In a boxing gym in Edinburgh's New Town, Alex Salmond stood in the centre of the ring, his fists up in a huge pair of worn boxing gloves as he posed for photographers. Around the ring were placards for Alba, the pro-independence party he launched last month to fight next week's Scottish parliament elections.
The party has so far failed to take flight, scoring low single digits in the opinion polls and struggling to attract the attention of voters. Salmond's feud with Nicola Sturgeon, his successor as first minister and Scottish National Party (SNP) leader, appears to have tarnished him more than her.
And although Salmond was acquitted of 13 charges of sexual assault last year, his adversaries say the inappropriate behaviour he admitted to should be enough to make him withdraw from public life.
As he jabbed the air in the boxing ring, I asked him who he was hoping to knock out.
“Everybody else,” he said.
“I mean, every hand is turned against us in this campaign. Obviously we must be fluttering the dovecotes of Scotland. Because the unremitting hostility of the establishment press, the blackout from television, all of which is designed to impede Alba’s progress, it’s not going to work. We’re going to have representation across Scotland a week on Thursday.”
Scots have two votes in the parliamentary election, one for a constituency member of the Scottish parliament (MSP) and another for a regional ballot. The 73 constituency MSPs are elected on a first-past-the-post system as in Westminster, but in the regional ballot, voters choose a party.
The remaining 56 seats are allocated to parties according to how many votes they receive but taking into account the number of constituency seats they have won to make the result more proportional.
Alba is running candidates only on the regional list and Salmond has urged voters to give their constituency votes to the SNP. But the SNP has told him his help is neither needed nor welcome.
“Certainly our affection is unrequited at the present moment, no question about that. We tell everybody to vote SNP in the constituency vote and I voted SNP yesterday in the postal ballot in the constituency of East Aberdeenshire. You’d have thought they would have recognised the advantages of having a supermajority of independence-supporting MSPs because the logic is inescapable,” he said.
“The SNP will gain nothing to speak of in the west and across Scotland because they’re so successful in the constituencies, that’s the way the system works. And therefore, if half of the SNP voters from last time round switched to Alba, then we’re going to be talking about independence numbers of 80, 90, perhaps even more in the parliament of 129. What’s not to like about that?”
The SNP fears that by talking up the prospect of a supermajority, Salmond risks delegitimising the mandate of a simple majority of MSPs calling for a second independence referendum. Salmond agrees that a majority of one constitutes a mandate but argues that the political reality the next Scottish government faces requires more.
"Politics is not just a question of majorities, it's a question of momentum. Let's just imagine Boris Johnson thinking about the Scottish situation. Let's say there's a majority of one for independence in the parliament. He'll just say that's very evenly split. He'll say there's a 50/50 situation, half the country is against it, half the country is for it, it's very difficult to take another referendum under these circumstances," he said.
Two Westminster MPs have left the SNP to join Alba, along with some local councillors, but Sturgeon has been dismissive of the new party, calling on voters to give both votes to the SNP. Salmond describes as “dog-in-the-manger stuff” the SNP’s refusal to co-operate with other pro-independence parties.
“The difficulty with that is that nobody owns the independence vote. It’s not the prerogative of one political party. They have no arbitrary authority over it. And as independence voters recognise the opportunity, I think they’ll switch to Alba,” he said.
“We’ll be represented across Scotland and we’ll be part of an independent supermajority. And in the first week – that is, in two weeks’ time – I expect to be laying a motion in the Scottish parliament instructing the Scottish government to initiate independence negotiations with Whitehall.”