The history man: Exclusive interview with First Minister Alex Salmond

The First Minister is no stranger to a spot of hyperbole but as the SNP faithful gather in Perth this weekend, there is no need for exaggeration; the moment is historic

by Oct 22, 2012 No Comments

The Nationalists’ gathering is the last in the national party conference season and follows on from all the other main party conferences in Brighton, Manchester and Birmingham during which one man, Alex Salmond, was singled out for special mention.

Whether it was in Miliband’s famously noteless ‘One nation’ diatribe or David Cameron’s more explicit rallying call to his troops to rise up and prepare for the referendum battle, the SNP, a party that not so many years ago would have been relegated to the ranks of militants and cranks, is now the common threat that unifies UK parties of quite different political hues under the collective banner of ‘Better Together’.

The Prime Minister closed his conference almost with a wagging finger to Salmond, warning that he was coming to Scotland to “sort that referendum on independence”. Five days later he flew into Edinburgh and signed a document that not only paves the way for what all Nationalists live and breathe for; the right to vote on independence, but also gives Alex Salmond a legally watertight referendum, the right to extend the franchise, to confirm the date that he had already decided and gives his government the final say on campaign funding.

Told them, then, David…

And while the arguments rage on about who has won what from the protracted negotiations that began in January when the Prime Minister unwittingly fired the starting gun on the referendum process, there was really only one winner. Because regardless of whether you believe Alex Salmond had tried to manipulate events and people over the last 18 months or so to give him, what some see as a fall-back position in the event of a ‘no’ vote, there is no denying that now being forced into a single question referendum is no real hardship, particularly when it comes with a warning light that it was the Westminster Government that wouldn’t bend to the democratic will of the Scottish people over a second question on further powers. Where those people now take their vote is anyone’s guess but there is no denying they are potentially more open to persuasion to independence if they can be convinced it is only a baby-step away from where they were anyway.

So, while many unionists may have taken exception to the claim by Scots historian, Tom Devine, when he said that Monday was the most significant date in Scotland’s history for 300 years, clearly the world’s media agreed with him.

Journalists from all over the globe descended on Edinburgh. The BBC built a tent outside St Andrew’s House and started broadcasting from the early hours with their heavyweight presenters flown up from London for the occasion. Meanwhile, Milan’s Corriere della Sera later reported that Scots would say ‘adio’ to the UK but not Buckingham Palace, CNN referred to a poll taking place 700 years after ‘William Wallace died for Scottish independence’ and the Washington Post said the vote ‘sets up the possibility that Washington’s closest strategic ally could be torn asunder’. Closer to home, the Herald headline said it was ‘a date with destiny’ and the Sun simply read ‘shake or break time’.

For Nationalists, it was simply a day that took them one step closer to their day of reckoning and for Alex Salmond, the day was undoubtedly a victory.

In typically ebullient mood, he told Holyrood that it was ‘game on’ and was expansive in his clear delight at the referendum process being concluded ahead of the party conference.

“I love the SNP,” he said. “I adore it and Willie Wolfe [former SNP National Convener] once told me that you should always remember that the SNP is a beating heart and the conference is a reflection of that beating heart.

“This will be a conference that meets in the light of the Edinburgh Agreement and one that is truly historic.

“I think this is going to be the greatest conference ever and I am buoyed by the fact that it is game on.

“People may have got tired of the process but it has been necessary to get to an outcome that is satisfactory where the process is agreed and that the result will be respected. That process, that procedural thing, is necessary. That doesn’t mean I enjoy it but what I will enjoy is taking this argument, that prospect, to the platform we now have to the people for their assent. This is what I live and breathe my politics for so this is going to be the best conference of my life, basically.” It is hard to believe that this conference can best last year’s which followed in the immediate aftermath of the landmark election result which gave the SNP an unprecedented majority government in the Scottish Parliament and made the referendum process even possible.

Over the piece, the party’s poll ratings in terms of Holyrood voting intentions have remained consistently at around the 45 per cent level, which is exactly in line with the share it achieved in May 2011. True, the party did not realise that level of success in the local council elections in May, or more symbolically, live up to the much hyped predictions of taking control of Glasgow City Council but in terms of the arithmetic, the party still managed to come first for the first time. And even though Salmond’s personal popularity has dipped slightly, at 53 per cent, the percentage of people who say they are satisfied with him far outstrips the equivalent figure for all of his unionist counterparts, both in Scotland and at Westminster.

