Following on from my bewilderment over a period of weeks as Iain Macwhirter acted as an unlikely cheerleader for herd immunity, it's refreshing to once again find something to agree with him about, and I see that his column today will argue that Nicola Sturgeon should seek a reconciliation with Alex Salmond "before it's too late". I think from the SNP leadership's perspective that point should really be beyond dispute. The period after Mr Salmond's acquittal ought to have been a time of healing, but instead a number of senior SNP parliamentarians foolishly made comments that were obviously intended to make it very difficult for the former leader to be welcomed back into the fold. It became clear that one or two of them really did believe in the nonsensical claim peddled by the controversial journalist David Leask that the man who had led the SNP for almost one-quarter of its entire existence to date, and who they had served under themselves without any apparent difficulty, was somehow not part of the "real SNP" (whatever that might be).
We live in an infantile age where anyone who makes even the smallest mistake or misjudgement can find themselves characterised as an irredeemable monster. In the eyes of several individuals very close to the top of the SNP, Alex Salmond was at some point reclassified, practically overnight, from a respected statesman to an "enemy of women", and absurdly the verdict of the court made almost no difference to that assessment. Even if they truly believed that the demonisation was justified, they seemed to have lost sight of the realpolitik of the situation, which is that Mr Salmond, unlike the vast majority of politicians, is a man with options. It's not actually possible to deny him a future in politics by simply freezing him out of the SNP, because he has the option, if he wishes to take it, of a bright future in politics outside the SNP. His critics might think it's unfair or distasteful that he has that option when others don't, but all that matters is that he does. You'd almost be forgiven for thinking that people close to the leadership actively prefer the idea of his comeback being outside the SNP, given that their actions make that outcome somewhat more probable - but the idea that they're doing it intentionally makes absolutely zero sense given the obvious potential for electoral damage to the party. The more plausible conclusion is that sound strategic judgement has given way to identity politics zealotry.
During the 1980 Labour leadership election, Denis Healey famously treated his natural allies with contempt. He told them they had "nowhere else to go", and that he would instead concentrate on wooing the left in his ill-fated bid to defeat Michael Foot. A few months later, some of the MPs that Healey had antagonised left to join the newly-formed Social Democratic Party, and one of them sent him a note that simply read "found somewhere else to go". The SNP leadership are acting as if Mr Salmond has nowhere else to go.
As I've said a number of times in recent months, I'm personally in two minds about whether it would be a good thing or a bad thing for the independence movement if Mr Salmond ends up launching a new list-only party. On the face of it, things are going exceptionally well at the moment - support for independence has never been higher, and thanks to Nicola Sturgeon's handling of the pandemic there is unprecedented faith in Scotland's ability to govern itself competently. That progress could in theory be squandered by the self-inflicted wound of a major new divide in the pro-indy camp. But, on the other hand, even sky-high support for independence would be of absolutely no use to anyone unless the SNP leadership actually do something with it. If a Salmond-led party emerges, at least we'd immediately have something that we don't have right now - ie. a very credible route-map to Scotland becoming an independent country in the aftermath of the 2021 election. The new party would not win a majority, it would not become the largest single party, and it would not form a government on its own. But it would have every chance of becoming a kingmaker, and it would presumably use any leverage it gains to insist on a way forward that is not dependent on the granting of a Section 30 order.
In all honesty, and in spite of my mixed feelings about the strategic wisdom of launching a list-only party, if Alex Salmond was to decide to take the plunge I'd probably put my doubts to one side and get behind the initiative. Right now I'm a proud supporter of the SNP because it's the only large party with independence as its raison d'être, but if another large and credible party comes along with a stronger commitment to independence, the equation would obviously change radically.
It's safe to assume that, unlike me, the SNP leadership don't have even the slightest doubt in their minds that the cause of independence is best served by the Yes movement remaining largely united behind the SNP, and the SNP only. If that is indeed their verdict, it would plainly be logical for them to reach out to Mr Salmond. If they don't, they'll have no-one to blame but themselves for any negative consequences that follow.