Alex Salmond has always been the master of surprise, and the Rutherglen episode has proved to be no exception. It was obvious that the choreography of the last few weeks was preparing the ground for some sort of predetermined outcome. I had assumed there were two serious possibilities of what that outcome might be - either that Mr Salmond himself would be standing as the Alba candidate in the by-election (which I thought would potentially be a good idea), or that a little-known Alba candidate would be standing for experience (which I thought would be a bad idea). Instead he's surprised us all by announcing that Alba won't be standing at all.
In the short-term I'd have to say common sense has prevailed, because as I've pointed out repeatedly, if Mr Salmond didn't want to be the candidate for whatever reason, there was nothing to be gained for Alba in standing in Rutherglen. A lesser known candidate probably would only have taken a small vote, which wouldn't have moved the dial for Alba at all, except in the negative sense that Alba might have been blamed for worsening the SNP's likely defeat at the hands of Labour.
But the flipside of the coin is that Mr Salmond is making clear that Alba are only standing aside to give the SNP "one last chance" to agree a Scotland United electoral pact, and that if they don't, Alba will be making a widespread intervention at the general election. That worries me greatly. As I've said for two years, Alba have got to be extraordinarily cautious about standing in first-past-the-post elections. The irony is that if I had been forced to make a straight choice between an Alba intervention in Rutherglen and a widespread Alba intervention at the general election, I'd have chosen Rutherglen like a shot, because the SNP's chances of winning there are so slim that there's little danger that a split pro-indy vote will do very much harm. But at a general election in which John Curtice has suggested practically every Scottish seat will be a marginal seat, it's not hard to see what harm a split vote will do. And remember the harm would not only be to the independence cause - it would extend to Alba themselves, because a mythology would grow that Alba are "the unionists' little helpers", thus undermining the party's chances in the Holyrood list vote in 2026, which is where the real opportunity lies.
So we come back to a modified form of the original question - what is the predetermined outcome in this extended choreography? Does Alex Salmond just want a pretext to stand lots and lots of Alba candidates at the general election? "We left no stone unturned, we even stood aside at the Rutherglen by-election when no-one could reasonably have expected us to, yet still the door was slammed in our face, leaving us with no choice." If that's the plan, then the whole objective is wrong, and Alba are travelling down completely the wrong path. On the other hand, it could be that Mr Salmond genuinely wants to force the SNP's hand and get them to accept the Scotland United offer, because he recognises the importance of Alba retaining elected representatives and thinks Neale Hanvey and Kenny MacAskill would have a fighting chance of holding their seats with SNP support. That line of thinking would make much more strategic sense, but I don't see how the moral high ground of standing aside in Rutherglen generates - or even helps to generate - the bargaining power required to get the SNP to seriously consider Scotland United, even if they are demonstrated to have failed hopelessly with a solo campaign. By contrast, Alex Salmond standing as an Alba candidate in Rutherglen and winning 15-20% of the vote might just have given the SNP some pause for thought for the first time.
So pretty much any way you look at it, today's statement looks like a misstep and possibly a major missed opportunity that will be rued for years to come. But time will tell.
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My blogpost on Thursday, about the difficulty of keeping Scot Goes Pop going for much longer due to lack of funds, produced a substantial response. Not all of it is visible on the fundraiser page itself because around half the donations were made directly via Paypal, but over £600 has been raised since I posted. The fundraiser remains well short of its target, but I'll certainly keep going for as long as I possibly can, and there's still some sort of chance I may be able to keep going indefinitely, depending on what happens over the next few weeks. Many thanks to everyone who has donated, and if anyone else would like to contribute, the fundraiser page can be found HERE. Alternatively, direct payments can be made via Paypal - my Paypal email address is: email@example.com