Exactly why does Alex Salmond want to return to Westminster?

Salmond sets out to march on London once more. Thierry Ehrmann, CC BY-SA

Alex Salmond’s confirmation that he will contest the general election in 2015 completes what must count as one of the shortest retirements in British political history.

While the pro-independence campaign gained only 45% at the referendum in September, the Scottish National Party (SNP) has emerged from the long campaign in a formidable position. The party membership has near-quadrupled to 92,000, it has a fortified and experienced activist base and if it maintains the level of support it is presently achieving in opinion polls the party could win 40 or more seats in Scotland in 2015.

Given all these factors, it is not unsurprising that Salmond should seek re-election to Westminster, a political arena in which he has always done well and seems well suited.

Through the looking glass

Nor is it surprising that he should choose the Gordon constituency in Aberdeenshire, the seat of outgoing Liberal Democrat grandee, Sir Malcolm Bruce, since in many ways this is a mirror image of the last time he attempted to hold Westminster and Holyrood seats simultaneously in the 2000s.

Salmond had long held the nearby seat of Banff and Buchan both in Westminster (1987-2010) and at Holyrood (1999-2001). When he announced an intention to seek to be re-elected to Holyrood in the 2007 election, he chose to fight Gordon. He won with 41.4% of the vote, defeating the sitting Liberal Democrat, Nora Radcliffe.

Salmond’s parliamentary manoeuvres

The Conversation/Murray Leith

The SNP came second in Gordon at the general election [in 2010](http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gordon_(UK_Parliament_constituency), with an increase of 6% in their share of the vote. Given the current Lib Dem unpopularity due to their perceived broken promises and the ramifications of their coalition with the Tories, the seat looks ripe for the picking. And given his history and links with the area, Salmond can hardly be accused of carpetbagging (which might have been fair comment had rumours been true that he would take on Danny Alexander).

Choosing Gordon also means Salmond can appeal to disaffected or potential Labour voters. About one third of Labour supporters cast votes for Yes in the referendum – and they represent the electorate from whom the SNP hope to gain 40 seats. In Gordon an erstwhile Labour voter could vote for Salmond without feeling they were depriving a potential UK Labour government of an extra seat.

Enemies and despicable enemies

Targeting Labour voters is a key theme and grand strategy which Alex Salmond and the SNP have woven into their campaign for the next Westminster election. Like aspects of the recent “non-victory tour” that the new party leader and Scottish first minister Nicola Sturgeon undertook last month, the SNP have borrowed from the American political system. Both the tour and Sturgeon’s conference inauguration had that kind of razzmatazz to them, while the SNP notion of standing for Westminster by standing against Westminster is an old American refrain – most recently employed by the Tea Party movement.

Nicola’s claim to frame. Danny Lawson/PA

By casting itself as the only truly Scottish party, operating with the best interests of Scotland at heart, the SNP has openly declared it will not enter into a coalition with the Conservatives – which is still the nasty party in many Scottish eyes. Yet it has also said it is open to a coalition with Labour.

The wisdom of such an approach is that while the SNP is polling strongly at the moment, Labour maintains a solid position as the other major alternative for Scottish voters. By appearing open to being part of a “progressive” coalition in Westminster and firmly opposed to the politics of austerity, the SNP maximise the opportunities and minimise any fallout by openly attacking any possible Conservative links.

But isn’t there a risk that after so many months of demonising Labour for being in bed with the Tories, making overtures to them could make Salmond et al sound insincere? There may a little, but ultimately the Labour party and the SNP are chasing the same voters in Scotland. It is all about how Scotland sees itself as left wing and anti-Tory – but also firmly Scottish.

The voters will therefore support the party that meets those basic criteria. As is often pointed out, Scottish voters have tended to choose differently at UK and Scottish elections, fixing more on what is in Scotland’s interests during Holyrood elections. In the past two Holyrood elections, they saw the SNP as most likely to deliver for them in Scotland.

But as Professor John Curtice has said, the Scottish electorate is approaching next year’s UK election still firmly fixated on what is good for Scotland. This is why the SNP looks likely to benefit. And if the electorate do next year revert to thinking somewhat about the UK during UK elections, albeit not enough to vote Labour, Salmond’s logic is that the party’s “I’ll work with Labour” approach will not greatly upset people.

Assuming this calculation is correct and the SNP does win big enough in May to hold the balance of power, the next question is what they would do with it. So far they have made clear that the price would be devo max, in the sense of full Scottish separatism apart from a rump of UK powers over things like defence and foreign affairs.

But since Labour would almost certainly refuse, would the SNP give any ground? Would it start to sound more pro-Smith-Commission, the body that has just recommended a weaker extension of powers, and perhaps argue that it has delivered more than some federal countries have? Certainly it would not only be Labour that had to calculate very carefully in these circumstances.

From this distance, the bookies are giving 6/1 odds that Alex Salmond could be a minister in a Labour-led coalition cabinet. Scottish Secretary Alex Salmond anyone? It would certainly answer the age old problem of whether the Scottish Secretary is the cabinet’s man in Scotland or Scotland’s man in the cabinet.