Alex Salmond and the Alba Party: Power For Power's Sake

Alba isn't just revealing the broken mechanisms at the heart of Scottish governance. It is an affront to the simple notion of Democracy "for the people, by the people".

Alex Salmond and the Alba Party: Power For Power's Sake

On the Banner of Scotland, which colour should fill the field behind the white St Andrew's Cross?

It's not an easy question to answer. Next time you're lost in a sea of Saint Andrew's Crosses, take a moment to look at which shade of blue each flag sports. Chances are, you'll notice various shades of blue. But most (if not all) will fall into one of two surprisingly distinct categories: half will sport a lighter sky blue, while the rest have a darker navy blue.

It's almost as if the two shades of the Saltire are like Scotland's national heterochromia.

There are valid historical arguments for sporting both shades of blue. The navy blue field was a practical innovation dating back to the 17th century: when the Saltire was incorporated into the Union Flag, a navy blue was chosen primarily due to its durability at sea. On the other hand, the sky blue tribe seem to have historical purity on their side. George Buchanan's tells the legend of king Óengus II who, in 832, saw "a miraculous white saltire" which "appeared in the blue sky" during a battle with the Angles.

But the most significant thing about the Saltire debate is that ultimately it doesn't really matter. You may prefer one colour over the other, one shade may be cheaper than the other, and the two flags have different historical contexts. But - at the end of the day - it is the same flag either way.

A similar distinction is at play with two of the most discussed political parties fighting this May's Scottish Parliamentary election. In fact, the colour of Saltire they wave may end up being the most distinguishing difference between Alex Salmond's new Alba Party and Nicola Sturgeon's Scottish National Party (SNP).

The Alba Party is a new political party, debuted early last month by ex-SNP First Minister Alex Salmond. Only a day or two after its launch, the Alba Party already had two House of Commons MPs under its belt and, if its cheerleaders are to be believed, a membership which was "going through the roof". Since then, the Alba Party has gotten itself a slate of list candidates, eleven local councillors, plenty of media coverage, and even two high-profile endorsements from The Proclaimers.

With such enthusiastic support and political momentum, the Alba movement is already justifying its existence. But what does the Alba Party stand for? The manifesto will reportedly cover "the importance of independence", cultivating "a socially just society", and a plan to "rebuild" Scotland's economy. In other words, three bullet points that effectively sum up the SNP's May policy platform.

In fact, the Alba website justifies the party's existence by promising "one million additional votes for independence", which I suppose translates roughly to 'one million additional votes for the SNP agenda'. Neale Hanvey MP, Alba's newest recruit, has described the party as "a tonic for our movement". But Alba is just as pro-European Union as the SNP, just as populist as the SNP, and perhaps even more divisive than the SNP. So far, the only real ideological distinction between the two seems to be a suggestion that Alba will be a natural home for those who oppose gender self-identification. But even that has been shot down as an opportunistic attempt to use the issue of women's rights for political gain at best and fishing for reactionary populist votes at worst.

So, what we are really seeing is an internal SNP power struggle playing out in the wider field of Scottish politics. The SNP is already Britain's oldest single-issue big tent, with a membership with spans from right-wing free marketeers to self-proclaimed communists. The Alba Party seems to not have any differentiating mission statement or any differentiating claim to an ideological position, just the promise to 'help to win Independence'. It doesn't take a cynic to see that the Alba Party doesn't even pass the smell test. It isn't a constructive alternative to the SNP, Alex Salmond simply seems to be seeking power for power's own sake.

Don't get me wrong, I appreciate 'big tent' politics. I also don't expect members of every political party to think the same thing, nor would I want them to. In Washington and Westminster, oppositional factions inside ruling parties help to minimise the risks associated with two-party monopolies. By keeping both the government and opposition in line with popular sentiment (largely by way of fierce factional tug-of-war) the ideological composition of party leadership changes frequently. The result is political parties that exist relatively in line with the prevailing public view.

But what happens when the largest parties don't stand for anything bar the political aspirations of those who lead them? This somewhat tenuous system of political organisation only works if there is something tying its constituent factions together, distinguishing one party from its opposition. Not all Labourites were pro-Corbyn, but they certainly aren't Tories. In comparison, there is very little, if anything, differentiating the Alba Party from the SNP.

With that in mind, there really is only one conclusion: instead of presenting a new approach to Scotland's challenges, or even something resembling a tangible divergence from the SNP mainstream, Alba simply stands as the vehicle by which one member of a party hopes to bypass the internal democracy of the SNP and gain himself a platform to influence national policy.

That is probably the main reason the Alba Party refuses to battle the SNP in any of its constituency seats. The Alba Party isn't hoping to convince voters with his alternative offer for Scotland's future. Rather, Salmond is gaming the system to help find himself in the seat of power. In other words, it's not so much that the Alba Party hopes to defeat the SNP, they simply hope to cheat democracy and go for the win.

Whatever your position on Sturgeon or Salmond - or, for that matter, independence or Unionism - this should be of grave concern to us all. It isn't just revealing the broken system of Scottish democracy. It is an affront to the simple notion of Democracy "for the people, by the people".

And if you think I'm being alarmist, ask Alex Salmond who was responsible for the infamous 2018 Salisbury  poisonings.

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