The following article by Allan Armstrong (RCF) provides an analysis of the Alba Party and the response of the Left in Scotland.


Confusion in the ranks of Alba or Abla contributes to confusion on the Left


The public emergence of the Alba Party on 26th March has led to considerable political confusion on the Left as to its political significance and nature. This is a contribution to further open up this debate. It will be related to the Left’s more marginal role today than during the 2012-14 ‘IndyRef1’ campaign. The second part will look to see how Alba fares in  the May 6th Holyrood election.

The Left’s weakness today is demonstrated by the almost complete absence of any electoral intervention in the Holyrood election on May 6th. The Scottish Socialist Party (SSP) is not standing, nor the now defunct RISE and Solidarity. Therefore, as electoral non-participants, some Socialists have tried to discern, in either the SNP or Alba, surrogate vehicles for their particular political projects. However, despite promoting their own particular economic, social (and sometimes environmental) ‘niche markets’, such Socialists provide no independent political alternative to the SNP or Alba’s versions of Scottish self-determination. Some hope that one or both of these parties can first lead the struggle for political independence. They argue this will then provide them with the opportunity to advance their economic, social and environmental projects in a new Scotland.

There is no historical precedent for a nationalist party, which has achieved state independence, paving the way for a Socialist advance. Instead, such parties have used their power to turn on the exploited and oppressed within their new states. This is done to consolidate their position as representatives of a new ruling class, sometimes in alliance with sections of the national movement’s former opponents. Three examples are post-apartheid South Africa, post-independence India and post-Treaty Ireland. The SNP leadership, unlike the right wing of Sinn Fein in 1921, does not plan a ‘counter-revolution within the democratic revolution’ to create its new ‘Free State’.  Instead, they intend to do everything possible to pre-empt any democratic revolution. This way they can bring about their desired Scottish Free State under the Crown and firmly within the current global order. Building up a new Scottish ruling class, prior to the creation of their proposed ‘Indy-Lite’ Scotland, is a key feature of the SNP leadership’s politics.

There are two Socialist exceptions to this abstention from electoral participation on May 6th. These are the Left unionist, Communist Party of Britain (CPB) and the economistic, Trade Union and Socialist Coalition (TUSC). They are both standing candidates. Although they are less prone than some others on the Left in Scotland to having illusions in either the SNP or Alba, the CPB and TUSC have their own illusions about the nature of the UK state. They have overestimated the possibilities of trade union-backed, social democratic reform of this state with its profoundly anti-democratic Crown Powers and have underplayed the state’s wider all-islands unionist nature.

This was highlighted by the CPB’s and TUSC’s own support for Jeremy Corbyn and a hoped for Left Labour government, backed by Leftist trade union officials, such as ‘British jobs for British workers’ supporter, UNITE general secretary, Len McCluskey. They strongly backed the Labour Party in the 2017 and 2019 Westminster general elections. In both of these, Corbyn opposed the exercise of Scottish self-determination. In relation to Northern Ireland/Ireland, Labour’s 2019 election manifesto looked no further than re-establishing the Stormont Executive. These policies on Scotland and Northern Ireland were also supported by Boris Johnson and his Right populist Tories.

The possibility of a Left social democratic-led UK government has collapsed in the aftermath of the 2019 Westminster general election, and Corbyn’s  easy replacement by neo-Blairite, Sir Keir Starmer. However, some of the CPB’s close allies in the Labour Left, Campaign for Socialism (CfS) in Scotland were already looking to another Westminster arena – the House of Lords. Corbyn nominated Pauline Bryan (editor of Class, Nation and Socialism: The Red Paper on Scotland – 2013) who became Baroness of Partick in 2018. After the 2019 election, she was followed by Katy Clark, CfS supporter and an ex-MP, who became Baroness of Kilwinning in 2020. However, Corbyn’s close ally and McCluskey’s partner, Karie Murphy, failed to get into the House of Lords to join the others in this ‘democratic bastion’ of struggle!

Some on the Labour Left seem to have greater illusions in the UK set-up, based on the sovereignty of the Crown in Westminster, than Johnson’s incumbent Tory government. The latter fully appreciates the need for the UK ‘sacred’ institutions to be changed the better to suit British ruling class needs. This means ‘rewriting’ the unwritten constitution as they go along. They want to ‘bring back {more} control’ for themselves in their increasingly authoritarian Brexit Britain.

1. The longer term background to the emergence of Alba

The political significance of the emergence of Alba cannot be separated from the shock to the British ruling class of the impact 2012-14 ‘IndyRef1’ campaign; the consequent and unforeseen mainstreaming of Scottish independence as a political issue; the emergence of the SNP as the majority Scottish party at Westminster in 2015; coupled to the SNP leadership’s subsequent inability to achieve ‘IndyRef2’. This has been a significant contributory factor in the emergence of Alba. Alba has come up with a ‘magic bullet’ to win independence – force the Tory government at Westminster to concede ‘IndyRef2’ by gaming Holyrood’s electoral system and winning a ‘super majority’ on May 6th.

Alba’s candidates have also been testing out various ways of finding new support, based on both actual and dog whistle transphobia, homophobia, racism and anti-English chauvinism. Nevertheless, any significant electoral breakthrough probably more depends on Alba’s ‘super majority’ appeal, something emphasised by its Left supporters like George Kerevan. This is also what seems to have motivated and initially won over SNP councillor, Austin Sheridan, before closer scrutiny and disgust at Alba’s transphobia and homophobia, quickly forced him to change his mind and resign.

