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Holyrood 2021: Day Two
What does the Ecksit Party mean for nationalism?
I said yesterday I would only write these on days when something interesting caught my eye. I think today’s launch of the Ecksit Party counts as an interesting day. If only because it has been fun watching London-based political journalists ask why Alex Salmond has named his new party after a stereo bought from Argos.
I have only met Alex Salmond once. It was a while after the 2014 referendum and I was going down to the Scottish Parliament canteen. The former First Minister, also alone, was waiting for the lift to the SNP floor. I smiled and said something like “Hi, how are you?” and kept walking. As I walked away from him he called after me “I hear you’re advising the Remain campaign.” I turned and said something like, “Oh, not really, just had a couple of meetings” and went to move off again. “Because I heard that and bought shares in Leave!” he said. I burst out laughing and went to get my mac 'n' cheese.
I’ve always found it a little sad that a man who achieved such big things in his life is so small. It was no surprise then that Salmond would launch a vanity party to continue his campaign of revenge against his former protégé Nicola Sturgeon. What one wag christened The Ecksit Party.
There has been lots of chatter about what this means for the likelihood of a Scexit supporting majority. Some believe it will help secure that. Some think it’s bad news for Labour who are seeking second votes from soft SNP voters (though I’m not sure how many of those voters in the middle find Salmond palatable). Many think it’s bad news for the Greens who had been mooted as potential coalition partners for Sturgeon.
For me, all this statistical scenario strategizing misses the point. Any return to Parliament by Salmond makes his influence endemic to nationalist politics. Just imagine a nationalist majority secured only with the help of a small group of Salmond’s MSPs. In such an outcome the victory would literally be contaminated (adjective, having been made impure by exposure to or addition of a poisonous or polluting substance). Here’s why.
Firstly, the grudge match between Sturgeon and her mentor would run and run. Imagine Salmond’s questions at FMQs. Given where the polls were just a few weeks ago, I think any failure to win an outright SNP majority starts a clock ticking on the end of Sturgeon’s leadership regardless of the Salmond factor. Alongside a smug return from a man who still speaks for a substantial minority of her party and her jaiket is on a shoogly peg.
Secondly, it would mean that the vote had been explicitly gamed by nationalists, making it easier, especially if it is a low-turnout election, to dismiss demands for an immediate referendum.
Third, while this is the launch of a new party, it will likely be viewed as an internal SNP family row. I found the SNP reaction to Alex Salmond’s launch remarkable. The same people who, long after alleged inappropriate behaviour had taken place, cheered him and lauded him as a hero, now say there are “real questions about the appropriateness of a return to public life.” But of course, as I have written, nobody in the SNP knew anything about that.
Voters don’t follow the punditry about AMS or the D'Hondt method. They do understand that divided parties can’t be trusted to govern effectively in the national interest.
Finally, and most worryingly for the SNP, an SNP government relying on Salmond’s support would see her dragged to the nationalist extremes over and over. Not just in an election but for the whole parliament that follows. Nicola Sturgeon has already been forced by her impatient party to commit to the unpopular position of seeking another referendum in the next two years. Something, as I wrote yesterday, she chose to avoid talking about as she launched her campaign.
Even if his party crashes and burns under the weight of his own ego, Alex Salmond’s presence in the debate may force Nicola Sturgeon to talk more and more to her base, and less and less to the middle.
That opens up all sorts of opportunities for her opponents.