Alex Salmond knows his audience. This is, after all, the most effective politician of his generation. Elected to the Commons in 1987 as one of a three-strong band of SNP MPs, he went on to lead his party twice, winning power in the Scottish Parliament and securing an overall majority there – an achievement his successor has so far failed to emulate.
At the independence referendum he secured by his own efforts, Salmond brought Scots to within five percentage points of independence. Arguably, the tide of nationalist popularity that secured all but three of Scotland's 59 constituencies for the SNP at the 2015 general election was a legacy of Salmond's rather than any achievement of Nicola Sturgeon's .
So, yes, Alex knows Scotland, and he knows Scottish politics. More importantly, he knows what motivates nationalists. Which is why the election broadcast of Alba, his new party, unveiled to a dumbstruck and largely mocking audience yesterday, will probably be quite effective in a larger part of the nationalist movement than his SNP rivals will care to admit.
The gist of the short film is that Robert the Bruce (stay with me here) is explaining that the 2021 Holyrood elections are pretty much identical to the historic battle of Bannockburn in 1314 – sorry, I mean, of course "the year of our Lord 1314", because that's the phrase people use when channelling ye olde worlde.
The film is, from start to finish, a cringeworthy collection of over-used clichés, over-simplification and historical ignorance that any fourth year school pupil would be embarrassed to read out at the semi-finals of his school's debate competition. But to a certain audience of nationalists it will have been lapped up.
Mainstream nationalism has spent a great deal of time and public relations effort in recent decades to remove the old-fashioned image of their movement as bearded, tartan-clad eccentrics banging on about William Wallace and attacking post boxes because they have "QEII" on them (for, as we all know, the current Queen is the first of that name in Scotland). Salmond, in fact, was at the forefront of those efforts, recasting his party as progressive, internationalist and definitely not anti-English. Just to prove this, "Westminster" became the correct word to use to describe the many sins of the Auld Enemy. You can't be xenophobic against a local authority area in London, after all, can you?
Slowly it dawned on his followers that whatever their true feelings towards the hated English, expressing such views would only alienate centre- ground Scots whose support the party needed to win independence. Those people who upload videos to YouTube from their caravans lamenting the theft of Scotland's oil while doing so in "auld Scots" so that very few people could understand a damn word they were saying, were less and less welcome at gatherings where the press would highlight their presence and views for the entertainment of their viewers and readers. Sharp suits and economic degrees were the new order of the day in the SNP. Overt anti-Englishness could be left to the ever-reliable fringes of the nationalist movement instead. Remember the weirdos who went to the Border to shout at traffic last year during the first lockdown?
And now Alba seems to have reverted to the SNP messaging of the 1960s to try to reinvigorate its campaign to obtain a "super" or "fake" majority" of nationalist MSPs at Holyrood next month. In this new age of SNP professionalism and discipline, the video looks anachronistic and certainly embarrassing to anyone with even a passing knowledge of the 21st century.
But as noted earlier, Salmond is no fool when it comes to campaigning. So why did he take this unexpected diversion into anti-English tropes and evocation of battles more than 700 years in the past? For the simple reason that he knows what makes nationalists tick. He knows what inspires them, what excites them. And he knows that sober academic reports on future currency unions only go so far when it comes to motivating them to come out and vote.
There are plenty of SNP activists publicly rejecting Alba's appeal to lend the party their second vote in the list – or additional member – lists. But in the privacy of the polling station, who knows how they'll behave? The sound of an actor advocating the Bruce's historical, well-established strategy of exploiting the d'Hondt electoral system to defeat the Plantagenet dynasty may be amusing to most of us. But to a certain type of nationalist, this is grist to the mill, the sort of thing that gets them out of bed in the morning, that makes them want to march angrily over the moors with a newly-frayed St Andrew's flag clenched between their teeth, removing it only to decry sassenach treason to some passing sheep. This is what they came into politics for!
The danger for the SNP is that a scratch to the surface of their "inclusive" movement could reveal far more unpleasantness than they would wish. Salmond has no such fear. It turns out that in the fading years of an impressive career, he is only too willing, finally, to reveal to the world what nationalism is really all about.
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