Salmond's leap: Interview with the FM
He may have lost a referendum but Alex Salmond is far from beaten. As he steps down as SNP leader and hints at a return to the House of Commons, should the Union be feart?
Well known for his liking of a punt on the gee-gees, Alex Salmond is a man unafraid to take a gamble. But it still takes a certain chutzpah to bounce back from such a public defeat as a referendum which rested on your very raison d’etre and still come up smelling of roses. But I have watched him do just that, time and time again as his party failed to quite live up to his ebullient billing. So it was with some surprise when on the morning of the 19th of September he announced he would be standing down as leader of the SNP and as First Minister. Not least because I had appeared on Sky News, as someone who ‘knew him well’, according to presenter Kay Burley, just half an hour earlier proclaiming there was no way the man I knew would step down. Because, that’s not what he does. Well, get me and my lack of insight…
“Bouncing back and resigning are two different things, Mandy,” he explains in his ‘I’ll say this as gently as possible’ manner as I tell him of my error a few weeks later as he holds court in a suite of rooms at an Aberdeen hotel where he is conducting rounds of media interviews like speed dating – he kisses journalist Ruth Wishart goodbye, shakes my hand and sends off a radio reporter to wait in the bar, lunches with the wife, meets with business leaders and all the while, still running the country. Frankly, on this evidence, his role of First Minister showed little sign of falling back down to earth. “Of course I have bounced back but that doesn’t mean I have to be the First Minister of Scotland,” he says, intriguingly. A tease we will come back to later.
“This wasn’t something that came out of the blue. I’d made up my mind I would consider stepping down but I didn’t actually decide until the morning of the 19th. The reasons? Ah well, one: it is a kind of an old-fashioned thing - I think if you lose a campaign you have to at least consider retiring gracefully and we lost the referendum and someone has to take responsibility. Secondly, it’s a question of what is necessary to do. The leadership of Scotland, the leadership of the SNP is in good hands but there’s a generational issue here which was evident from the referendum itself [he refers to the under-40s voting Yes and the over-55s saying No] and at some point, everybody has to recognise that generationally, Scotland is changing and political leadership should reflect it. So both in terms of someone who should take responsibility and secondly in recognising a generational shift when I see it, I was certain then, and I am certain now, that standing down at that moment was the right thing to do.”
Cabinet colleagues and fellow MSPs tell me the first they knew of Salmond’s departure was when he said the words on television at a press conference held at Bute House on the morning of the 19th, which he famously excluded certain journalists from. [He is getting a bit of a reputation for getting his own back on those that have criticised him now he is off the leash.]
But regardless of the shock expressed by some of his political colleagues at his resignation announcement, he says he had discussed his plans to go with what he calls ‘close associates’, nodding warmly in the direction of his omnipresent trustee, his ‘Mr Fix-It’, chief of staff, Geoff Aberdein, who admits to ‘being gutted’ when ‘The Boss’ told him he was actually going. He had also sketched out his plans to quit in the event of a ‘No’ vote to John Swinney and Nicola Sturgeon but Sturgeon tells me she had heard him but hadn’t really believed him. In fact, in the event, she had tried to persuade him to stay but in the end he was adamant it was time to go.
At some point, everybody has to recognise that generationally, Scotland is changing and political leadership should reflect it
I ask him if Moira, his wife of 30 plus years, would have tried to persuade him to go anyway had he tried to hang on but he says she wouldn’t have even tried. Clearly, it was his decision and his decision alone. Salmond may come across as doggedly single minded, a one-man band, but the opinions of others do matter, deeply, it’s just he probably believes that his matter more and on the future direction of Scotland and his role in it, he probably holds the trump card.
