AHEAD of the local elections on May 5, The National is running a series of Leaders' Interviews with Scottish party chiefs.

We sat down with the former first minister and current leader of the Alba party, Alex Salmond, to talk about the council election campaign, the key issues facing Scotland, and the solutions his party are putting forward. 

*Warning: We experienced audio issues while filming this interview, but subtitles are on the full clip.*

I was looking at the Alba manifesto and it deals with three “key themes”. The first of those is the cost of living crisis. If Alba were to return councillors, what would they be doing to help people deal with this really national issue?

We’ve outlined some measures which are interesting as they’re not just things that should be done, they’re things which could be done.

From increasing the Child Payment to £40 a week, and £500 payments targeted at every household who gets council tax reduction, which is the hardest pressed people in the country. The educational maintenance allowance should be doubled. That's what allows working-class kids to get to university and college. Also universal access to sporting facilities for under 18s, that would be a strong move, particularly as we emerge from the pandemic. Doubling the winter fuel payment.

Now, that’s a five-point plan to tackle family and child poverty, which we believe could be done. If you put all of that plan together, it’s still less than 2.5% of the Scottish Government budget. So I think it can be done, it just requires political will.

Looking at the Scottish Labour campaign, their leader Anas Sarwar is saying he will not allow his councillors to countenance any coalitions at all. Do you think that’s a sensible move?

That’s not going to happen. Labour are in coalition with the Tories in Aberdeen. A previous Labour leader expelled them because of that coalition, and they will be let back in by Anas Sarwar … the leader who says he won’t allow coalitions. It doesn’t make much sense to me.

What I would say is this. In a situation where no council is going to be under overall control, it’s very important that independence supporting parties agree to cooperate in council chambers. The only way we are going to get independence majorities, because no party will have control to themselves, is if SNP, Alba, and Green councillors are elected.

If we don't do that, then that means every council in the country will have, by default, a Unionist majority.

The National:

John Curtice, the eminent pollster, he said that Yes parties have the advantage at this election because they’re more willing to vote for each other. Whereas the Unionist parties, if you’re a Labour voter you may feel an aversion to voting Tory. Do you feel like the SNP are shooting the Yes movement in the foot [with their election advice telling voters not to rank any parties other than their own]?

Yes, I do actually. Luckily I don’t think SNP voters have the same attitudes as the SNP leadership. They’re much more amenable to voting for other independence candidates. I think that's what people will do as they understand the system. [Telling voters not to rank other parties] is a very self-defeating thing to put forward.

If you're having a plebiscite [like indyref2], one thing you will absolutely need is the cooperation of local government. And if you leave local government – by saying only vote for us — in the hands of the Unionists, then you can be certain they will not cooperate. Indeed Aberdeen council, the aforesaid Labour-Tory coalition, have already said that.

So it's a very, very foolish thing to do. You should look at all the elected bodies of Scotland as part of the legitimacy or argument for independence. Whether it be Westminster MPs, or MSPs or indeed all local councillors, they are people elected and trusted by the people of Scotland. They should be part of it when you're campaigning for democratic legitimacy to exercise your right to self-determination. They are crucially important as part of that strategy … assuming of course that you have a strategy.

So will you be practising what you preach? Will you be voting for other Yes parties with your rankings?

I’ve already done it. I voted by post. I followed the Alba party’s advice, which I thought was a good idea to do as party leader. Alba were my first preference and I voted for other independence-supporting candidates down the list.

Did you go all the way down the list, even ranking the Unionists?

No, I stopped after the people I knew or who supported independence.

So what does a good showing look like for Alba on May 6 [the day the council election results will be declared]?

To get chalk on the board. We want to have the first people elected under the Alba banner. That’s our target for the election.

So are you putting a number [of returned councillors] on that?

No, we have 111 excellent candidates and I would like to see all 111 elected. But the most important thing for us is to have the first election where people are actually elected under the Alba banner. That would be a breakthrough and I think it would send an electric shock through Scottish politics – assuming we can afford the electricity of course.

So in a worst-case scenario then, no Alba councillors are returned, what does the future for the party look like?

You know, I love hypothetical questions. Absolutely adore them, but I always hypothesise on success rather than failure. I think we will get candidates elected and move forward from there.

We in Scotland, produce five times as much oil and gas as we consume right now, today. Have you ever heard in history of a situation where hydrocarbon prices go up and the country which produces five times what it consumes in hydrocarbons gets poorer. It’s an unbelievable circumstance. A third of Scottish families are facing fuel poverty. How can that happen in a land of energy plenty.

That issue is the single biggest single economic and social issue linked to the constitutional question since the poll tax. That issue is going to be a breakthrough for the independence movement. It brings people face-to-face with the reality that if you don’t control your own resources you’re a cats ball for international capital and the Westminster government.

Would you support the idea of a nationalised energy company then?

Yes we would. And more than that we know exactly how to bring it about.

The Scottish Government's been taking a lot of flack on the ferries, and rightly so. It’s a trail of extraordinary incompetence, but a far, far bigger scandal, in my opinion, is the giveaway of ScotWind at auction in January of this year. £700 million for lots at auction of offshore wind which are worth many times that.