However others, more distant from the leading personnel in Alba, may still be swayed by the ‘super majority’ argument. They may not personally support or may ignore Alba’s reactionary elements. Many Scottish electors in the recent past have also overlooked individual SNP candidates’ reactionary stances, prioritising instead their support for independence , e.g. John Mason (MSP since 2011) and Neale Hanvey (MP since 2019), who has now found a more congenial home in Alba.

As a breakaway from the SNP, Alba remains another constitutional Scottish nationalist party. Both the SNP and Alba downplay the nature of the UK state with its profoundly anti-democratic Crown Powers. They don’t have quite as many illusions as the Left unionists, but as constitutional nationalists they tend to concentrate their critical attentions on particular features of the UK state, such as Westminster and the BBC.

One reason for this is that these two parties hope to develop their own power on the basis of accepting Holyrood as the devolved offspring of the Crown-in-Westminster. They want to retain key aspects of the UK state, including some of its disciplinary powers. They would also use their anticipated incumbent position at Holyrood, at the time of any future independence declaration, to draw up a new constitution with the minimum involvement of the people of Scotland. An interim Constituent Assembly, based on the sovereignty of the people, does not figure in their plans.

Therefore, as with the SNP leadership’s ‘Indy-Lite’ campaign between 2012-14, any future extra-parliamentary action, even if accepted by Salmond and Alba, will be within the confines of their own narrow independence aims. Alba hasn’t even managed to find a token trade union official, never mind a trade union activist, as a candidate. But like the SNP had previously, Alba also has an ex-Tory (Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh), lawyers (e.g. Kenny MacAskill), business leaders (e.g, company director, Cynthia Guthrie) and self-declared careerists (e.g. Eva Comrie)[1]Alex Salmond’s Alba Party unveils full list of candidates as ex-MP confirms Holyrood bid.

Nor can the emergence of Alba be separated from the thwarting of the political prospects of the SNP leadership’s ‘internationalism from above’ alliance. This involved a hoped for liberal unionist-led, remainder of the UK (rUK),  EU bureaucracy and US backing to advance their ‘Indy-Lite’ cause. Even during ‘IndyRef1’ this was shown to lack much credibility, but today the SNP’s path to ‘IndyRef2’ is clearly blocked. Right populism[2]THE CONTINUING SHIFT TO THE RIGHT IN THE TRANSITION FROM NEO-LIBERALISM TO RIGHT POPULISM and reactionary unionism have come to dominate UK politics in the aftermath of Brexit. Nor is the EU bureaucracy going to publicly support Scottish independence (not at least until it actually happens), as its attitude to Catalunya shows. Furthermore, the current political direction of the EU is towards a greater Eurosceptic Right populism, based on a hardened ethnic and racist nationalism within its existing member states, and the suppression of non-state nations, national minorities, migrants and asylum seekers. However, Boris Johnson’s (and Nigel Farage’s) earlier hopes in ‘America First’/‘Britain Second’, under Donald Trump’s presidency, now have to give way before Joe Biden’s revived wider US global imperial ambitions. He wants to rebuild bridges with the EU. The UK state will become more confined to a military support role, as the most loyal member of NATO, instead of acting as the US’s key ally in the EU as it did prior to Brexit.

With the SNP leadership having reached an international impasse, Alba represents a narrower nationalist accommodation to the emergence of Brexit Britain. Adapting to, and not challenging the UK’s wider politics, Alba wants Scottish politics to abandon key elements of the civic national, internationalist, rainbow alliance which made up the ‘IndyRef1’ campaign. And, unlike the SNP’s consistent but fading hopes in international appeals to socially liberal and economically neo-liberal governments and parties, Alba has no such consistent international links. Salmond’s resort to state-backed Russia Today is an indication of weakness in this regard. Putin has other political dupes, Right and ‘Left’ in Europe. He would just as soon back George Galloway’s unionism if it was more advantageous to the Russian state and to his own political interests.

Alba is tentatively testing out a more ethnic Scottish nationalist approach, partially shown in their party’s choice of name. This involves adopting a more ancient Scottish identity associated with a language, which few of its members or the people of Scotland speak today. Alba would not be recognised as the nation’s name by the majority of people currently living in Scotland. This language hijacking ill serves Gaelic speakers, or other language speakers, including Scots, Polish, Chinese, Urdu and Punjabi, who make up a greater or similar numbers of speakers in Scotland[3]Languages of Scotland
. A Scots English lingua franca (not the queen’s English) would best suit an inclusive Scottish nation’s language needs, with a similar requirement for Gaelic in an agreed Gàidhealtachd. But there should also be provision for other language speakers to be taught supplementary languages, and there should be provision for those who have not yet mastered the lingua franca in their dealings with the state.

2. The ‘IndyRef1’ campaign background

Back in 2013, the British unionist backed, Scottish Independence Referendum Act had been designed to slow down any post-1998, ‘New Unionist’, ‘Devolution-all-round’ momentum, which was not under the direct control of the government of the day. The unionists hoped that the expected large ‘No’ vote would act as a slap-down for the SNP. After 2007, the SNP had become the dominant party at Holyrood, although still a distant third at Westminster. Despite being an avowedly constitutional nationalist party, working to Westminster’s rules, the unionist parties saw the SNP, led by the annoyingly cocky Alex Salmond, as a potentially threatening competitor for the spoils of office.  He first led a minority government (2007-2011), then a majority Scottish government (from 2011).

