Something fishy is going on with Alex Salmond, the former first minister of Scotland and longtime bête noire of English defenders of the union. It isn’t yet another Scottish political scandal. It is just his lunch, a pescatarian extravaganza.
We’re in the heart of Westminster at Osteria dell’Angolo, a bustling Italian restaurant and haunt of London politicos. Salmond, who quit the Scottish National Party (SNP) under a cloud in 2018 and later took over the new pro-independence Alba Party, has brought along his new party’s chairwoman, former SNP MP Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh.
Politicians as brawny as Salmond often throw red meat for their supporters. Not today. He’s having a monkfish mousse in ravioli starter and lemon sole for mains, Ahmed-Sheikh is having prawns and calamari followed by seabass, and The Irish Times is having monkfish on the double. Somewhere off Scotland’s North Sea coast, trawlermen must be punching the air in delight.
The food is good, but it isn’t what is really on the menu today. That is Scottish independence and how to shift the dial on a nationalist movement stuck in a rut. The governing SNP has been roiled recently by scandal after Nicola Sturgeon’s departure, while the UK’s supreme court has shut off a route to a fresh independence referendum.
“Westminster, unless they are forced and have no choice, will not be lured into another referendum as easily,” says Salmond, who quit as SNP leader in 2014 after the last Scottish breakaway vote ran close but fell short. But he has a plan. He is trying to convince the SNP, which he helped turn into Scotland’s dominant political force, to enter a pro-independence electoral pact for next year’s Westminster vote with Alba and others, such as the Scottish Greens and Scottish Socialist Party, who also want Scotland to make the break.
If all the pro-independence parties were to gang together and carve up the landscape in non-compete pacts, Salmond argues, it would “at a stroke” change the dynamic of the next election. Suddenly, his case goes, the narrative would switch from “how many seats will the unionist Labour Party take from the SNP” to “how many of the remaining 10 Scottish unionist seats can nationalists gain”. If nationalists make gains, they would have an increased mandate for independence.
“When the other side are imperialist in their attitude, you can either back off, back down, or you can up the ante,” purrs Salmond, swirling his glass of Puglian rosé wine. “Politics is a science but it is also an art, and you need to be able to paint the weather. If you want sunshine, you must paint the sun.”
He is no longer the force he once was in Scottish politics, after a calamitous falling out with his successor Sturgeon and damage to his reputation from his 2020 criminal trial. Salmond was charged with sexual assault but was found not guilty on all 13 counts, which he insisted were “deliberate fabrications for a political purpose”. His supporters insist people tried to “do him in”.
If they did, they failed. He survived those travails and is now on the comeback trail, trying to build Alba into a new force. The flash of mischief in his eyes, old wry fluidity in his patter and acerbic jabs aimed at his opponents suggest that even at 68 Salmond retains the stomach for this fight. The old dog also has new tricks.
The unmistakable logic behind his new pact gambit lies in recent polls that show a decoupling of support for the SNP and independence. Amid the post-Sturgeon circus that engulfed the SNP, that party’s support has slipped to below 40 per cent, yet independence is still riding high at close to 50 per cent.
“That shows people are thinking about the principle of independence, even though the SNP is going through an exceptionally rough time,” says Salmond
He argues that, in such circumstances, splitting the independence vote in the first-past-the-post Westminster system makes no sense. He wants pro-independence candidates to stand aside for each other to protect their existing seats — Alba has two MPs, both SNP defectors. Then let the parties carve up the rest for attack, with each competing under its own name and also the banner of Scotland United for Independence.
He has proposed the plan to the SNP’s new leader, Humza Yousaf, but has yet to get a reply. This week, he also wrote directly to the SNP’s 45 MPs, close to half of whom could lose their seats to Labour next year if recent polling is right.
Salmond quotes 18th-century English writer Samuel Johnson — no admirer of the Scots, whom he dismissed as “barbarous people” — to sell his logic that SNP MPs in danger of losing their seats should take note of what he is proposing: “When a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.”
He has a further warning for Yousaf, a protege of Sturgeon’s whose nascent leadership could come under strain if, as expected, the SNP takes a mauling in the next election. “Humza’s leadership could be dangling, not in a fortnight, but in a year. If he loses [an upcoming byelection in] Rutherglen and loses 20 seats to Labour, he could be remembered as Humza the Brief.”
The SNP and Greens have so far shown no love for Salmond’s proposal. But if the pact was accepted and electorally successful and Scotland returned yet another overwhelming majority of pro-independence MPs to London, Salmond says it would give Yousaf as first minister a mandate to go there and demand another independence vote.
“In politics, success can have many authors. But failure only has one and that would be him. But if the plan works, Humza could be the success. He would have swept all before him. He wouldn’t have to worry about me, or Nicola Sturgeon, or anyone else. If you make your party successful, you can laugh at anybody.”
There is another intriguing subplot to Salmond’s proposal. Conventional wisdom in Westminster holds that if Keir Starmer’s Labour is to wring out an overall majority, it must make serious gains in Scotland. But what if, by buttressing the nationalist vote through a bloc pact, the Scots deny Labour an overall UK majority and force a hung parliament? That could truly give Scottish nationalists the leverage to demand a new vote as the price for helping Labour.
Salmond alludes to this possibility but is loath to be too explicit about it. In politics, he says, you must never campaign for a hung parliament.
“If your maths are wrong, you are left high and dry. Campaign for what you believe in. There is a difference between saying if a hung parliament arises, it will be to our benefit, and then saying that is what we are campaigning for. It is not what you are campaigning for. Campaign on an objective, independence, not the means.”
He says It is true that if you “hold the balance, you hold the power”.
But power can be a dangerous thing. It’s like a hot poker. You can ram it up your opponents’ nether regions. But you can also burn your fingers.”
There is another school of thought, which holds that Salmond knows well that his proposal will never be accepted by the SNP. Perhaps he is seeking to pre-emptively shift the blame to the SNP for splitting the nationalist vote. His two MPs, Kenny McAskill and Neale Hanvey, are also both potentially vulnerable in the next election with small majorities, and a pact could save their seats on the back of SNP votes.
Salmond denies he is making a proposal to Yousaf that he knows must be rebuffed. Why would Yousaf, a young leader who is already struggling to gain the authority, give influence to Salmond, a wily operator who could easily overshadow him in the run-up to the 2026 Scottish parliament elections?
Holyrood, and not Westminster, is the real power base for Scottish politics. Salmond, and also Ahmed-Sheikh, appear to have their eyes on 2026. He insists Alba could win up to 24 seats in that devolved poll, which would be impressive considering the party has yet to win a seat anywhere.
If in the meantime, the SNP surprises everybody and goes for his Westminster pact next year, could Salmond himself fancy a run at being an MP again? He doesn’t rule it out — his old Banff and Buchan constituency is among the 10 unionist seats that would be up for nationalist grabs under the plan.
“If this is successful, you’d want people with ability and experience. You’ve got to be precise about what you want, and also how you will get it.”