If you think you are having a tough time at the moment, spare a thought for Nicola Sturgeon. The self-appointed chief mammy of Scotland mere months ago, these days it seems as if nothing can go right for her.
United under a single party banner for pretty much its whole history, with the launch of the Alba Party by her former mentor Alex Salmond last week, the Scottish nationalist movement is currently experiencing an unprecedented rift. Already two MPs have defected, as well as a string of councillors and former parliamentarians, with further expected by the day.
The split is acrimonious too, and no wonder considering Salmond and his allies seem convinced the Sturgeonites conspired to send him to prison on trumped up charges for potentially the rest of his life.
On Sturgeon’s team’s part, the dislike is equally intense. For example, the SNP Westminster Leader Ian Blackford described the defecting MP and former Scottish Justice Secretary, Kenny MacAskill, as an ‘increasing embarrassment’, with his departure ‘somewhat of a relief’.
Sturgeon’s own rhetoric towards Salmond has barely been gentler. In comments at the weekend Sturgeon questioned whether he was fit to hold public office and took a dig at his self-interested tendency and big ego. Most extraordinarily, without a hint of self-awareness, she accused him of making ‘big claims which often don’t stand up to scrutiny’.
Unfortunately for Sturgeon, this split goes beyond just personalities and may actually end up having practical consequences. Specifically, there is a decent chance that Salmond’s party costs the SNP’s gardening wing most of their seats (the Greens), meaning that Sturgeon could end up being dependent on Salmond’s new party for a majority – almost certainly her worst nightmare. And even if she doesn’t end up needing Salmond to govern, the reputational damage and distraction from this rift could still threaten her lifelong dream of independence.
While tempting to gloat about all this, unionists should not be complacent. Due to the convoluted and loophole-strewn nature of Holyrood’s electoral system, even though unpopular, Salmond would not require that many votes for his party to successfully game the system, reducing pro-union representation in the Parliament well below its popular level of about 50 per cent support.
Instead, unionists should look at how they can exploit this opening. For decades, part of the trick of Scottish nationalism has been to successfully create the impression that Scots are somehow inherently more virtuous than Westminster (a dog whistle for England) – hence the need to get away. This split, combined with a growing awareness of the SNP’s sleazy and incompetent record, shatters that narrative: Scotland really is no better and no worse than England. Revealed in the fullest truth, there is no evidence things would be fundamentally handled better with independence.
Beyond this, perhaps the biggest danger of all to the nationalists is that a burgeoning sense could develop that leaving them in charge any longer could start to bring Scotland dangerously close to laughing stock territory; the politicians of serious countries do not tend to launch medieval-style blood feuds.
What an irony it would be, if at the last hurdle, Sturgeon and Salmond ended up being responsible for the failure of their lifetime goal.