WE’RE off! The Battle of Rutherglen has commenced. And without an intervention from Alex Salmond’s Alba Party, which agreed at the weekend not to put up a candidate in the special by-election called to replace Margaret Ferrier.

Salmond had called for a “unity” candidate to represent the independence movement – a call met with deafening silence on the part of the SNP.

By not standing, and leaving an almost clear field to Katy Loudon (below), the official SNP standard bearer, Alba aim to hold the moral high ground politically.

The National: SNP Westminster by-election candidate Katy Loudon

If the SNP hold the seat – Ferrier was originally elected for the party before being suspended for infringing Covid lockdown rules – then Alba can claim it helped.

Had Alba stood and the SNP still won then Humza Yousaf’s team could (rightfully) have branded Alba an irrelevance. But if an Alba intervention stole enough votes from the SNP in a tight race with Labour, Salmond’s mob would be a permanent pariah in the national movement. This way, Alba lives to fight another day whatever the outcome.

However, as the wily Salmond is betting, leaving Loudon to carry the flag puts a big onus on an already wounded SNP. Labour’s candidate Michael Shanks is no shoo-in. But neither are Scottish Labour guaranteed the seat, whatever the London Unionist media says to itself.

True, recent polling indicates a big shift to Labour among Scottish voters. The latest Survation poll has Labour on 34% for the next Holyrood election. But the SNP are still ahead on 39%. The question is: In a by-election that allows voters to send a message to the SNP government, will the people Rutherglen and Hamilton West back Labour? And if they do, how will the national movement respond strategically?

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I don’t doubt that the SNP are going to lose seats at Westminster in next year’s General Election. Current SNP MPs are responding to this prospect by announcing their resignations. Or, in the case of Angus Brendan MacNeil, preparing to go it alone as an independent.

But remember two things. First, the number of SNP seats at Westminster is in the long run an irrelevance. This is a foreign parliament that patronises its Scottish representatives or simply ignores them. SNP and Alba representation in the House of Commons presents the national movement with a platform to speak to Scotland. It is not an end in itself.

And secondly, next year’s General Election is still quite far away. I doubt if Rishi Sunak is in any hurry to meet the voters. His government has failed to deliver anything much. Nadine Dorries may be bonkers, but her resignation letter pretty much said what a lot of Tory MPs are thinking – technocrat Sunak is not going to excite the voters any more than boring Keir Starmer.

Which means the next UK General Election is still wide open. Conclusion: It would be wrong for the national movement to concede Scotland electorally to the London parties just yet. Which brings us straight back to the Rutherglen and Hamilton West by-election.

It is vital that the SNP holds this seat regardless. We concede nothing to Labour. In fact, defeating Starmer’s crew here in Rutherglen will have seismic consequences for London Labour.

First, it will prove definitively that Starmer’s drift to the right – more a gallop actually – is not popular with the majority of voters. A Labour defeat in Rutherglen will ignite a civil war as MPs and party members demand Starmer does something other than replicate Tory policies. An SNP victory at Rutherglen – even by a few votes – could be Starmer’s nemesis. So get out and knock on doors.

Next, holding Rutherglen changes the scenario for the General Election. The Unionist media will no longer be able to write off the national cause. Every Westminster constituency will have to be fought for tooth and nail – on both sides of the national divide.

AND that brings us back to Alex Salmond’s (and Alba’s) call for a united front at the next election with a single “Scotland United” candidate in each and every constituency.

That is a big ask of the SNP, of course. But it is important that every SNP member considers such a strategy.

Alba’s decision not to stand in Rutherglen is an olive branch that says Salmond respects that the SNP is the senior partner in any electoral front. And that despite the (often testy) war of words there has been between SNP and Alba supporters (who are, remember, mostly former SNP themselves) it is possible to put nation first.

It may be a small olive branch but it is a significant one. It suggests that a rapprochement is possible. We can march separately but still strike together where it matters.

Forging a “Scotland United” approach to the next General Election would be good in itself for the SNP. It would turn the party outwards and away from its myriad internal woes.

It would allow Humza Yousaf to show genuine leadership of the whole movement. It would galvanise SNP members and perhaps lead eventually to an organic haling of the divisions that have grown in the national movement. And what is the alternative? To cut our own throats by having the movement field rival candidates in the constitutionally rigged Westminster lottery?

Salmond (below) and Alba have made repeated calls for some sort of national convention of the whole movement to discuss future strategy. So far that too has met with stony silence from official SNP circles.

The National: File photo dated 12/09/21 of Alex Salmond, who has said Nicola Sturgeon must set out a "plan of action" to prove she is serious about her pledge to hold an independence referendum..

OK, let’s try something different. Let’s have local gatherings of the movement that bring everyone together on a trial basis. Or have Common Weal or Believe in Scotland broker a national conclave or festival of independence, where strategy and tactics could be discussed free of party labels.

Or bring together a committee of 100 of activists and wise heads from the movement who can be trusted by everyone. Where there is a will there must be a diplomatic way to bring the movement together in action.

Which brings us to Saturday’s march and rally for an independent Scotland in the EU, organised by the Believe in Scotland Yes for EU, and to be held in Edinburgh.

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There’s an impressive line-up of speakers including the First Minister. Readers will know I am not a fan of Scottish membership of the EU – I prefer the Norwegian option of joining the single market but maintaining our independence from the Brussels bureaucracy.

But that is a secondary consideration prior to achieving indy. I think folk should turn up on Saturday to show solidarity and that we can compromise to ensure action. A good turnout will boost morale and annoy the Unionist media.

The date of the Rutherglen by-election has yet to be decided. That gives us extra time to bring the movement to together. Matches have been won in extra time. We don’t need to let this go to an uncertain penalty shoot-out.

The entire movement – not just SNP members – has to get out to Rutherglen and campaign. That will bring folk together in a positive way.

And there can be a big victory party on the night where we let our hair down. Victory has a good way of erasing internal disputes.