But notwithstanding the highs, it’s fair to say that it’s not been a brilliant couple of weeks; there have been reports of Salmond being booed by crowds at both the Olympic homecoming ceremony in Glasgow and at the Ryder Cup in the United States, there’s a poll just out saying support for independence has dropped, there have been a string of potentially damaging stories that have cast a shadow of doubt over his judgement in trying to enlist the support of the likes of Donald Trump, over the decision to release Megrahi, or why he would go to court over attempts to have ministerial advice on EU membership released and despite her rather clumsy entry into the debate about public spending, Johann Lamont has managed to steal some headlines from the SNP Government’s commitment to universality of benefits.

However, far from believing any of these things need concern him in the referendum debate, the FM sees them as opportunities. The First Minister and I sit down in Bute House, a couple of days before his planned meeting with the Prime Minister. He’s got a painful sty and is hoarse after speaking on one of his favourite hobby horses – green energy – at a two-day conference, so while he forgoes the photo opportunity that he normally relishes, he does not hold back on what he has to say.

For Salmond, the shine of the massive electoral success in 2011 has been in no way dimmed and he is clearly energised by the prospect of getting to the substance of the referendum debate.

“Look, Mandy, whatever the polls say, there is a block of people, let’s say a third that will vote for independence, another block of a third that will vote against but a substantial body of opinion that want more powers and in that context, would also say they are not supporters of independence but equally, they are not for the status quo or for some vague undertaking; possibility, hint, suggestion, commission, or other possibility that’s offered up and with that choice available, they are there to be convinced that their aspirations can be best met by independence.

“I think these people are there to be convinced and won over and I will seek to do that. There are straws in the wind about where those people will go and Jim McColl being an example of that.

“I respected that body of opinion that was looking for a second question throughout the period of negotiations and tried to keep that position open because I thought it was reasonable to do so and there is no doubt about who wanted to foreclose on that.

“So, what are the big game changers that will allow us to win the referendum – and I think we will win the referendum by the way – so one is the point you have just made about those people looking for further powers. People will now have to choose yes or no to independence but in effect, fiscal autonomy is now encompassed by the independence position. I think there is work to be done to persuade them but I am confident that can be done.

“The second point is the obvious one, that our opponents have now made it devastatingly clear that staying under Westminster is not a safe option. It will mean that we have continuing austerity regardless of the Westminster government because the underlying message at the Labour conference was that there would be no end to austerity and what people have regarded as some of the achievements of devolution will be swept away. Labour will sweep away what I would see as great social gains from devolution and should be defended vigorously but the idea that staying with Westminster is a safe option has now been exposed as not being true, it is fraudulent, and if people want that kind of social democratic society, and if they want that balance between the private aspiration and public utility, then independence is the best way to protect it.

“Previously I would have argued that the argument for independence was becoming clear on the economy but added to that economic dimension is a social dimension and a clear acknowledgement by Johann Lamont that these things that only a few months ago the previous leader of the Labour Party said he would hold my feet to the fire on, are now disposable, supplementary things to be disregarded on the basis that there is no end in sight to austerity and Johann Lamont’s subtext is that a renewed Labour in government in a few years’ time doesn’t actually matter to this because there would be continued austerity and these things, these benefits, will have to go, no matter what.

So in my view, with that in mind, people need to decide what kind of society they want to live in.” It’s interesting to hear Salmond move from his normal, dry and often overly detailed economic argument into an analysis of society and what binds it. I say he begins to sound more like a Labour leader than the current one in Holyrood but also suggest that Lamont has touched a nerve in that people think we are in the mess we are in now because of overspending. I get an unexpected lecture on social justice.

“I don’t think that anyone actually believes that free personal care for the elderly was the cause of the international financial crisis,” says Salmond.

“Nor was free transport for pensioners on buses, nor was allowing students to have entitlement to education on the basis of their talents, it was the fault of less care on the part of bankers and government regulators.

“These benefits are, in my view, some of the most effective instruments of social solidarity that Scotland has ever seen. Let’s take free personal care for the elderly, let’s have this debate, it has had the effect of moving thousands of elderly people who would have normally gone to geriatric hospitals into being cared for in their own homes. Most of us would argue that home is the best place for that care to be provided and that is where it is now being provided and that has been an exceptional thing and I intend it to continue.

“Let’s take free transport for pensioners; it has given people a mobility to enjoy their retirement as well as reduce the use of car travel and on both counts is a good thing for society.

“Free tuition fees; is a slam dunk. This year in Scotland, we have record number of Scottish students at Scottish universities, a record number of English students at Scottish universities and a record number of international students at Scottish universities and meanwhile in English universities, there has been a decline of almost 10 per cent of English students getting into English universities. Is that the kind of society we want to live in?