Yet Salmond’s SNP represented no real threat to the wider existing social and economic order. He had been as much, or even more committed to a version of the neo-liberalism promoted by most social democrats internationally, as Gordon Brown and New Labour. Any mild social democratic reforms were to come as trickle down benefits of a buoyant finance sector. Labour chancellor, Brown promoted the interests of the City, whilst Salmond confined himself to promoting the interests of the Scottish banks, which were also firmly under City of London control. Salmond enjoyed a close relationship with Sir George Mathewson, then CEO of the Royal Bank of Scotland. And if New Labour had such prominent ultra neo-liberals as Peter Mandelson, Royal Mail privatisation promoter and Sir David Freud, key government advisor and Universal Credit pioneer; then the SNP had John Swinney, flat rate tax supporter, and Michael Russell, advocate for East Asian levels of government supported social welfare.

The increasingly professional SNP had advanced through the Scottish institutions of the UK state – its local councils and Holyrood – something which provided it with patronage. After its 2011 Holyrood electoral victory, the SNP leadership dangled the prospect of a junior managerial buyout of UK Ltd before the eyes of business leaders and state officials in Scotland. But in the event of SNP-style ‘Indy-Lite’, this would go along with a continued engagement with the rUK state, the EU and the US policed world order.

But for the British ruling class, and the three mainstream unionist parties, there wasn’t room for another ‘shareholder’ in their political and economic order. This was especially the case, following the 2008 Crash, as the UK threatened to fall further down the global imperial hierarchy. The opinion polls in 2012 suggested there was going to be a resounding ‘No’ vote in any independence referendum. This contributed to these unionist parties’ decision to back the referendum .

3. The untold story and rolling back the ‘democratic revolution’

But things didn’t turn out as anticipated. The unforeseen factor was the emergence of a mass autonomous movement for Scottish independence. This lay beyond the disciplinary powers of the British unionist parties and the constitutional nationalist SNP. This is the missing feature in most analyses of the current political situation in Scotland and the wider UK. Ever since the September 18th, 2014 referendum result and the SNP’s sensational 2015 Westminster general election triumph, the mainstream media has overwhelmingly focussed on the parliamentary stand-offs at Holyrood and Westminster between the SNP and the mainstream unionist parties. But the untold story has been that of the mass movement.

This movement was confronted with continuous attempts by both the unionist parties and the SNP to bottle up the ‘IndyRef1’ ‘democratic revolution’. This saw an unprecedented 97% register to vote, and 85% actually voting in Scotland. A vibrant civic national movement stretched out to residents from the other nations of these islands including those from England and further afield, and to a rainbow alliance of BAME and LGBT people. Its strongest support came from the working class. A whole host of autonomous groups acted independently of the SNP and organised to counter the BBC’s highly partisan media coverage. The wider Yes Movement had its own online media. It also organised public political, social and cultural activities the length and breadth of Scotland and beyond.

The recent declaration of Alba, however, represents the latest attempt to forget this history and to construct a distorted memory of the legacy of ‘IndyRef1’.   And, like Jim Sillar’s old Scottish Labour Party (SLP)(1976-81), or Tommy Sheridan’s post-2006 Solidarity, now abandoned, Alex Salmond’s Alba is very much its leader’s vanity party. For those prepared to overlook Salmond’s neo-liberal and socially conservative record (e.g. over abortion rights), and his own sexist and bullying behaviour, he is held up as the leader who presided over the rise of the independence support from 28-32% in 2012 to 45% in 2014. But, despite cheeky Salmond’s undoubted political ability to outshine turgid unionist politicians at Westminster and in the media, if the independence campaign had stuck to his original script, then it is doubtful whether support for independence would have risen to or much beyond 40%.

The last thing Salmond or the SNP leadership were considering in 2012 was a mass campaign outside of their control. This could threaten their Scottish business backing. Therefore, conservative forces had to be appeased – the UK’s constitutional order based on the Crown-in-Westminster, the City of London, the British High Command, but in particular the US state. Salmond decided that support for NATO had to be very publicly flagged up to underline the SNP’s full acceptance of the US state-dominated global order, backed by its junior imperial partner, the UK state. Support for sterling as the future Scottish currency was meant to appease the most powerful section of the British ruling class linked to the City of London, and their Royal Bank and Bank of Scotland subordinates.

But there are also some on the Scottish Left[4]James Foley – Source Direct: The Spectre at the Feast, who although they question Salmond’s suitability as the Alba’s leader, talk up the Leftist credentials of Kenny MacAskill and by implication others from the SNP’s former 79 Group, e.g. Jim Sillars and Alex Neil. Yet these individuals were even more central to Salmond’s attempt to run a ‘don’t frighten the horses’ campaign back in 2012, than others on the stridently neo-liberal wing of the party. All those former 79 Group members played a prominent part in selling the ditching of opposition to NATO membership at Salmond’s specially convened SNP conference in October 2012, organised to highlight the arrival of the ‘New SNP’; just as the one-time ‘Left’ Labour leaders, Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling, had helped Tony Blair to ditch support for Clause 4 in 1995 to consolidate New Labour. The longstanding, socially conservative,  climate change denying, Atlanticist Jim Sillars (ex-Labour, ex-SLP, then SNP member) had even suggested an acceptance of Trident to win US backing.

