conservative and liberal poles of Scottish nationalism. Doing so is vital to preventing Alba from claiming the ownership of such issues.
The launch of the Alba party represents a breakthrough for reaction in Scotland. It marks the first time that conservative forces will find explicit articulation within an entire sphere of our political order that it was previously locked out of until now. If it succeeds, it could drag Scottish politics to the right. However, this shouldn’t be a moment for defeatism on the left – for every process of articulation, with it comes the opportunity for counter-articulation. We need to be able to demarcate those in the movement who are allies to complete liberation and those who stand opposed. On that basis, perhaps an explicitly right wing pro-independence formation is something to be welcomed – both in isolating and siloing the most toxic elements of the movement, and for spurring on a real response from the left. However, polling at just 3% in most polls since its launch, it looks likely that Salmond’s personality-driven personal vehicle is not going to succeed or prove to be sustainable. The reactionary discontents of Scottish nationalism becoming politically homeless yet again will pose a serious challenge for the entire independence movement; an eventuality that must be prepared for. Most on the left will be familiar with the various prejudices animating sections of the party and its support but marginalising the political tendency it represents will take more than just rebutting the politics of hate. The radical pro-independence left must combat Alba head-on by demonstrating a genuine and unassailable commitment to mass popular participation and democracy that Alba purports to represent.