“All of these things are good things for society, Mandy. They pay substantial dividends in the short term and even bigger dividends in the long term but the biggest dividend of all is in the recruitment of the whole of society behind social progress which you can not do from means testing where you play one group off against another.

“I did say to Johann Lamont in Parliament that I was somewhat disconcerted, having come back from America, that not only had she aligned herself to the Tories but effectively, had become the Conservative Party. The baldness of her approach is astonishing but perhaps, certainly from my perspective, is welcome because people can be under no illusions about what she wants for the future of the Scottish people.” But is the SNP’s commitment to universal benefits sustainable?

“I don’t see any way it can’t be sustained.

Previously under devolution when the Labour Party had problems running Scotland’s economy, even when the budget was increasing at 5 per cent a year, then the suggestion was that we now had a parliament so we won’t have the poll tax or anything like that but we will carve things out that are distinctly Scottish and not worry about what was happening at Westminster and in the blossoming years of public spending, you could probably get away with that but the difficulty now is that they are saying that these things can not be done anymore because the pressure of finance, as they would have it, is going to continue over a long period of years and therefore, we can’t sustain the spending but my argument would be that the way to sustain that is to have the powers over the finances that allow it to happen.

“I notice that Arthur Midwinter has come out of retirement to provide the weight to Johann Lamont’s review and I clearly remember Arthur Midwinter identifying a black hole in the SNP’s budget when he was an independent academic, although I also recall a debate between him and David Simpson and Simpson saying he wasn’t really talking like an independent academic but no matter what Midwinter’s argument turned on, it was that no government could possibly achieve 1 per cent efficiencies on deliveries of public services in a period of time and John Swinney has not only achieved 1 per cent, he has achieved 2 per cent over five years and the savings to the Scottish budget are £3bn which is greater, incidentally, than the entire cost of the universal benefits which we now know are around 3 per cent of the budget so you can do it by good governance. We were also told that the public-sector landscape would remain cluttered and yet it has been halved in terms of the number of bodies over the last five years.

There is nothing socially undemocratic about providing training from one organisation as opposed to four and there is nothing socially undemocratic about wanting efficiency in our public bodies in fact, quite the contrary; they have to be efficient to retain public confidence.

“So a lot has been achieved but the other aspect is quite clear, that on the last count, in the 2010/11 last GERS figures, there was a relative surplus of £2.7bn and that would have, coincidently, paid for these universal benefits too and would have allowed the Scottish Government to borrow less, it could have invested more, particularly in capital, and could have retained comfortably these social benefits.

“Johann Lamont quotes both the Independent Budget Review, led by Crawford Beveridge and the Christie Commission, led by Campbell Christie to justify her claims. It’s extraordinary; Campbell was a great believer in full fiscal autonomy and Crawford believes in independence and neither the Beveridge Report nor the Christie Commission said we should sweep away universal benefits; what they did was outline a menu of spending choices, for instance, getting capital spending under control which has been done by us spectacularly.

“But you know, Johann Lamont complains about the cost of universal benefits in health and education but the cost of the calamity of Labour’s embrace of PFI is substantially greater.

We may have stopped PFI but the problem is the ongoing and rising costs of the contracts that were previously signed and John [Swinney] has looked at this a number of times and tried to unpick the contracts, which is costly, and if we honestly believed we could legally and effectively revisit these contracts we would do but the problem is that the contracts that were entered into may have been crazy but no one forced the Labour finance minister most responsible, Andy Kerr, no one forced Andy Kerr to sanction the contracts, just as no one forced the administration in Edinburgh to sanction the trams contract.” Why doesn’t the Scottish Government simply refuse to meet the payment demands and see the contractors in court, I wonder?

“Look, I don’t want to foreclose on any future option on this but let’s just say that on the contracts that have been examined, the analysis would tell us that we had no leg to stand on because there is no deception involved just a lack of analysis, a lack of care, and a lack of understanding of the implications of what they [the Labour minister] were doing. John has revisited some of the contracts several times and looked at a number of them which were completely absurd and tried to see if there is any movement we could make on these but the advice we have had so far is that we don’t and believe me, we have looked at this.” And what has the Government’s alternative mechanism, the Scottish Futures Trust, corrected?

“Well, it has corrected the huge imbalance between those that were offering the contracts and those that were accepting them; hardnosed PFI operators and those that were not used to dealing with these people at that level and what SFT has done has meant that people giving out contracts are more experienced than those bidding for them so the equation has been totally altered. The savings from that are spectacular.

