THE hopes of Scotland entertaining a grown-up election campaign, at the most crucial period in the nation’s recent history, were obliterated at the shambolic, car-crash launch of Alex Salmond’s Alba Party, an event so toe-curling it almost required the attention of a good podiatrist.

Scotland should be focusing on the SNP’s record in government, and ruthlessly anatomising the prospectus for independence and the state of the Union. Instead, we’re corralled as spectators at a circus involving some of the most peculiar characters in what passes for public life.

Yesterday, the national debate should have been fixed on education and child poverty. Nicola Sturgeon has made two specific election pledges: to double Scottish Child Payments, and to give every child from primary one to six free laptops. They are bold, radical ideas – but is it all too little too late? Are these convenient election-time bribes to blind us to SNP failures?

We really won’t get to the heart of that – we’ll hardly debate these issues because there’s a clown show in town. This will not be an election about policy but pointless distraction.

The SNP is being forced into a culture war with Alba: it’s progressive, left-of-centre social democrats versus a hotchpotch of social conservatives and nationalist fundamentalists. None of this is pleasant to watch.

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At first, after the end of the Alex Salmond inquiries, it felt that the air had cleared, that a stink around Scottish politics was lifted. But after the Alba launch, barely disguised revulsion returned.

One of the early defectors to Mr Salmond’s party was a councillor from Inverclyde called Christopher McEleny. Gavin Lundy, the former convenor of the SNP’s youth wing and a parliamentary candidate, said McEleny was “a stain on the movement for Scottish independence”, and that “sharing the same party as him” was “deeply uncomfortable”. He added: “Good riddance.”

SNP MP John Nicolson said Alba attracted “social conservatives whose often regressive views are the very antithesis of what most young Scots want a liberal, outward-looking, progressive independent Scotland to look like”.

There’s certainly the feeling of angry, superannuated men about Alba – as well as a very flagged-wrapped, febrile mood.

Disgust also greeted much more high-profile and significant defections like MP Kenny MacAskill. More measured responses included comments from the SNP’s Ian Blackford that MrMacAskill’s departure was a “relief”. Mr Blackford was one of many to say that such defectors should stand down and be subjected to a by-election.

Kenny MacAskill has defected to Alba

Kenny MacAskill has defected to Alba

Mr MacAskill was later joined by Neal Hanvey MP – suspended in 2019 by the SNP after it emerged he’d used anti-Semitic language on social media. Mr Hanvey later said he didn’t consider himself anti-Semitic and was “genuinely and deeply sorry”. In the background, the public had to endure the non-story of whether Joanna Cherry MP – a Salmond champion who’s systematically undermined Nicola Sturgeon – would defect. She hasn’t, so far.

Within 48 hours of launch, Alba was in the headlines for what appeared to be a dreadful data protection breach. Thousands of people had their data leaked, including the names of more than 4,000 individuals who’d signed up to attend Alba events.

Alba makes the concept of a "shambles" sound organised and professional. The carnival continued, though, with the announcement that Tommy Sheridan, the former socialist MSP and convicted perjurer, had joined Alba. The Trump energy of Alba was getting quite strong by this point. Mr Salmond yesterday began talking about “street demonstrations”.

The contaminant of distraction wasn’t confined to nationalist ranks, however – the infection spread to unionists too. Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross began talking about unionist parties "working together" in the wake of the Alba launch. Anas Sarwar, the Scottish Labour leader, told him to “grow up”, clearly aware that working with the Tories would be as toxic for Labour as the SNP getting into bed with Alba. Mr Salmond now wants to help write the next prospectus for independence with Ms Sturgeon. Snowballs and hell spring to mind.

Clearly wishing she’d never have to utter the name "Salmond" ever again, Ms Sturgeon made clear that she feels “there are significant questions about the appropriateness of his return to public office given the concerns that have been raised about his behaviour previously, but that’s for voters to judge”.

Some of the more reactionary voices in Scotland have tried to blame Ms Sturgeon for the coming of Alba. The logic is all but impossible to figure out – however, it does seem to underscore the sense of misogyny that many see in the Alba Party. Alba has been referred to as "the Sleepy Cuddle Party".

Others, in what is now clearly Scotland’s "alt-nat" movement, have tried to say that mockery or derision of Alba is "nasty" and counter-productive. However, when some in the Alba camp portray the leader as the second coming, and use distinctly QAnon-type language, it’s hard not to see the party as having a fair swathe of conspiracy theorists onboard and being part of the paranoid style in Scottish politics.

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So this election will be dominated by oddity and crankery, not the substantive issues the public wants to discuss. There’s been talk that Alba represents the development of Scotland’s equivalent of the American Tea Party, a movement which heralded the coming of Donald Trump and the rise of radicalised rage into the mainstream.

Clearly, this bodes ill for the independence movement. If enough soft, undecided, moderate voters are to be wooed to Yes, they’ll want calm reassurance, not illegal referendums, crazy Plan Bs, Saltire-wrapped nationalism and a bunch of characters whom the average punter would cross the road to avoid.

However, Alba does take the extremists out of the SNP – it’s a purge without the necessity for a purge. Many moderate Yes supporters were uncomfortable voting for a party containing the likes of Mr MacAskill – the departure of Salmond avatars will likely provide reassurance that could well help the SNP at the ballot box.

One can be certain, though, that Alba does not want to fight this election on the issues which matter. Alba is about a personality cult and Scottish nationalism in its crudest, rawest incarnation. None of this is to the benefit of the Scottish people.

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