ONLY Alex Salmond could dominate a debate by not being there. The candidates in the first virtual hustings on BBC TV last night tried to ignore the ghost at the feast. But it was hard – not least because Nicola Sturgeon's position on her late mentor is a contradiction.

The more she condemns Mr Salmond for his bad behaviour toward women the more she condemns herself for having supported this man for decades – and having worked her socks off to have him elected as First Minister and then leader of an independent Scotland. She probably saw more of him than his wife.

Mr Salmond's response to the character issue has been: show not tell. Alba's 32-strong candidates list today has a majority of women. It includes two leading feminist SNP defectors: Dumbarton councillor Caroline McAllister, and North Lanarkshire councillor, Lynne Anderson. They were recently elected as the SNP's Women's Convener and Equalities Convener respectively. Anyway you look at it, that is a remarkable coup.

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They were also signatories of the Women's Pledge on sex-based rights. Ms Sturgeon's forthright promotion of trans self-ID may play well on Twitter, but many older feminists are profoundly opposed. Most voters find the idea of men becoming biologically female mystifying at best. The SNP is keen to keep this policy under wraps until after the election.

Gender overlaps with an age/class divide that has opened up in the nationalist movement. Mr Salmond's appeal is very much to older working-class supporters of independence, rather than the managerialist elite who dominate Ms Sturgeon's inner circle. Mr Salmond would have willingly led those massive independence marches in 2018. Ms Sturgeon preferred to march with middle class Remainers in London, rather than the uncouth crowd in Edinburgh with their motorbikes and Wallace kitsch.

At an Edinburgh Book Festival event, Ms Sturgeon even suggested changing the name of the SNP because she didn't like being tainted with the N-word. She hates being called a “nationalist”. Mr Salmond accepts it. It is what it is. He still accepts the recruitment of boxer Alex Arthur, who is a star in Scotland's housing estates, but only known on social media for his offensive remarks about Romanians.

The SNP and many commentators have portrayed Mr Salmond as a right-wing, Nigel Farage-style populist leading a rag bag of racists and misfits. And truth be told, there is something of the Brexit Party in Alba. It is a nationalist party that has come from nowhere and is built around the personality of an insurgent, populist leader. (The Brexit Party, remember, won the 2019 European elections.) The big difference is that Mr Salmond remains avowedly pro-European.

Dumbarton councillor Caroline McAllister is an Alba candidate

Dumbarton councillor Caroline McAllister is an Alba candidate

Mind you, Alba doesn't seem to have settled policy on Europe. It thinks Ms Sturgeon has failed to recognise that SNP policy is redundant post-Brexit. Since Britain left the EU, the SNP has tried to pretend that nothing has changed, that the borderless 2014 prospectus still applies. Yet everything has, and Alba is right to call out this pretence.

There will obviously be a hard border with England if and when Scotland leaves the UK and joins the European Union. More precisely, there will be a trade and regulatory divide, since the pre-existing UK Common Travel Area will mean passports and visas are unnecessary after independence. Alba sees this as an issue that has to be addressed. Though in opening this Pandora's Box, Mr Salmond could end up with more than he bargained for.

A lot of SNP supporters, and Alba fellow travellers, are distinctly unenthusiastic about rejoining the European Union, and not just because of Ursula von der Leyen's threats to start a vaccines trade war. There has long been a eurosceptic strand in the SNP. Many on the left favour the Norway option of joining the single market but not the political institutions of Brussels. The SNP has tried to keep a lid on this debate too, but not for much longer.

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Mr Salmond has also called Nicola Sturgeon's bluff about a Scottish independence referendum being imminent, delivered by a new Section 30 order from Westminster. That is simply not going to happen. It is fanciful to believe that Boris Johnson is going to risk breaking up the UK just because the SNP wins a majority in Holyrood. He will simply keep saying that now is not the time for indyref2, as Britain emerges from Brexit. Sir Keir Starmer will back him to the hilt. Mind you, there is equally no guarantee that Mr Johnson would recognise an SNP-Alba supermajority. He might just echo Ms Sturgeon saying it is “cheating”.

However, this argument that having a pro-independence party standing for list seats alone is somehow undemocratic, or “gaming the system” as Ms Sturgeon puts it, is simply wrong. The Scottish Green Party is a pro-independence party which is also standing only in list seats. As the Times reported earlier this month, the SNP leadership has been in discussions with Patrick Harvie about a formal Green-SNP coalition and even used the term “supermajority” to refer to their combined electoral strength.

From the point of view of an ordinary SNP supporter, voting Alba for list seats is a no-lose proposition. Older working-class voters will likely see Alba as preferable to the “woke” Greens, whose policy on transgender issues is so controversial that their star MSP, Andy Wightman, had to leave the party because he wasn't permitted to speak about it. At any rate, SNP voters will have to be given better reasons not to vote Alba than that Mr Salmond is a bad man and that standing on the list is cheating. Ms Sturgeon may have forgotten, but only a few years ago the Scottish National Party renamed itself “Alex Salmond for First Minister” on list ballot papers.

This man is a huge part of SNP folk memory. The attempt to write him out of history, like a nationalist Trotsky, was never going to succeed. Rather than attacking him personally Mr Sturgeon would be better advised to stay silent. Let the electoral system do its work and see what the voters deliver. After all, she is still vastly more popular among Scottish voters than Mr Salmond. That surely speaks for itself.

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