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Alex Salmond Is a Bit Part in Scotland’s Independence Drama

Today's announcement by Alex Salmond has exposed further cracks in the SNP ahead of the Scottish parliamentary elections – but the real drama of the battle over independence is yet to come.

Alex Salmond’s bombshell announcement – that he will stand for elections with a new Alba Party – means that the ‘air war’ in the Scottish elections may well be dominated by the spectacle of Salmond vs. Sturgeon. He won’t have the war chest or the party machine, the activists or the SNP’s deep databases. So he will need his own dramatic spectacle to move votes in bulk, barely six weeks out from polling day.

Salmond’s intervention signals the breach that has appeared in SNP hegemony in recent months. We will now see how much of a threat this really poses to the to the once iron-clad hulk of the party Salmond built-up from the margins of political life. But beyond that spectacle, Scottish society is changing fast.

The pandemic has accelerated economic and class transformation, with the collapse of high streets and the rise of huge monopolies in the Amazon and Deliveroo mould, exasperating the problem of foreign ownership in Scotland – traditionally higher than elsewhere in the UK. Contrary to popular opinion, the Scottish government mishandled its Covid-19 response, leading to high infection and death rates, and a prolonged lockdown.

True to form, the government’s ‘recovery’ team is formed of a ‘who’s who’ of the Scottish establishment, and proposes a Green Investment Portfolio to sell-off £3 billion of Scotland’s natural assets, knocking down environmental and planning rules in the rush for a quick buck. Meanwhile, the ‘just transition’ to renewables industry fails to materialise, with workers and infrastructure left to idle.

Scottish democracy was badly exposed by the torrid faction fight between former and current First Ministers – what we may now have to call Salmond vs. Sturgeon, Part 1. The opaque, secretive and over-centralised character of political power which has emerged from over two decades of devolution was on full display. It feels like a long time since Scotland’s institutions were hailed for their supposedly world-beating character.

But of course, much of this will be cast into the shade by the matter of independence, and the increasingly wild political drama surrounding it. Readers of Tribune may have heard of ideas for a ‘federal’ or ‘Devo Max’ solution to the national questions disrupting Scottish and UK politics. But you will be almost alone in that hearing. This ‘third option’ does not exist for the vast majority of the Scottish (or English, or Welsh, or Northern Irish) electorate. The definitive stances on the national question for Holyrood 2021 remain independence and union.

In the economy of the Scottish national question, the SNP must propose that an independence referendum is imminent, and so must the unionist parties in Scotland and the UK government. It is on this basis that pro and anti-independence voters are routinely mobilised. This explains why an aura of independence ‘threat’ has hung over Scotland ever since September 2014.

It also explains why, according to many SNP leaders, an independence vote has been perpetually six months away over these last seven years. Indeed, just weeks ago Ian Blackford, the SNP leader at Westminster, was still saying that a vote on independence could take place in 2021. Mike Russell, the Scottish constitution secretary, was making the same claim even in diplomatic circles late in 2020.

The horizon of independence is kept in view to generate morale, funds, membership and votes. But it has also generated significant disaffection among nationalist voters and activists. It is this frustration that Salmond will hope to harness on the regional list seats, which he will argue can add to the pro-independence majority in Holyrood.

The necessity of the national question may be even more extreme for Unionists. What would the Scottish Tories even be about, if not the union? Their policy profile is non-existent, and their leaders are barely more visible. As the election reaches its climax, voters and outsiders alike will be hearing about independence in surround sound. But there are at least two good reasons to qualify that idea of a fresh bid for independence in the next couple of years.

First, the official SNP case for independence is a dog’s dinner. The positions generated for the party’s Growth Commission, headed by business lobbyists and ratified (with some important amendments) at SNP conference, are mutually contradictory and, in the context of the pandemic, completely feeble. It was bad enough when the Commission’s demand for sterlingisation – the use of the pound without any recourse to monetary policy or a central bank – clashed directly with the SNP policy of joining the EU, which requires an independent currency and central bank.

In the aftershocks of the global economic crisis, sterlingisation is completely untenable. In the last twelve months much of the UK’s private sector workforce has effectively been brought onto the government payroll, as the global economy was stalled. We have now seen two global economic paroxysms in a dozen years. An economy without a central bank could not easily operate a furlough scheme, or any serious form of state intervention, and would have been completely mangled in both of these crises.

Secondly, Johnson and the Tories will certainly not want a second independence referendum, and this presents its own challenges. The British state elite and Conservative Party are absolutely sick of referendums. If David Cameron’s name is mud in their company today, it is only because he used this tool inappropriately and recklessly.

Traditionally, governments use a referendum to ratify a policy already popular among the electorate – it’s the unimpeachable rubber stamp, putting matters to rest. Cameron used it in Scotland and on Brexit to create open-ended conflicts out of deeply contentious issues. Both votes backfired spectacularly on the British establishment, which had to fight to regain control over Brexit, and is still struggling over Scotland.

In the 2012 Edinburgh Agreement, both sides of the negotiating table wanted the same thing – a referendum addressing the Scottish national question. Their disagreements were over the terms of that vote. But in future negotiations, which Sturgeon says are essential and should follow the “gold standard” example of the Edinburgh Agreement, only one party to the negotiations will actually want an independence referendum. This obviously changes everything.

Even should Johnson (or whoever replaces him) consent to talks, he can use them to place massive roadblocks to any successful challenges to the union. His job has been made easier in this by the SNP’s support for the People’s Vote campaign, with its evolving arsenal of anti-democratic ruses. For example, SNP leaders can endlessly be presented with their past statements on the necessity of a ‘confirmatory vote.’

If Johnson’s hard lines are rebuffed – and these could include a huge range of tactics: an increased threshold for independence, a change to the voting franchise, a change to the wording of the ballot question that would prejudice voters against independence, a three option vote, and much more – he can simply say negotiations were held in earnest, but that the nationalists proved unreasonable.

This lengthy speculation is meant to indicate only one thing for certain – there are not only two available outcomes here. In the SNP leadership version of the future, the achievement of a mandate for independence will mean either a new binary vote on independence, or a refusal which scandalises the ‘international community,’ to which the SNP leadership show such deference.

In truth, London probably doesn’t care if rebutting the vote looks bad (worse things happen in Whitehall every month or so). And nor, in truth, would such an uncouth display have many consequences in Berlin or Washington, where the stability of the British state is probably more important than relations with the Scottish government. But in any event, a variety of fudges and tricks remain available to Johnson and co.

What we really don’t know is what would happen in Scotland if a majority of pro-referendum MSPs were elected, and then Johnson chose to rebuff or frustrate the process. We should be clear that this would mean the effective suppression of a fundamental democratic right to self-determination.

Under these circumstances, not only should the independence movement in Scotland mobilise to meet the affront, but so should democratic and progressive forces across these islands. Such a movement would have to be willing to act beyond the remit and leadership of the SNP.