“I remember when SFT was launched there was a great deal of scepticism within the media and we picked, for the chief executive, a poacher, Barry White, and made him a gamekeeper and he has done a great job and I think I am right in saying that Robert Black, the former auditor general, was one to praise him and he was certainly praised by Crawford Beveridge.

“In all of this, I think it is very difficult for Johann Lamont to be quoting Crawford Beveridge who believes in independence and Campbell Christie who believed in fiscal autonomy for justification for her case and she’ll have to quote Arthur Midwinter and one of the problems with Arthur Midwinter is that he claimed there was a black hole in the SNP’s budget in 2007 and no black hole appeared.

John Swinney has, de facto, balanced the budget for the last six years, he has a track record, he balances the books, he is the only finance minister in the western world, apart from the Norwegian one, that balances the budget.

Now you might say that’s because he has no borrowing powers but that doesn’t matter, he still balances the budget and the decisions he has made about spending have been by and large, first class.” Swinney’s reputation in these financial matters is vital if the SNP is to win the case for independence but clearly Salmond has now seen the value of coalescing the social democratic case with the economic one more volubly. He describes the claim by the Scottish Conservative leader, Ruth Davidson, that only 12 per cent of Scotland’s households are net contributors to the economy as a “most extraordinary thing to do” and says that she demonstrated not only bad politics but that she was not in command of what she was talking about.

“Ruth Davidson, without being an economist, has fallen into the trap that used to be allocated to accountants; they can know the price of everything but know the value of nothing. She hasn’t even understood what the price tag was about, never mind appreciating the value of human beings which is a sad lonely place for a politician to be.” On that note, I ask the First Minister whether he has people around him who would be willing to say ‘don’t do that, it’s a stupid idea’? He does have a reputation for being a tad autocratic.

He laughs: “I have lots of people around me who have great ideas and unfortunately, I have to say, I don’t think we can do that but incidentally, I would rather be a politician that is attacked for doing things than be one that is attacked for not doing anything.” Regardless of his protestations, Salmond undoubtedly has run a tight ship so why, with everything on the independence front to play for, is he willing to let the party of government be seen to publically slug out at conference what could be interpreted as a split over membership of Nato?

“Mandy, the idea of a political party, in a totally non-autocratic way, by the way, debating a serious subject is a novelty, I know and while, like everybody, I would like to be 30 years younger, I have been in the SNP when it has had a pro-Nato policy, an anti-Nato policy and as it is now, with a partnership for peace policy. The SNP’s cardinal position has been its opposition to nuclear weapons and that has been expressed and developed in different ways as the world changed. There were different circumstances in the 70s, 80s and then ten years ago, John Swinney thought that the emergence of the partnership for peace provided a good platform for a defence policy and now we are in a different position again.

“I think what’s changed is that by giving the reassurance to our neighbours and allies that we would be prepared to be part of a common defence arrangement gives us the best possible position for successfully negotiating the removal of the weapons of mass destruction from Scotland and I wouldn’t be supporting the resolution if I didn’t think it wasn’t an important part of the independence prospectus.

“Our argument would be that as a successor state, we inherit Nato membership but that is provisional on the acceptance of being a nonnuclear member of the alliance and remember, it is up to any member of Nato to support a military action outwith an attack on another member state and up to any member to have nuclear weapons, and up to any other member state to not have nuclear weapons and these are the assurances that Lord George Robertson gave.

“Incidentally, the fact that France was a member of Nato did not stop Dominique de Villepin arguing at the Security Council of the United Nations against war in Iraq. In fact my wife, Moira, was so impressed by him at that time – he has had a fairly chequered political career since – that she called one of her ducks Dominique.” Salmond goes on to say that Dominique the duck is in fact no more, having fallen prey, as has Mrs Salmond’s whole duck population, to what Salmond refers to as ‘the killing machine’ of local Aberdeenshire otters.

If there is an analogy to be made relative to the French-named duck’s demise and the SNP’s vote on Nato, then I can’t find it but suffice to say, local and international waters can be predatory and unpredictable.

Mandy Rhodes Mandy Rhodes

Mandy Rhodes is Managing Editor of Holyrood Communications. Mandy is editor of the flagship title Holyrood magazine and responsible for the editorial content of all other associated titles and products. Mandy graduated from StirlingUniversity in the early 1980s with a joint Honours degree in Scottish History and Sociology. She trained on a local newspaper in Wester Hailes and completed her journalism training at Napier University. She has worked for nearly 30 years in journalism in Scotland in newsprint, television and radio broadcasting and was part of the launch team of Scotland on Sunday. She has won numerous awards over the years including PPA Magazine Editor of the Year, Feature Writer of the Year and Columnist of the year. She was social...

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