ASH Regan is either a fool or a hero, depending on which faction of the independence movement you ask. At the Alba Party conference at the weekend, its leader, Alex Salmond announced her defection to the SNP, much to the delight of the assembled delegates.

Reaction to the news was so predictable it could have been scripted. The SNP were keen to paint the loss of one of its former ministers and former leadership hopeful as insignificant.

And maybe it is.

Alba remain a minority party and its dire polling ratings haven’t shown much improvement in the wake of the SNP’s recent woes. But the derision we’ve seen towards their former party representative runs the risk of looking like ignorance to the extent of their current problems.

Strategically, it would have surely been better to remain neutral – to wish Ash Regan well and thank her for her work. Unlike Lisa Cameron’s decision to cross the floor and join the Tories, which was met with almost universal bafflement, this news speaks to the deepening divisions we are seeing within the independence movement itself.

Incidentally, I don’t think division and disagreement within a movement that encompasses nearly 50% of the population is necessarily a bad thing.

The National: Ash Regan and Humza Yousaf during the SNP leadership contest Ash Regan and Humza Yousaf during the SNP leadership contest (Image: Craig Brough)

But for the SNP, as the main party of independence and therefore the biggest electoral beneficiary of that desire to see Scotland become an independent country, division poses a threat if they find themselves in a position where they cannot rely on the automatic support of like-minded folk.

Humza Yousaf’s decision to characterise Regan’s defection as “not a particularly great loss” was, I think, a mistake. Both personally and politically, it may very well be the First Minister’s honest assessment of the news but as the leader of the SNP and a figurehead of the independence movement, warm wishes might have served him better.

On social media, some SNP representatives were similarly scathing. There is more than a whiff of Scottish Labour 2015 around the SNP at the moment.

Not electorally, of course. While the party is no doubt facing challenges, there is nothing to suggest it is heading for a total wipeout at the next election.

But there is a sense that heads are being firmly planted in the sand at SNP HQ. We see glimpses of accountability for the troubles they face but they are fleeting. The default seems to be that decidedly Scottish Labour approach of blaming others for your misfortunes.

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Thus far, Alba have not provided any real challenge to the SNP’s dominance in the independence movement. It has not capitalised on SNP division or the growing dissatisfaction of pro-indy voters.

But if a week is a long time in politics then we should know that two years is practically a lifetime.

The landscape of the next Holyrood election will be dramatically different than the last one. It is highly likely there will be a Labour prime minister at Westminster. The SNP will be facing an emboldened Scottish Labour party that will, for the first time since 2014, be in a position to fight.

By then, we might also see some conclusion to the long-running saga over SNP finances.

The SNP will have fought what is sure to be a bruising Westminster election. But if we’re being honest with ourselves, it’s highly likely Scotland will be no closer to securing a second independence referendum.

The SNP should be wary of assuming that the way things are is the way they will always be.

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One thing the Alba Party has in abundance is time. Alex Salmond is free to focus solely on preparations for that election, raising the party’s profile and recruiting dissatisfied SNP members and representatives.

The risk for the SNP isn’t that Alba have a stratospheric rise in popularity and become the dominant force in pro-indy politics; it is that they do enough in the years ahead to become an established party that has a chance of picking up list seats. Momentum is important in politics.

I have no idea if Salmond currently has the ear of other SNP politicians, who might be considering making the jump to Alba. But, crucially, neither does Yousaf.

Since he became First Minister, Yousaf has been on the back foot. And that is not entirely his fault – he was dealt a bad hand in the circumstances in which he became SNP leader and has had to spend as much of his time firefighting as on governance.

Since he has settled into the role, he has undoubtedly become more agile and confident. But the next two elections will be a critical moment for the long-term fortunes of the SNP.

His job is about to get even harder. And having Salmond’s representative in Holyrood can only compound his increasing list of problems.