He has variously been called a dictator, an egoist and a political pugilist. But he is no more or less any of those things than any other political leader. The difference is he has done a remarkable thing. All politicians come into office saying they want to change the world and indeed some may even claim they saved it [remember Gordon Brown and the banking crisis] but few leave office having ever done so. Salmond, meanwhile, has undoubtedly changed Scotland forever. He has shifted thinking about one nation’s relationship with the rest of the UK on its very axis. And whatever his detractors say, without him, there would have been no majority SNP government, without that there would have been no referendum and without a referendum, there would have been no resurgence in political engagement and without that engagement, there would be no continuing momentum for constitutional change.
That has been his real legacy – political engagement – almost 100 per cent voter registration, 85 per cent turnout, a 45 per cent vote in favour of independence, SNP party membership up by 300 per cent and opinion polls predicting an SNP landslide in both the Westminster and Holyrood elections. By any measure, these are impressive figures and yet they were not enough to persuade him to stay put.
“I’ve never had a hardship in taking decisions, incidentally, but people say you should do this, you should do that, you should consult, you should consider and yeah, yeah, that’s true but all the information you need to make that decision – the one I made on the 19th – is there in front of you. Waiting a day, waiting a week, waiting a month, was not going to change that information. When would have been a better time?
“I think the day after the referendum was a pretty good and natural point of departure. What then would have been the point of departure if it hadn’t been the day after the referendum? You start to think forward, to the Westminster election, the Scottish election and you also have to think what is essential. I believed I was the right person to lead the SNP in 1990 – arguably, if the circumstances had been different it might have been wiser to wait a while – and I believe it was the right thing to come back in 2004 in terms of taking the party forward and I think now is the right time to stand down as First Minister. I think we are in a good phase for Scottish politics, it’s a phase which has tremendous potential, it is redolent with opportunity, it is not as good an opportunity as voting ‘Yes’ to independence and securing that independence in 18 months, of course, but it has definite opportunities for Scotland and you ask yourself who is best placed to carry things forward.
“At some point the torch has to be passed on and it certainly feels like the time to pass it on is while the flame is burning strongly.
“There are a lot of things that I am quite pleased about in terms of what we’ve done in Scotland and one that I am most proud of is increasing the apprenticeship numbers from 16,000 to 26,000, but I think I’m right in saying the longest of these apprenticeships is five years. Nicola has done seven. She has done longer in her apprenticeship to become First Minister than any apprentice around Scotland. So the time is now for Nicola.”
I ask him what advice he would give to his protégé. “I’m not in the business of giving advice to Nicola,” he says of the woman he has shared a political partnership with for a decade. “An independent minded, highly intelligent woman politician like Nicola doesn’t need advice from me. I think Nicola’s difficulty will be my difficulty, which is not who do you put in your Cabinet but who do you keep out. There is enormous talent among the SNP MSPs and that’s not a bad position to be in.”
By all accounts, Sturgeon will be a different kind of leader. The Scottish Conservative leader, Ruth Davidson, had told her party conference that Sturgeon would take the party to the ‘left’. It was not a description that would have unduly upset the FM in waiting. She is a much more modern political construct than her boss, less formal, more touchy-feely, and despite the foam wrist support he is sporting as evidence of the vigorous pressing of the public flesh conducted during the referendum campaign. Salmond is, frankly, much more a product of Westminster.
She has done longer in her apprenticeship to become First Minister than any apprentice around Scotland. So the time is now for Nicola
So I ask him whether the speculation about him standing in next year’s General Election is true. He speculates that he could or he couldn’t and then says, “that’s for others to speculate”. I ask him why he can’t just say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ and he says “because there’s a lot to consider”. So is that a maybe? “There’s lots of things that I would consider, it doesn’t necessary mean I would do them,” he adds, fuelling the speculation.
To be fair, our conversation was also before the gobsmacking opinion polls from Ipsos Mori that predicted the SNP would take 54 seats at Westminster and Scottish Labour would retain just four.
And while most serious commentators would accept that that prediction is pretty wide of the mark, the fact that it even exists had led to much more, well, speculation about whether the SNP could actually become the Kingmaker in any UK coalition. Now that could certainly be a seductive tease for a man like Salmond.
