Now and Then: Uniting the Class

CW: Mention of transphobia and of racist and homophobic comments

What, exactly, is Alex Salmond’s new Alba Party? What about its identity makes it distinct from the Scottish National Party it split from? If you just look at the aims stated in its manifesto, you wouldn’t have a clue. Besides an aesthetically populist pledge to “shake things up”, and a promise to push hard for independence, it’s hard to draw out what Alba representatives would do all that differently from their SNP equivalents. A reasonable observer might conclude that Alba is functionally just a satellite party of the SNP. But while that might be what Alba want you to think, a dig beneath the surface into the party’s engagement with Scotland’s historic past reveal that, in reality, it is a very different beast from anything seen in Scottish politics for quite some time.

Start with the name: Alba. This is not just, as a bevy of confused Westminster journalists found out when the party launched, the Scottish Gaelic word for Scotland. It is also loaded with modern political meaning. Derived from an old Greek name for Britain, the name Alba was used for Scotland primarily from 900 to 1286, when the country’s elite were primarily Gaelic speakers. As Scotland became an overwhelmingly Scots- and then English- speaking nation from the high Middle Ages on, the name fell out of everyday use for most people.

Of course, it never really went away. Among Scotland’s small Gaelic-speaking community, it has endured as a more or less apolitical name for Scotland – the BBC’s delightful Gaelic TV channel is, after all, called BBC Alba. However, the word has an additional, more politically loaded meaning, for Scotland’s anglophone majority: that of an openly nationalist symbol. Before Salmond made the word his own, an English speaker was most likely to encounter it as part of the slogan “Saor Alba” – “Free Scotland” – sprayed across the Scottish landscape in graffiti tags and in the Twitter handles of some of the more vociferous supporters of independence. I should stress, this phrase has currency among people without a lick of Gaelic – its appearance is common even in Edinburgh, a city which, it would be a gross understatement to say, is not the heartland of the Gaelic language. But the clearest evidence that “Alba” is a symbol appropriated by primarily anglophone Scottish nationalists came in the launch of the party that shares the name. Salmond was rinsed online by opponents on both sides of the independence debate for mispronouncing the name “Al-ba” (With Gaelic phonetics, the correct pronunciation is more like “Al-ah-buh”) – a mistake he has notably corrected since. The relevant question, then, is why? Why hang onto this phrase and this word, when the Gaelic language as a whole has been so successfully eradicated from public life? I don’t pretend to know the answer. But I do suspect that part of its appeal is in the reassuring sense of otherness from Britain it creates – harkening back to a pre-British, Celtic and thus “authentically” Scottish tradition waiting to be restored.

This is a subtle, but significant, break from how mainstream Scottish nationalism usually conducts itself. In Scotland, nationalism is pretty “soft.” Most people identify primarily as Scottish in their national identity, reflecting a long continuity of national sentiment reproduced by enduring national institutions from the courts to the parliament to the football team. Yet a majority of people also identify, in some capacity, as British as well. The consequence of this is a political debate where all mainstream, legitimised political actors are sensitive to both identities. Even the most avowedly mainstream pro-union party, the Conservatives, support devolution and are keen to brand themselves as “Scottish Conservatives.” Simultaneously, the SNP’s imagined independence would retain all manner of explicitly British symbols and institutions, from the pound to the monarchy to Doctor Who. That’s not to say that identity plays no role in shaping attitudes to the issue – it obviously does – or that politicians don’t gesture towards one identity or another on occasion. But in the main, “soft” nationalism is the game everyone plays.

As a result, the independence debate tends not to be explicitly fought on the battlefields of identity or culture. Cultural signifiers – like linguistic references – are rare dividing lines. This makes Scottish nationalism somewhat unique among the various nationalist movements of these islands, where language and culture play a much more explicit role in the constitutional debate. It should be remembered that, until late 2019, the Northern Irish government was suspended, in no small part due to a dispute between Irish nationalists and British unionists over the status of the Irish language. Rather, in almost stereotypically Scottish fashion, Scotland’s constitutional debate is usually a fairly dry accounting of the material and political costs and benefits of choosing independence.

