HISTORY matters and so, as we begin another election campaign, my mind drifts back inexorably to an earlier contest, to the UK election of 1997 which brought Tony Blair to UK power and led to the creation of Scotland’s devolved parliament.

The occasion was a Labour news conference. Not a photocall or a brisk journalistic “huddle”, in the contemporary fashion. This was sublimely unhindered.

I took the opportunity to ask Labour’s then General Secretary, Jack McConnell, to confirm that the electoral system planned for the devolved Scottish Parliament had been devised specifically to prevent the SNP from taking power with a minority of the popular vote.

With admirable brevity, Mr McConnell replied: “Correct”.

Mostly deploying lengthier statements, Jack McConnell went on to serve as First Minister for a prolonged period, surmounting the proportional voting system by sustaining a coalition deal with the Liberal Democrats. He is generally credited with steadying the listing ship of devolved governance.

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Now Nicola Sturgeon is seeking re-election under that same Additional Member System. Devised, remember, to thwart her party. An exercise which has not been entirely successful in that the SNP has held sway at Holyrood since Mr McConnell demitted office in 2007.

But she faces an additional challenge. In addition to her customary opponents, she has to contend with a former chum. Her erstwhile mentor Alex Salmond is seeking to confound that Holyrood voting system by seeking regional list seats to supplement the constituencies he expects his former party, the SNP, to retain or gain.

Mr Salmond describes that as a super-majority for independence. For that sum to work, however, there would have to be an almost universal transfer of list votes from the highly competitive SNP to Alba, presumably eclipsing the pro-independence Greens while, at the same time, the pro-Union parties fail to take advantage of this apparent contention on the Nationalist side.

To say the least, that is asking a lot. Still, it is feasible and Mr Salmond remains a persuasive campaigner, despite the poll suggestions that, after years of controversy, accusation, acquittal and inquiry, he is rather less popular than was formerly the case.

In passing, one might also note that his concept of divvying up the independence vote was not discussed with or ratified by Nicola Sturgeon in any way. Further, it runs precisely counter to the message Mr Salmond himself delivered when he won majority power in 2011. Then, the endlessly repeated mantra was “both votes SNP.”

Again, though, it remains a possibility in pursuit of what Mr Salmond has called the “noble cause” of independence. Contrary to claims that he is intent on vengeance, he insists he is only too eager to help that broader aim, as he has always done.

HeraldScotland: Alex SalmondAlex Salmond

Which presents Nicola Sturgeon with a dilemma. Could she conceivably work with a man who told a Holyrood inquiry she had breached the Ministerial code? A man who, she informed the same inquiry, had recounted behaviour towards a woman which she regarded as “deeply inappropriate”?

Before we arrive at such hypothetical post-election scenarios, however, there is the small matter of winning popular support from the voters.

This lands Nicola Sturgeon with a more elemental conundrum. To be clear, she yearns for independence. She craves it, like a gourmet treat, all the more appealing for being kept at a distance, and denied by rivals.

How, though, to achieve it? Strategically, she has three good reasons for focusing more in this election upon other policies, other issues, while retaining independence as the over-arching aim, through a referendum. In the BBC Scotland debate this week, she said such a poll should be held in the first half of the new Holyrood Parliament, once coronavirus had subsided.

Those reasons for caution? Firstly, just like Jack McConnell promoting devolution in 1997, she knows that independence lacks universal popularity. Many remain to be convinced.

Even some who ultimately favour or would acquiesce in an independent Scotland might prefer to concentrate for now on other matters, notably this hideous plague and the attendant economic challenge.

So she couches independence not as a concept in itself but as a potential answer to those financial woes; a solution to be adopted when the time is right. Not immediately. For now, the SNP motif is that Scotland’s problems need Scottish solutions, not a recipe advanced by Boris Johnson.

Simultaneously, she is aware that this approach, which she judges to be necessary to sustain widespread popular support for her government, with its range of policies and objectives, is scarcely calculated to enthuse the more zealous of her adherents in the wider nationalist cause.

That partly explains the lingering disquiet in the SNP over strategy. It, partly, explains the creation of Alba, although that is very largely down to Mr Salmond.

Which brings us to Ms Sturgeon’s second reason for caution. An over-emphasis on independence might serve to energise Mr Salmond’s offer, to her dismay. In her mind, she sees an all too familiar figure, with an all too familiar grin, offering to help.

Thirdly, every time she talks up independence or is asked so to do, we can expect an intervention from Douglas Ross of the Tories or, indeed, from Labour or the Liberal Democrats.

Mr Ross is simply itching to make this election a quasi-referendum, to make it a straight fight between independence and the Union, hoping that he will, thereby, cajole indy-sceptics from other parties to vote Tory.

A further thought disturbs the Sturgeon sleep pattern. She accuses Mr Salmond of gambling, of seeking to trick the electorate into a referendum. What if, she asks, that leaves a residue of discontent and disquiet, even among potential independence supporters, so that any subsequent referendum is lost?

Mr Salmond denies this would happen and argues that Ms Sturgeon would, eventually, see the advantage of collaboration.

Read more by Brian Taylor: Sturgeon versus Salmond. Here are the game plans for the socially distanced election

A closing anecdote. I recall chatting to a senior political strategist who had been struggling to explain to obdurate colleagues the tactical subtleties of electoral campaigning under the Single Transferable Vote in multi-member council wards.

Finally, in exasperation, he yelled at them: “Look, this isnae politics. This is arithmetic”. Right now, Nicola Sturgeon has to contend with both.

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