I ask him what he would have done in the event of ‘Yes’ vote and any noble talk of making way for a new generation and recognising the time, place and responsibility is swept away when he says he would have “obviously stayed to negotiate the best possible deal for Scotland”.
I ask him why he thinks his campaign, despite its achievements, failed to convince the majority of its independence argument.
“Well, I think there were two reasons; one was the underlying scaremongering, the fear mongering, that I was pretty confident we’d seen off but that then led secondly to the only thing that the No side had left; the easy option, the last-minute vow, the offer of change with no change, a change without the perceived risks of independence.
“I’ve no doubt the vow was extremely successful and was made precisely because there was a substantial element of people who, I believe, were moving towards Yes, but they were dissuaded by an easy option, or at least an apparently easy option, a less rocky road.
“I think Gordon [Brown] is an ex-Prime Minister who has been looking for a role and when the role of saving the Union came up, he thought he would dust himself down and present himself without even having to interview for doing it.
“Collectively, Cameron, Miliband and Clegg all working together don’t pass the eleven-plus credibility test in Scotland but Brown, Gordon Brown, whatever people may think of his behaviour as Prime Minister, he still has credibility. His credibility underpinned their lack of credibility and if this was the loan, he was the guarantor. So his bona fide was what underpinned the vow. That and of course the presentation which technically was very good, if politically it was somewhat disreputable.”
Salmond’s anger at the way the eleventh-hour vow, agreed by the three UK party leaders with Brown as the architect, which promised more powers for Scotland within a strict timetable for change, was apparently reneged upon within hours of the No vote when the Prime Minister coupled the process with the issue of English votes for English laws, is palpable.
“Their feet,” he says, not for the first time, “must be held to the fire.”
It is clear, though, that Salmond doesn’t just believe it is the ‘three amigos’ as he calls them that need to have their feet held to the fire and he runs through a list of miscreants including newspapers, journalists and political parties who he feels need to be held to account for their roles in the referendum. But for him there has only been one winner.
Most people believe that the Scottish Parliament is more competent than Westminster and certainly more in tune, in touch and trusted than Westminster by a long way
“I always said that Scotland would emerge as the winner from this process. Why, because I felt that the pendulum had swung a long way during the campaign. Let’s remember that the offer from the Prime Minister in the dying stages of the campaign, is precisely the thing that he wouldn’t even have on the ballot paper a couple of years before, precisely because he was told, that the Yes vote would be lucky to get 30 per cent of the poll. So we have achieved a great deal but we haven’t achieved independence but at this moment, the losers look like winners and the winners look like losers and the momentum is with the Yes side of the campaign, the SNP and all those Scots who are annoyed that they were persuaded not to vote as their instincts were increasingly telling them because they were persuaded by a vow.
“We are moving, as Nicola has said, into debating the timing and the mechanism to get to independence and that will be the choice of the people, whatever it is but I think the pendulum has swung too far to swing back and I think the Labour Party in particular has effectively destroyed itself for a generation, behaving as it did in such a decisive test for Scotland. Campaigning with who they did is not likely to be forgotten or forgiven in a hurry and there are other people as well who will rightly reap the consequences of their behaviour in the campaign. As it says in one of the nonsense rhymes that my dad would read me, you can tell a man that boozes by the company he chooses. The Labour Party are in that position now.”
I suggest to him that Scottish Labour hasn’t got a particularly good record in terms of leadership – there have been four since he returned to the post of SNP leader – and both women, Alexander and Lamont, have faced a pretty bruising time.
“Let’s face it, it didn’t do too well with the male ones in-between either,” he laughs. “It’s maybe less to do with gender and a bit more to do with the party.
