The 45's biggest problem
There’s a curious and illuminating anecdote in the early pages of Alex Salmond’s newly published diary of the referendum campaign. It concerns his father — or ‘Faither’, as Robert Salmond is referred to throughout — and an incident that occurred, Salmond Jr thinks, during the West Lothian by-election of 1962.
‘Faither’ opened the door to a Labour canvasser, who enquired how he’d be voting. ‘Labour. Always have,’ was the response. When asked of his wife’s intentions, ‘Faither’ replied: ‘No hope for her. She’s a Tory.’
‘Not a problem,’ said the canvasser. ‘Just as long as she doesn’t vote for those Scottish Nose Pickers!’
‘Wait a minute’, said ‘Faither’. ‘My best pal’s in the SNP.’
‘They’re all nose pickers.’
‘No, they’re no.’
‘Aye, they are.’
This exchange, which might have been scripted for Chewin’ the Fat, seems to have carried on for some time, and by the end, according to Salmond Jr, the Labour activist was (naturally) ‘running down the whole of Scotland.’
Matters concluded with ‘Faither’, whom photographs reveal to have the same marrow-freezing glower as his son, exclaiming: ‘Look, when you arrived I told you I’d vote Labour as I have done in every election. I will now vote SNP in every election. I want you to remember that this is what you have achieved tonight.’
I have no idea whether this odd tale is true, or a fable concocted by our ex-first minister to suit his narrative. He immediately, and conveniently, goes on to link the Labour activist ‘running down Scotland’ half a century ago to the strategy pursued by the same party in the run-up to last September’s referendum.
Also puzzling is the nature of the dispute between doorstepper and doorstepped. The Nats were widely ridiculed as the Scottish Nose Pickers in those days, and indeed for many years afterwards. It’s hard to imagine a Labour voter being so enraged by a Labour activist using the term. And on a purely human level, a single catty exchange with one lowly campaigner is a strange thing on which to base your voting preference for the rest of your days.
But then, perhaps cattiness is a defining family trait. Salmond’s book, titled The Dream Shall Never Die — 100 Days that Changed Scotland Forever, is a box-ticking exercise, a litany of scores being vituperatively settled. So many, so regular and so varied are the lunges at those who have had the temerity to disagree with him that the pattern becomes almost hypnotic. Denigration and spite provide the book’s rhythm: it has a backbeat of malice.
One expected as much, of course — character is destiny — and so from the off I decided to note down the page number of every sideswipe launched and aspersion cast. My sheet of paper filled up quickly. Reader, it is not for me to say that Alex Salmond falls some way short of being anything like a statesman. It is for you to say it.
Let’s sample the bile. It only takes until page two for David Cameron to be labeled a ‘silly arrogant man’ and, later, during a prime ministerial visit to Stirling, ‘a Tory toff on a day trip’.
Sir Nicholas Macpherson, the widely respected permanent secretary of the Treasury, who has worked with three chancellors and is the longest-serving senior mandarin in Whitehall, ‘radiated hostility’ towards independence during the campaign. This, according to Mr Salmond, was because of his ‘family’s extensive land interests in Scotland’. Sir Nicholas ‘wallowed’ in his sudden ‘politicisation’, was prone to ‘pernicious rants’ and should ‘give up the pretence of being a civil servant’. Of course, a charge of pro-Nat bias has been leveled at Sir Peter Housden, permanent secretary of the Scottish Government, while Mr Salmond has been accused of wider politicisation of the Scottish civil service.
The new Scottish Labour leader, Jim Murphy, who spent the referendum campaign touring local towns and villages taking on all-comers from atop a pair of Irn-Bru crates — an act which more measured Yes campaigners now speak of with some respect — lives in a ‘twilight world’ and his ‘sole contribution’ to the referendum campaign ‘has been to complain about being egged’. Salmond suggests Murphy is a ‘coward’. ‘Wee Douglas Alexander’, the shadow foreign secretary who was at the heart of New Labour’s big general election wins, is unsophisticated. Salmond was writing a ‘seminal’ — his word — paper on oil economics before Danny Alexander, chief secretary to the Treasury, had begun his ‘one and only job outside politics as head press officer for Cairngorms National Park’. Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott is a ‘plonker’ and a ‘fawning, Oxbridge-educated misogynist’
Then there is the detested ‘old-fashioned media’ — that is, every newspaper but the independence-supporting Sunday Herald. The Unionist press is, he asserts in full David Icke-mode, engaged in an anti-Yes conspiracy and ‘concocts’ stories to suit its ‘obsessions’. It is ‘puerile’, ‘ludicrous’ and ‘fatuous’. Scotland on Sunday is ‘dismal’ and ‘well-initialled’. The Scotsman is ‘unreliable’ and ‘will disappear from the newsstands before long’. The Sunday Post ‘was once a great Scottish tradition… now it has an added touch of malice.’ Why? Because the paper dared expose Mr Salmond’s preference for expensive hotels while on taxpayer-funded junkets.
The BBC’s coverage of the campaign is ‘entirely malicious’, and it is this ‘lack of real journalism’ that caused 1,500 people — his figure — to ‘spontaneously’ protest outside its Glasgow HQ. In a phone call, the First Minister tells the BBC’s director-general Lord Hall that the corporation is ‘a disgrace to public service broadcasting’ and attacks ‘London heavies’ and ‘network numpties’ such as its political editor Nick Robinson.
A former chief executive of the Scotch Whisky Association — which Salmond wrongly calls the ‘Scottish Whisky Association’ — who complains about intimidation by the SNP government is ‘unctuous’. The CBI’s staff are ‘timeservers and dimwits’.