And the top-down bureaucratic control of the SNP is not some recent product of Nicola Sturgeon and her partner, the party’s CEO, Peter Murrell. It was through Salmond that Sturgeon first met Murrell. Later, Murrell was central to the Salmond-fronted 2007 and 2011 Holyrood election campaigns. At the October 2012 party conference, Salmond and Murrell used the party machine to ditch opposition to NATO. Murrell resorted to the well-honed technique of threatening to block political careers, in an attempt to silence any internal opposition. However, the conference did not go quite as planned, with only a narrow pro-NATO majority, and the resignation of MSPs, councillors and many members. But Murrell still remained at the centre of Salmond’s efforts to maintain a stranglehold over Yes Scotland.

Yes Scotland, launched in May 2012, was always a top-down SNP leadership controlled campaign[5]Tale no. 1 – the launch of the SNP’s Yes campaign. The Scottish Greens and Scottish Socialist Party were added for decorative purposes. It was quite clear that, in the event of a ‘Yes’ majority, Yes Scotland would be quickly wound up. Salmond and the rest of the SNP leadership had plans to join up with their recent Scottish unionist adversaries in the Labour, Tory and Lib-Dem parties in order to form a joint Scottish negotiating team with the UK government. Their approach was always based on recognition of the sovereignty of the Crown-in-Westminster. Any new Scottish state arising from this process would have been decidedly ‘Indy-Lite.’

Neither the wider Yes Movement, nor the official Salmond-led Yes Scotland, won the referendum on September 18th, 2014, but the unionists’ ‘No victory’ was decidedly pyrrhic. The only people publicly celebrating were the British Loyalists and neo-Fascists, who went on a rampage the next night in Glasgow’s George Square. This had been the ‘Tahrir Square’ of the Yes Movement in an independence voting city.

The unionists’ Better Together liberal mask was dropped on the night of the ‘No victory’. David Cameron quickly turned to a conservative, Eurosceptic appeal for “English votes for English laws”. In order to bury Brown’s last minute ‘federal vow’. Cameron appointed Lord Smith to preside over a commission. This was designed to lead to minimal further devolutionary concessions. These were finally implemented under the Scotland Act of March 2016.

Horrified by the SNP’s unprecedented Westminster victory in May 2015, when they won  56 out of 59 Scottish MPs, the Scottish Tories and the more panicked sections of Scottish Labour in the Central Belt (particularly in Glasgow and North Ayrshire), began to make overtures to the Orange Order. And after the 2016 Scottish council elections, Labour went into a ‘Bitter Together’ open coalition with the Tories in Aberdeen and made a behind the scenes deal to keep out the SNP in West Lothian.

Meanwhile, the main job of the SNP leadership was also to rein in the 2012-14 ‘democratic revolution’, albeit in their own constitutional nationalist way. A seamless, election-less transition was made from Alex Salmond as party leader to Nicola Sturgeon on 20th November 2014, at a 12,000 strong rally held in Glasgow’s SSE Hydro. This followed the organisers’ careful choreography – the anointment of ‘St. Nicola’, and the attempted round-up of previously non-SNP independence supporters into the SNP’s centrally directed and well-oiled political machine.

4. Social democracy and Scottish independence in the SNP under Salmond and Sturgeon.

However, the pressure of the autonomous Yes Movement, during the ‘IndyRef1’ campaign, meant that the SNP leadership needed to polish up its social democratic image. Under Salmond’s leadership from 2004, (following the electoral breakthrough by the SSP, Scottish Greens and some independents in 2003, when the SNP had been led by the overtly neo-liberal John Swinney), Salmond had stepped up his long-term attempt to convert the SNP from a Right/Left populist alliance into a social democratic party. This was made much easier by the very low bar of reforms set by that doyen of the new social democracy in Great Britain – New Labour.

Indeed, as New Labour, under Tony Blair and later Gordon Brown, proceeded to tear up Labour’s post-1945 welfare state legacy, Salmond astutely realised that all the SNP had to do was defend key aspects of what already existed; especially in the NHS (with the ‘National’ becoming less British and more Scottish); and those mild social democratic reforms introduced by the first Labour/Lib-Dem Scottish coalition government. He was further assisted by Scottish Labour leader, Johann Lamont, after the 2008 Crash. She followed the lead of Scottish-British unionist Labour chancellor, Alistair Darling, and through the well-named Midwinter Review, prepared to undermine some of these reforms.

And after the international Left’s failure to halt the Second Iraq War, accentuated in Scotland by the effect of ‘Tommygate’, Salmond made  his strong opposition to this war known, and he reined in the SNP’s more overtly neo-liberal politicians. With the help of Sir George Mathewson, he drew up a mild social democratic manifesto for the 2007 Holyrood election. This election brought about the SNP’s breakthrough, but they could only form a minority government. Yet this also benefitted Salmond’s and the SNP leadership’s longer term project of building a new Scottish ruling class over an extended period of time. Not having an overall majority, they did not have to introduce an independence bill to Holyrood. This meant the SNP minority government could act as a safe enough pair of hands to win over more from Scottish business and devolved public officials.