“In defence of the Labour leaders, I thought Wendy was actually very intelligent, certainly much more intelligent than her predecessor, if perhaps not the most political person I have ever met. I thought she was a good soul, actually, and I thought people would learn to like her politically but she was quite abrasive to people and her social skills were not her strong suit. But I reckoned people would get over that when they realised she had a good heart, I thought she wasn’t at all bad. In retrospect, I suppose many people dispute what brought her down although I think the argument I read was that her brother effectively stabbed her in the back over the ‘bring it on’ moment and if true, that is quite something.
“I don’t think Iain Gray was as disastrous as he was painted. On the contrary, I think in comparison to Ed Miliband, Iain Gray was pretty competent.
“And Johann, well, I think she has structural problems with her party that are not easily solved. It is very difficult to become leader of a party at the gift of your boss, as Ed Miliband decrees she should. Johann Lamont can be called leader of the Labour Party but getting her colleagues to believe that in the Scottish Parliament or at Westminster is a different matter entirely. Was she leading Jim Murphy during the referendum campaign, it didn’t look like that to me.”
What was prophetic about these words was that Salmond and I met three days before the news broke that Johann Lamont was standing down as leader of Scottish Labour, throwing in a couple of live hand grenades about UK Labour treating Scottish Labour like a branch office as she left. She triggered a leadership election which puts Jim Murphy as the front runner and as a reminder of the in-fighting that Labour could easily win prizes for.
While he’s on a roll, I ask him about Ruth Davidson’s comments about Sturgeon lunging to the left.
“Well, it’s a fundamental misunderstanding but then I think Ruth, if she believes that the centre ground of Scottish politics is anything close to Conservative Party politics, is living in a different universe or a different country. Nicola is in the mainstream of Scottish political opinion and she will lead the party from the mainstream as she should and as she will. The Tories are not the mainstream of Scottish politics. Ruth should look behind her occasionally at the range of Conservative MSPs she has. They are individually of course, very delightful people but they are not a political party; they are the sort of people you might invite round for cheese and wine because you wanted some interesting conversation but collectively; they are far removed from anything that could be seen as the mainstream of Scottish political opinion; just as most people would recognise Nicola and the bulk of the SNP leadership as people you could recognise as representative of valid strands of opinion in Scottish society."
What is he most proud of in terms of his legacy and what will he miss about being FM?
“I’m most pleased about the energised electorate but in policy terms, I think the SNP in government has done a number of specific things of which I am significantly pleased; free education is a major, major statement about the framework of Scotland but I suppose more generally, the Scottish Parliament is now held in high esteem whether people vote SNP or not. Most people believe that the Scottish Parliament is more competent than Westminster and certainly more in tune, in touch and trusted than Westminster by a long way. The competence aspect is important as well as people have to believe not only the good intentions but also that you’ve got the capability of delivering some of these good intentions. So that’s a grand platform on which to build and if the party continues to earn the trust of the people, then the trust of the people they shall get. Part of the SNP’s success was being a minority government, we couldn’t take anything for granted, and I’m sure the very last thing Nicola will do will be take for granted support in 2016, or victory in 2015. It will be the last thing she’ll do and she is right to never take these things for granted.”
On the subject of taking things for granted as he leaves high office, I tell him that Tony Blair, famously, didn’t know how to work his mobile phone as he left Downing Street because he’d always been surrounded by flunkeys who would do it for him.
Salmond tells me, politely but firmly, that he is perfectly proficient with new technology and can even text and tweet.
“I’ve even actually occasionally intervened on Twitter by replying to @angrysalmond [the spoof account]. And just so you know, Angry Salmond’s hashtag is #sexysocialism so you can tell it’s me when it’s #sexysocialdemocracy. Look out for it.”
Jeremy Corbyn expected to say that a Labour government would seek to join some form of customs union with the EU
Ian Blackford says Scottish MPs had “an historic opportunity” to club together and “save the UK from the cliff edge” of quitting the free trading area
Exclusive interview with the new Parliamentary Under Secretary of State in the Scotland Office
Sketch: SNP conference saw delegates in a buoyant mood, but will the dream still float?