It's not just the revenue value that the Scottish Government should be extracting on an annual basis, not one off payments. It's the opportunity that's been missed thus far to claim a public share in every single offshore wind field … 10% or 15% or whatever percentage is appropriate of every single one.

It gives you information and control of the resource because there's no way to know better what's going on than to have a stake in it, but it also allows you to build a public energy company with the capital base to build a public energy company that will enter the market over time and offer the people of Scotland, clean, green, renewable, and above all affordable electricity from their own resources.

The National:

To focus on independence, as you said it’s deeply tied with the energy crisis, but what do you think about the Scottish Government's proposed timeline for a second referendum? Do you there is a chance of having one by the end of 2023?

I think the timeline stretches credibility. I think most people think that. It’s not so much the timeline, it’s the lack of strategy. There may be a secret strategy that I don't know about, but if there is then there’s very few people in SNP who know about it either. The timeline worries me, but the lack of strategy worries me even more.

Don’t underrate the importance, in current circumstances, of having voices for independence outwith the government. I alluded to the problems that the SNP are having at the present, the slings and arrows of being in government for a long time. You become accident-prone. We have to make sure that the case for independence doesn’t get dragged down by the day-to-day problems of the Scottish Government.

OK so we’ve covered two of the key themes from the Alba manifesto, the first being real action on independence and the second tackling the cost of living crisis. The third is standing up for women’s and girls’ rights. It’s doing so by opposing gender reform, that’s correct isn’t it.

To list just a few of the women’s groups, like Engender, Rape Crisis Scotland, Scottish Women’s Aid, Women 50:50, Zero Tolerance Scotland, that all support gender reform. Why is Alba taking a stance for women’s rights by opposing well-established women’s groups?

You’re asking about a balance of opinion and my interpretation of that balance of opinion would be that many people question the GRA [gender recognition act]. The specific proposal we make in the manifesto, which in my opinion is entirely reasonable, and that’s to hold a Citizens’ Assembly to allow it to be talked through in a reasonable fashion.

The Citizens’ Assembly was created just for such issues which people have uncertainties and doubts about. Many women and girls in Scotland have doubts about the implications of GRA without the appropriate safeguarding because they think it will trespass on their rights established in the 2010 Equality Act in terms of protected spaces.

You can't wish away that and say well that’s not a real issue, or say anyone who opposes it is a social conservative, as was suggested to me by the BBC. I must be the first social conservative to introduce equal marriage as part of an election platform.

You're saying that the issue needs to be discussed more at length, maybe at a Citizen's Assembly, but it's already the most consulted on piece of legislation in the history of the Scottish Parliament. It's gone through two consultations. So is it just a question of asking people again and again and again and again until they finally say what you want them to?

No, I think the Citizens’ Assembly has shown its value and shown its capability of looking at issues in great detail. I don’t think the Government consultations necessarily carry confidence in the way they’re presented.

Let’s take a precedent. In 2011, the SNP had a manifesto commitment for equal marriage. We introduced the legislation after the degree of consultation. It passed eventually in 2014. The opinion that we had in 2014 was quite different from the opinion we had in 2011 because as the issue was talked through we were able to convince people that by introducing equal marriage we were extending rights to some people without prejudicing the rights of other people.

That’s a three-year period, 2011 to 2014, gender reform has rolled on for far longer than that already.

The worst thing that can happen on this issue is to give the impression that the matter is being bulldozed through by party mandates, an issue which trespasses on people’s rights.

It says in the manifesto that Alba believes that the proposals are “ill thought out and will not improve the lives of trans people”. From the trans groups that I've listened to they're saying that the reforms would improve their lives, so who are Alba listening to to have drawn that conclusion?

I think you’re mistaken if you believe there is a consensus behind this legislation as it exists at the current moment. If improvements can be made in the process of gender recognition let’s find out what the improvements are and let’s do them, as opposed to having the process suggested in the form which doesn’t have, in many people’s opinion, appropriate safeguards. We think we’re putting forward a reasonable and positive proposal on it.

Another thing it says in the Alba manifesto is that “only Alba” is promoting the sex-based rights of women and girls. It’s not only Alba though is it? The Conservative party are doing the same thing. So while you said you wouldn’t describe yourself as a social conservative, it is fair to say that Alba and the Conservatives align on this issue.

That’s probably a fair point. Let’s put it this way: on the progressive side of politics only Alba is putting forward a manifesto that gives priority to the established rights of women and girls.

If we go back to my experience on equal marriage … some people had genuine concerns usually about their faith or whatever objection they had, other people on the political spectrum saw proposals for equal marriage as an opportune issue to beat the government with.

My view on matters which touch on conscience has been as far as possible to take them out of party politics.

So one of the people in 2011 who was raising concerns about gay marriage was Douglas Ross, who is now leading the Conservative party and raising concerns about gender reform. Ross has since admitted he was wrong to have raised concerns about gay marriage. Are you not concerned that in 10 more years you and Douglas Ross are going to be in the same position?

Would I be concerned about changing my mind on issues over a period of time? I’ve never been frightened to change my mind.

Some people oppose things for opportunistic reasons, and the Conservative party opposed equal marriage for opportunistic reasons, and some people put forward things because they’re anxious to ensure that people who have genuine reservations about the nature of legislation and what that does to their established rights.


Next up in our Leaders' Interviews series will be Patrick Harvie and Nicola Sturgeon