But when Sturgeon, possibly the sharpest politician in the UK, became the SNP’s leader in 2014, she appreciated that, following the earlier SNP leadership’s initially unwanted but then partially accepted turn to the Left by the wider ‘IndyRef1’ campaign, that a few additional social democrat style ‘promises’ were now needed. However, Sturgeon remained firmly within the political limits already set by Salmond, and followed by others such as MacAskill, secretary of state for justice, and Alex Neil, minister of housing then secretary of state for health, when they were in office between 2007-14. They all ensured that any proposed reforms would not challenge the Scottish establishment – legal, landed and property – or the bureaucracies running the NHS and SED (including the ever-failing Scottish Qualification Agency) wedded to market managerial methods, and with their close links to business interests.

However, by the time Sturgeon became SNP leader, the growing awareness of the problems associated with climate change, and the continued presence of Scottish Greens in Holyrood (after the demise of the Socialist presence in 2007), meant some minimalist outreach also had to be made to those showing environmental concerns. Sturgeon initially hoped that a moratorium on fracking would be sufficient to buy off opposition, but the SNP government had to be further pushed into a Holyrood ban in 2016.

But, on the issue that concerned SNP activists most – Independence – Sturgeon stuck firmly to the post-September 18th, 2014 referendum course set by Salmond. Upon his resignation as party leader, Salmond stated that, “We now have the opportunity to hold Westminster’s feet to the fire on the ‘vow’”. But the Smith Commission and Cameron’s 2016 Scotland Act ensured there was no fire, only the dying embers of liberal unionism. And the next challenge to the conservative unionism, now shared by Tories, Lib-Dems and Labour, was not going to come from a now dead liberal unionism, but from a reactionary unionism tied to a rising Right populism.

But this only came to a head in the context of the EU referendum and its aftermath. During  the 2015 Westminster general election campaign in England, Cameron’s Tories were able to out-unionist, out-anti-migrant and out-Eurosceptic the woeful Ed Miliband-led Labour election campaign. The Tories won an unanticipated overall UK majority, which meant that they had to hold another referendum, this time on continued EU membership. But Cameron’s new ‘Project Fear’ was now not facing down ‘Project Hope’ as in ‘IndyRef1’, but the Right populist, Brexiteers’ ‘Project Hate’.

As a consequence, following the 2016 Brexit vote, reactionary unionists have increasingly displaced conservative unionists throughout the UK.  They had already achieved this in Northern Ireland, when the DUP displaced the conservative unionist, Ulster Unionist Party as the majority party at Stormont as far back as 2003. They wiped them out at Westminster in 2017, with the  Loyalist Belfast riots, starting in 2012, being an intermediary accelerating factor.

The SNP’s partial electoral setbacks at the 2016 Holyrood and 2017 Westminster elections initially took some of the pressure off Sturgeon in the wider national movement. The SNP leadership was keen to get back to Salmond’s old strategy of wooing business support to build up a new Scottish ruling class. Extra-parliamentary mobilisations were seen a threats to this. Instead, Sturgeon initiated the Sustainable Growth Commission, headed by Angus Wilson, one of the SNP’s most neo-liberal figures and former MSP (1999-2003). He was head of Charlotte Street Partners, a business consultancy agency, which had been employed in early 2017 by Scottish FE college principals in attempt to undermine a nationally negotiated pay and conditions settlement[6]REVEALED: COLLEGES SCOTLAND HIRE SECRETIVE SNP-LINKED LOBBYISTS IN BATTLE AGAINST LECTURERS. Meanwhile, ordinary SNP members were told to go out an persuade enough unionists to support independence until the numbers reached 60%.

5. The initial extra-parliamentary pressure on the SNP leadership and the first opposition to a civic national approach to independence

From late 2014, the only real opposition to the cautious SNP leadership strategy over independence came from the Independistas of the ‘We are the 45’ wing of Scottish nationalism (invoking both the ‘IndyRef1’ Yes % vote, and a Scottish nostalgia associated with another ‘glorious defeat’ – the last Jacobite Rebellion from 1745-6). But only such nationalists thought that campaigning for independence in 2014 and 2015  was a good idea in the aftermath of the ‘No’ vote. However, in 2016, when every constituency in Scotland voted to remain in the EU in the referendum (nationally 62% to 38%), the SNP leadership began to face growing restlessness. The unionists’ broken ‘vow’ to keep Scotland in the EU now provided a good reason to return to a demand for Scottish independence.

Instead, the SNP leadership hoped to get a Northern Ireland-style deal with the EU for Scotland within the UK. This was accompanied by overtures to the Welsh Labour-led Senedd to help ameliorate Brexit.  Sturgeon also addressed  the liberal Remainers’ Peoples Vote London rally in March 2019.  Meanwhile, Corbyn in his attempts to ward off the Labour Remain Right unwittingly prepared the ground for a Tory Right, Hard Brexit.  The EU leadership could see the way UK politics were developing. They became more concerned about making their own deal with an increasingly likely Brexit Britain. However, so long as the UK remained a member state,  the SNP leaders were largely side-lined, apart from the occasional flattery.   But EU side-lining has also been the case for the Irish government, which is in a relatively peripheral  member state. The EU bureaucracy is based on an inner core of states with Germany and France at the centre. They have tried to pursue their own interests over Covid-19, potentially undermining the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) and the Johnson government/EU Protocol over Ireland made on 24th December 2020.