Alba, through the cultural context of its name, breaks that consensus. It would be a stretch to say on that basis alone that Alba promulgates a version of Scottish nationalism which is more culturally focussed and thus more rigid and divisive than what we’re used to. Thankfully, then, that’s not the only evidence. No, the real Rosetta Stone for all of this is a now-famous ad, released by the party in April, where the party is “endorsed” by Robert the Bruce. In the ad, Braveheart star Angus MacFayden, in character as the Bruce, backs Alba to “unite the clans” and restore independence.

The ad was widely panned in social media and the press as being “cringe.” Personally, I find it head-spinningly captivating. There’s an engagement with history here that tells us so much about the party’s ideology in less than two minutes. In particular, equating the Wars of Independence with the contemporary independence debate explains so much about how the party understands the latter. The comparison constructs a dichotomy between the noble Scottish nation and the “English oppressor” which leaves no room for the constitutionally undecided, and certainly no room for anyone with a shred of British identity. It’s the definition of preaching to the converted, but of course there is no need to convert anyone to your cause when your main opponents can be dismissed as fundamentally illegitimate agents of a foreign state. This also makes sense of the party’s dubious plans to exploit a weakness in the electoral system to ensure a “supermajority” for independence in the next parliament- if anti-independence voters aren’t a real part of the nation, then it’s fine if their votes are systematically underrepresented.

So Alba is a nationalist party, of a sort we haven’t seen in this country for quite some time, at least not on the pro-independence side. The closest equivalent on the pro-union side of the debate, at least in regard to the rigidity of national identity, is UKIP. Although UKIP’s emaciated status in the post-Brexit landscape obscures it now, it’s worth remembering that UKIP in Scotland was always a bit of a stunted thing. Like other radical right parties in the UK, UKIP shared a unitary, Anglo-British national identity, and was hostile to the claims of Scottish nationalism, even in its soft, mainstream format. This alienated voters, and subsequently, the party was perpetually trapped at 2% of the vote in Scotland, while its candidates went on to unprecedented breakthrough successes in England, Wales and even Northern Ireland. This was despite many Scottish voters agreeing with them on key issues like immigration and Brexit.

Right now, Alba looks a lot like the early UKIP did, in the 1990s: populist and fundamentalist on its defining constitutional issue, but an officially moderate, big-tent party on other issues. But over the years, of course, UKIP went on an ideological journey. The party attracted disaffected members of the Conservative Party’s right wing, and was shaped in their image into a nationalist, radical right party. There are very early signs that something similar may be happening with Alba. It has certainly attracted a significant following among independence supporters who range from the centre right – like former SNP MP Tasmina Ahmed-Sheik – to candidates who call Romanian immigrants “pigs” and LGBT activists paedophiles. The seeds are there in its ideology: the characterisation of ideological opponents as supporters of a murderous oppressor, a populist appeal to “people power” – there’s even a dash of Euroscepticism, relative to Scotland’s main parties. And, most concerning of all, I would be remiss if I didn’t address the way many of its candidates have contributed to the toxic demonisation, political marginalisation, and denial of the rights of Scotland’s transgender community.

If Alba were to follow a similar ideological trajectory to UKIP, it’s hard to imagine they won’t have a lot more success. There is, bluntly, a large constituency of voters who would happily vote for a radical right party, provided it was a Scottish one. Nothing is certain in politics, of course. I’m writing this before the 2021 Scottish Parliament election – by the time you read this, Alba could have spectacularly collapsed in on itself, or triumphantly won a bench of seats. And in the years to come, it could have institutionalised and professionalised itself, as a moderate, legitimised part of the political system, or it could be well on its way to radicalisation. Only time will tell. But one thing is for sure: Alba is a new expression of Scottish nationalism, the consequences of which we can only guess at.

[Aran Prince-Tappé – he/him]

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