There’s plenty more of this stuff, matched only by fawning praise for those individuals or institutions who did Mr Salmond’s bidding or were supportive of the Yes campaign. The cumulative effect on the reader is to create a growing sense of unease. This man, with his seething hatreds, grand grudges and thirst for vengeance, was first minister for seven years. The position is an eminent one, and should require any holder to govern on behalf of the entire nation — all of it, and all who live in it — regardless of political persuasion or party affiliation. It is no place for those encrusted in bitterness. Yet Mr Salmond comes across as just such a small, bitter man. Recall his description during the campaign of the Yes campaign as ‘Team Scotland’. By this measure, 55 per cent of Scots have no place in the team. In the book — with three weeks to go — he talks of ‘Scotland’ needing ‘every [pro-independence] declaration possible. She needs all her daughters and all her sons.’ Not Scotland, Alex. Not Scotland. You. It’s not the same thing.
When he puts down the gun, it is only to pick up a mirror. He has ‘rock-star status’, and is ‘unanimously and warmly greeted’ by crowds. Reports of booing at one event are dismissed as being ‘so half-hearted that no one could hear it from where we were’. Instead, he ‘spent a lot of time signing autographs’. He regularly gives a ‘rousing address’ to ‘thunderous applause’. Appearing on Question Time in Liverpool, he gets ‘a pretty good response… but I usually do in Liverpool’. When a member of the audience announces that Mr Salmond should be the local mayor there is ‘rapturous applause… I would have done a lot better than the present Labour incumbent’.
A comical lack of self-awareness runs like a burbling stream through the book. He recalls once attending the Scottish Open and spending most of his time in conversation with Bob Diamond, the then chief executive of the competition’s then sponsor, Barclays, ‘who, when we weren’t talking about golf, spent most of his time talking about Bob Diamond.’ He compares himself to Robert the Bruce. The Scottish referendum is only taking place because ‘Faither’ survived the Second World War, allowing little Alex to be born. Clearly, without his genius, Scottish nationalism could not possibly have reached its current giddy heights. He muses on why, as he sees it, BBC journalists ‘have no self-awareness’.
One of the few impressive aspects of The Dream Shall Never Die is the portrait that is drawn of a strong, ordinary and mutually supportive relationship between Mr Salmond and his wife, Moira — no easy thing after a long career in politics. They dine together regularly, and he tags along to her favourite garden centres. Moira speaks her mind, and Alex does what he’s told. He says that ‘being a political spouse is undoubtedly the worst job in the world — all of the intrusion and irritation with absolutely none of the glory’. But that ‘glory’: it’s a funny word to choose, don’t you think? Not ‘fulfillment’, or ‘gratification’, or ‘reward’.
It’s always the little things. ‘Glory’ goes to the heart of the Salmond story. After he announced his resignation as First Minister, having lost the referendum, I bumped into a senior Nationalist and asked what they thought the great man would do next. Would he go into business, take on a handful of directorships, make big money? Would he step back completely and live comfortably off the various lucrative pensions he has accumulated from the different parliaments in which he has served and positions he has held? ‘I doubt it,’ was the response. ‘Alex isn’t driven by money. He’s driven by status.’ By glory, in other words.
Everyone I know who worked for Better Together regards the Yes campaign with genuine, unfettered awe. As an exercise in How To Do It, it will be taught in the politics departments of universities for years to come and be copied, probably badly, by wannabe politicos around the globe. The achievement, given where the Yes vote began in the polls, was extraordinary. The uncorking of the democracy bottle inspired us all, even those of us who voted to remain in the United Kingdom. The book’s best passages are those in which Mr Salmond admits to finding himself emotionally overwhelmed by the scale of what is happening — the size of the crowds, the passion and warmth, the engagement of parts of the electorate usually beyond the reach of politics. In other words, the bits that aren’t about him. We all saw this, and felt it — as Scottish sons, daughters, parents, husbands, wives, patriots — even if we were not allowed to be part of Alex’s Team Scotland.
And this, I think, is why Mr Salmond is now an issue for his ‘Team’. For all the positivity and dancing in the streets of the Yes movement, there was a dark side that deterred many who might otherwise have been up for a constructive discussion. The arrogance, blunt assertion, aggression, disdain and bullying that too many No voters experienced are qualities incarnate in the former first minister. The inability to admit to doubts or speak openly and realistically about the difficulties that would inevitably face an independent Scotland cast the campaign in a Utopian light that to the pragmatic among us made it look juvenile and naïve — and dangerous. Again, a flaw incarnate in Mr Salmond.
While Nicola Sturgeon threatens to bring a gentler, more convincing and more conciliatory approach to her cause, that effort might be undone by sending the Banff bull into the Westminster china shop. Ms Sturgeon wants the polls to show at least 60 per cent support for independence before she’ll countenance the prospect of another referendum. But in that case she’ll need to remove the roadblocks. The Salmond way, with its cocky sneer, maxed out at 45, and yet this book reveals he has changed his mind on nothing, learned nothing, accepted responsibility for nothing: the currency debacle, the deep divisions across Scotland, the weakness of the detail in almost every policy area, the ludicrous over-confidence. The SNP’s task now is to understand why it lost, and what those No voters might in time listen to and be convinced by. Banging on about the British state, taking wild swings at your opponents, deriding good people with competing views, playing the man not the ball — that won’t do it.
It’s a curious thing, but if the SNP is ever to attain its goal — and this is clearly now far from unthinkable — it may have to accept that its greatest icon has, in fact, become its biggest headache.
This article appeared in the Scottish Daily Mail on March 21, 2015