The unionist Right has used the wider all-UK Brexit vote to consolidate its own position at a UK level. The EU bureaucracy, based on its joint member states’ relative economic strength, has had a stronger bidding hand in negotiations than the UK government; but Ireland represents a weak spot, since its economy is more dependent on the UK than the other way round.  And in their commitment to ‘bring back control’ to the British ruling class, the Right populists began to marginalise the very institutions of the UK state – the devolved Holyrood and local councils – which the SNP leadership saw as essential to promoting its version of Scottish independence. This was later highlighted  by the Internal Market Act (IMA) of December 2020 (which also threatened the GFA in Ireland). Thus, far from seeing visible progress, independence supporters saw growing retreats.

The SNP’ leadership’s inability to move any closer to ‘IndyRef2’  provided a political space  for a section of the ‘We are the 45’ Independistas to establish All Under One Banner (AUOB). AUOB began to organise large marches in 2018, starting with Glasgow (35,000), then Dumfries (1200) Bannockburn (8000), Inverness (7500), Dundee (16,000) and Edinburgh (100,000) (all numbers according to police estimates[7]All Under One Banner
). These marches were overwhelmingly in the tradition of ‘IndyRef1’, attracting very diverse crowds. Although the nationalist saltire was very much in evidence, Irish, Welsh. English, Catalan, Basque, Palestinian, EU and many other flags, as well as those from the LGBT rainbow alliance, were welcomed and added to the colourful spectacle.

The organisers, mainly SNP members or close supporters, excluded nobody. This though, provided Soil nan Gaidheal (Seed of the Gael), a far Right ethnic Scottish nationalist organisation, with an opportunity to try to establish a foothold on the AUOB demos. Their usual anti-English chauvinism would not go unchallenged, so they resorted to a ‘Tory Scum’ banner. Such a banner, which could well have been held by the Left on a march in England, had other connotations in Scotland, where the ‘Tory’ might be associated with the English. Such ambiguous populism, with psuedo-Leftist slogans, act as a cover for Rightist dog whistle attacks.

The leading members of another organisation, Scottish Resistance, including Sean Clerkin, originally came not from the Right, but were once in the SSP (and departed along with other more nationalist members at the time of ‘Tommygate’). Clerkin made headlines after forcing the then Scottish Labour leader, Iain Gray into a humiliating retreat into a sandwich bar during the 2011 Holyrood election campaign[8]A decade of disruption: A profile of freelance agitator Sean Clerkin
. Since the 2014 ‘No’ vote though, Clerkin has slid into a more ambiguous Scottish populism and anti-English chauvinism[9]Campaigner Sean Clerkin takes protest to the skies inspired by Rangers fans’ title 55 banner. He displayed an ‘England Get Out of Scotland’ banner outside the 2018 SNP conference in Edinburgh. Yet it is the UK state that rules Scotland. The UK has had Scottish prime ministers (as recently as 2010), a Welsh as well as English prime ministers, and many Scots have served and continue to serve British unionist and imperial interests.

A consciously anti-Left and clearly Right populist pressure also came with Stuart Campbell’s widely read Wings Over Scotland. This has been influential in pulling more nationalists over to the Right. Campbell had once been a Lib-Dem supporter, but later moved rapidly further across the Right wing spectrum. His Wee Blue Book had proved influential during ‘IndyRef1’ in countering unionist anti-independence propaganda. However, his Wings Over Scotland blog is openly misogynistic, racist and dismissive of the Gaelic language.  It has been described by Murray Foote, ex-Daily Record editor and later SNP spin doctor, as “a brand of nationalism that seeks to peddle falsehoods and unfounded allegations against anyone who isn’t a believer.”[10]Stuart Campbell (game journalist)

But as yet, Rightist forces were marginal. AUOB continued to organise its marches in 2019 in Glasgow (35,000), Galashiels (5000), Oban (7000), Ayr (10,000), Campbelltown (1000), Aberdeen (12,000), Perth (15,000) and Edinburgh (50,000), culminating in a march in Glasgow (80,000) on the incredibly wet day of January 11th 2020. The SNP had 3 won out of 6 MEPs (up 1) in the June 2019 Euro-election and in the December 2019, Westminster election won back 13 of the the 21 MPs lost in 2017. This gave them a total of 48 out of 59 Scottish MPs. But this just further highlighted the continued impotence of the SNP leadership when it came to shifting the UK government.

AUOB held its first open national meeting in February 2020.  Covid-19 prevented further organising. Dissatisfaction soon arose over the SNP government”s handling of Covid-19, seen by many independence  supporters as being too tied to the Johnson’s UK government’s criminal mishandling of the pandemic. Further concern arose when Sturgeon’s appointed an Advisory Group on Economic Recovery after Covid-19. It was headed by Benny Higgins, CEO of Tesco Banking and Chair of Buccleugh Estates Ltd, a major  Scottish landlord with a poor record in its treatment of tenants. But when it came to two crucial STUC supported amendments to the Government’s Coronavirus (Scotland) Bill in May, opposed by the SNP government and the Tory MSPs, Alex Neil MSP, a Salmond supporter, just absented himself from the vote. It was only in  December 2020 that Salmond and Neil wrote their own Covid-19 Recovery Strategy paper, knowing that, unlike the earlier Holyrood vote, this involved no commitment to anything immediate.

But  just  before this,  AUOB launched its planned new umbrella organisation called YesAlba (the name’s possible future significance possibly only being known to its innermost members) which met online on 22.11.20[11]Report: AUOB Assembly 22/11/20. A minority Rightist and anti-Left, ‘independence first’ grouping emerged, which was hostile to raising any immediate economic and social demands. They made little impact. Furthermore, the Objects of the proposed YesAlba (soon to become Now Scotland, after Gaelic activists put on pressure to drop the name) were very much based on the civic national inclusive criteria of ‘Indy Ref1’ campaign – “an inclusive citizenship which embraces all who choose to make Scotland their home, regardless of age, disability, gender reassignment, marriage and civil partnership, pregnancy and maternity, race, religion or belief, sex, sexual orientation”. Those involved, who had been drawn into the various Rightist, socially conservative slipstreams mentioned above, chose not to challenge the Objects of YesAlba/Now Scotland.

But two organisations had already emerged, which took part in the YesAlba/Now Scotland meetings, and offered arguments for a Holyrood ‘super majority’. One was the more centrist Independence for Scotland Party (ISP). It initially claimed that maximising the vote for independence was its sole objective, but soon departed from this, making anti-transgender prejudice an official policy. The other ‘super majority’ organisation was Action for Independence (AfI). Unlike the ISP, AfI made Leftist economic noises in an attempt to win electoral support from the working class. But like the ISP, it claimed its prime aim was to win independence first by means of winning a ‘super majority’ in the May Holyrood election. Perhaps AfI was always as much about getting Tommy Sheridan re-elected to Holyrood as getting a ‘super majority’. However, given Sheridan’s past sexist record, it’s not surprising that AfI’s actual founder, ex-SNP MSP Dave Thompson, held to another prejudice, and was anti-gay rights.

But as soon as the new Alba Party was declared, both the ISP and AfI stood down, leaving the political space for a more ‘ecumenical’ social conservatism, hiding behind a more general ‘anti-woke’ smokescreen. So much in awe were ISP and AfI of the new Salmond-led Alba, that he did not have to make the slightest concessions. He ignored their more prominent members as possible candidates. This included even former AfI candidate, the freelance journalist, Craig Murray. He now faces a jail sentence for his reporting of Salmond’s trial for sexual misconduct. The court-imposed censorship was more designed to protect the incompetent Scottish judiciary[12]Alex Salmond, the Holyrood Enquiry and the Scottish left – a Republican Response than to protect the women’s anonymity. But Murray, who tried to explain what was happening, thus providing some assistance to Salmond, has been ignored as a possible candidate for Alba – there’s only room for one star ‘victim’ in the limelight.

6. Sturgeon’s earlier move to overcome Salmond’s and the SNP’s weak spot – social conservatism

Sturgeon’s most astute move, upon becoming SNP leader, was to make overtures to women.  Male Labour voters had abandoned their party in droves as New Labour cannibalised the post-1945 welfare state and continued to roll back job security. But in the 1970s, and within the lived experience of many women voters, Labour had been to the front of Westminster reforms for women’s rights. During this period, the SNP had more resembled the pre-reform Labour Party, with its widespread acceptance that women had to accept the existing sexist world to get on. Greater or lesser toleration, not equality, was the order of the day.

There was stronger opposition to Scottish independence from women than men in the 2014 referendum. During the ‘IndyRef1’ campaign, Women for Independence (WfI) pushed the SNP to take women’s rights more seriously. Key WfI member, Jeane Freeman. (ex-CPGB, ex-Scottish Labour) joined the SNP and became one of its new ministers when Sturgeon, after her election as party leader, decided to break from the SNP’s prior sexist record. To make a political impact, in order to highlight the SNP’s new more socially aware approach, she decided to appoint a balanced male/female Scottish cabinet.

However, the SNP also attracted another WfI member, Nicola McGarry, who upon becoming an SNP MP in 2015, was found to have defrauded WfI of thousands of pounds. There are problems with the SNP leadership’s ‘break-the glass ceiling’ feminist approach to women’s equality, and the feeling of entitlement some of its immediate beneficiaries seem to expect.

But Sturgeon ensured that official SNP support was also extended to those from an LGBT background. Before ‘IndyRef1’, prominent SNP backer, Sir Brian Souter had campaigned vociferously against the first Labour/Lib-Dem Scottish government’s decision to abolish the Tories’ homophobic Section 2A legislation in Scotland. Upon Sturgeon’s election as leader, she also wanted to put this shameful record in the past.  In December 2014, the new SNP government backed same sex marriage legislation at Holyrood.

But the SNP leadership’s own ‘break-the-glass ceiling’ approach to dealing with oppression was again highlighted in the case of ambitious gay SNP Finance Minister, Derek Mackay. He was forced to resign due to inappropriate behaviour towards a 16 year old boy. He held an elevated position in the devolved Scottish state, and his feeling of personal entitlement, along with having little sense of public accountability, soon became apparent.

7. Alba – a retreat back into populism and social conservatism

It has already been shown that the public demonstration of conservative and reactionary social beliefs had been apparent for some time in Scotland. Although, this has been happening more slowly than the rest of the UK, where Tory governments, especially after Brexit, have given such beliefs official sanction. However, Alba claims to uphold women’s rights. But Alba has adopted a narrow ‘Me First’ feminism, which like ‘break the glass ceiling’ feminism of the SNP leadership is hostile to the wider solidarity of the exploited and oppressed. Alba’s ‘Feminist Charter’ performs a similar role to the Zionists’ International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s definition of anti-semitism. Only transphobia (and sometimes homophobia) takes the place of anti-Palestinian racism as the target of their attacks. And just as Zionists have been tolerant towards real anti-semites (e.g. Victor Orban and his Fidesz Party in Hungary and Jaroslaw Kaczynski and his Law and Justice Party in Poland), so Alba’s ‘Feminist Charter’ supporters are tolerant towards male chauvinists, especially in their own party.

Alba leader, Salmond has his own record of opposing certain women’s rights and his sexist behaviour is now public knowledge, admitted by his legal defence. Another Holyrood candidate, Dr. Jim Walker called Sturgeon “a cow”, a clear indication of his misogynism. This approach completely undermines solidarity and tends to spread from one group to another. Yet another Alba candidate, Alex Arthur MBE has promoted anti-Romanian racism.

As with parties of the populist Right, Alba sometimes gives ‘apologies’ when publicly caught out. But the transphobic and homophobic comments and conspiracy theories promoted by another Alba candidate, Margaret Lynch, have been defended by Salmond. This highlights the symbiotic relationship between ‘Me First’ feminism and male chauvinism.

As recently as 2017, despite Salmond’s earlier promotion of Sturgeon as SNP leader-in-waiting and their political closeness, his unseemly sexist behaviour when First Minister did not seem to be known to Sturgeon. However, his social conservatism and propensity to bully must certainly have been. But once Sturgeon was informed of Salmond’s behaviour, it looks very much like she wanted to use this political opportunity to further distance the new socially liberal SNP leadership from the party’s recent toleration of social conservativism.

If Sturgeon’s partner, Murrell is more adept at the manipulation of the party machine and careerist officials to get round any democratic accountability, bullying also seems to have been a wider phenomenon in the party. This was hinted at by the case brought by four of Joanna Cherry’s employees in 2019. The Westminster parliamentary standards committee, made up of MPs, not surprisingly, though, dismissed this case against another MP and a QC. However, Cherry has also used her privileged position to pursue a court case demanding £2500 from trans rights’ supporter, David Paisley, whose livelihood is considerably more precarious than hers (although he has won the support of Scottish PEN).[13]‘Gender critical’ MP Joanna Cherry demanded actor who questioned ties to anti-trans group pay £2,500.

8. The growing internal tensions inside the SNP up to March 2021

But Cherry has also emerged as a potential focus of opposition to Sturgeon and has attempted to mobilise social conservatism to advance her cause. The Sturgeon supporting party machine, with Murrell at the helm, was used to deny Cherry a Holyrood candidacy. This paved the way for Sturgeon loyalist and prominent neo-liberal, Ian Blackford to stand for Holyrood.  In this lay some further seeds of the SNP division, which culminated in the formation of Alba, although Cherry did not sign up.

However, it is hard to believe that if the boot was on the other foot, whether that of the populist Salmond or the less adventurous Cherry, they would have acted in an any less anti-democratic or partisan way, given their own past performances. So far, Cherry, though, has stayed with the SNP, still the best bet for advancing her career. Possibly she sees in Salmond-led Alba a pressure group to change the SNP and enhance her future leadership possibilities, in a similar way to Farage’s UKIP and Brexit Party did for Johnson in the Tory Party. Jumping ship at this early stage would not necessarily be a good move.

We will have to wait for the results of the May 6th Holyrood election to see the political impact of Alba. Those unionists who look to the split in the SNP as signalling the end of the Scottish independence movement are likely to be disappointed. The political mainstreaming of Scottish independence and the fall-off in a specific Scottish-British identity, with its one-time broader Left/Centre/Right cultural support for unionism, means there is more political space for different versions of Scottish nationalism. Some see this as a good and ‘natural’ thing, but the fact the space has been created for a more Populist and socially conservative party, which wants to turn its back on the most progressive aspects of ‘IndyRef1’, does not represent a political advance. Neither does it  mean that the SNP, now cleared of many (but certainly not all) socially conservative and potentially more ethnic nationalists, will reinforce the position of those upholding the civic national, rainbow alliance aspects of ‘IndyRef1’.  The continuous haemorrhaging of Right Tories into UKIP and the Brexit Party, and the defection of some of the Labour Right into Change UK increased the pressure of the Right wing within both the Tory and Labour parties.

The unionists themselves are participating in this election with one small radical party, the CPB (supporter of federalism); two larger, but declining and now conservative unionist parties, Labour and the Lib-Dems; and a whole host of reactionary and far Right unionist parties, including the Scottish Conservatives, UKIP, Reform UK, Abolish the Scottish Parliament Party and George Galloway’s All for {British} Unity. This division indicates a considerable sense of crisis amongst unionists.  However, it also shows that the main political pressure within the unionist camp is coming from the reactionary unionists.

Johnson’s government is well aware that popular support for the UK and British and Scottish-British unionism is on the decline. This is why the Tories are bolstering up an increasingly authoritarian UK state and attempting to marginalise its devolved political institutions in their Brexit Britain. Support for greater Scottish national determination is not going to go away. The real issue for Socialists is who is going to offer a lead when the plans of both the SNP leadership and Alba are thwarted. There is no guarantee that this will be the Left. So this means taking a closer look at the state and arguments of Socialists in Scotland. These will be addressed in the second part of this article to be published after the May 6th election.

29th April 2021


1. What the Alba Party represents and how we must respond, Tejas Mukerji, Republican Socialist Platform

2. Alba is a dead end, rs21

3. Weekly Wanker #083: The Alba Party