Alex Salmond on losing his seat, media hostility and the case for independence
Holyrood's exclusive interview with former first minister Alex Salmond after he lost his Gordon seat at the general election
Alex Salmond - Holyrood/Paul Heartfield
Alex Salmond was in pre-op at Aberdeen Royal Infirmary awaiting a minor surgical procedure when Theresa May announced her snap election.
And as if the recently administered drugs coursing through his veins weren’t enough to make an already strange moment even more surreal, Salmond’s anaesthetist, a keen SNP supporter from Cowdenbeath, was keen to chat about the party’s prospects, just as the former FM went under.
“It was a slightly awkward place to be for a politician when major political events were happening,” he tells me.
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“I have to say that when I came to, I did have to ask if I had hallucinated the whole thing, because from her making the ridiculous announcement about the election through to me coming through my op and being in recovery, I just couldn’t quite believe it. And obviously, if I hadn’t been in surgery and been at Westminster that day I would have done a lot more to try and stop the election.”
Given his fellow SNP MPs abstained in the vote calling for an early election and all but 13 of the Labour MPs voted for Theresa May’s motion, I ask him what he would have done.
“If I had been in London I would have tried to persuade Jeremy Corbyn not to accept the Government motion to dissolve the Parliament which needed two-thirds of the entire House.
"Instead I would have urged him to wait until after the DPP determination on Thanet expenses and then laid down a motion of no confidence which we would have supported. This would have meant either no election or one in the worst possible circumstances for the Tories.
“In the event, the election turned out pretty well for Jeremy, but despite the worst campaign of any PM in recent political history, Theresa May is still PM and the Tories still the government.
“The reason I was so keen not to have the election was that I knew the timing, from an SNP point of view, was completely wrong. That’s nobody’s fault, particularly because I don’t think Nicola could be at all expected to anticipate that Theresa May was going to turn into an election kamikaze pilot.
"There’s absolutely nothing in Theresa May’s nature that could have suggested she was going to steer her airplane into the sea for no apparent reason, apart from having had some vision in the Welsh hillside. Nicola cannot be blamed for not seeing that coming. None of us did.
“It meant that the timing for us was wrong. Nicola would never have pulled the trigger on the second referendum if it had been clear that there was an election to come, it was done on the basis that the election would be in two or three years’ time, which was the reasonable expectation that everybody had.
“It’s nobody’s fault, it’s just the timing was wrong because that’s a policy [the referendum] that requires two things: time to explain and it requires events to justify it. Even now would be a better time because now we know Brexit is, in the words of an article in the Financial Times, going to be one of three things: it’s either going to be an abject humiliation, a huge humiliation or just a humiliation for the UK. It’s going to be one of these three, ranging from abject to just normal humiliation, but somewhere in that range.
"Even the Brexiteers are now trimming their sails and starting to talk about, you know, contingency periods, elongated times, all the rest of it, as the dawning reality of the chasm into which they’re jumping has suddenly, seemingly, dawned upon them. The reason for Scotland needing its escape route, its parachute, its insurance policy, is going to become very, very evident to people over the next two years and will, therefore, be a much better time for Nicola to be able to explain why the referendum is needed.
“It was a very difficult position for Nicola and, reasonably, these things are nobody’s fault – it’s the circumstances and chance and time that sometimes happens in politics and while you can account for most things, it is difficult sometimes to account for the irrationality of one of your opponents.”
Irrationality or not, the election could not have come at a worse time for Nicola Sturgeon. Having already staked her political reputation on being judged on her record on education and with the focus now firmly on a second referendum, Theresa May’s snap election became a snap judgement on the two things that Sturgeon was not yet prepared for. Unable to turn a Westminster ballot away from becoming a judgement on devolved issues and to halt the risk of a second referendum becoming the key rally call from both the Tories and Labour, the SNP’s election campaign felt lame, to say the least.
The result has led to much analysis of the SNP’s future direction.
“Nicola was right to call for a second referendum in light of the EU vote and the key decision was going for the parliamentary vote and pulling that trigger, but that was done by Nicola on the basis that she would have two years to articulate, explain, and enunciate the policy on the table. She wouldn’t have done that if she had the benefit of 20:20 foresight and knew an election was upon us,” says Salmond.
“But people will want that referendum. That’s what will happen. No doubt, what happened for the SNP in the election was a misfortune, but it’s no more than that. It’s a point in time. The strategic position in two years’ time is going to look, in my view, extremely positive for the SNP, but it must be allowed its time to develop and that’s what Nicola has now done.
“I think she’s in the right position. Time will justify this position, absolutely justify this position. It just was an inconvenient moment to fight an election.”
For Salmond, that ‘inconvenient moment’ meant his party lost 21 of the seats that it had won just two years earlier, and while undoubtedly – although bizarrely, disputably – the SNP was the winner of the election in Scotland, taking 35 of the 59 seats available, the gloss has come off and, symbolically, two of the biggest scalps of the night were Angus Robertson, the Westminster leader, and Salmond himself, who lost his seat of Gordon to the Tories.
Weeks before the election, Salmond, with his typical chutzpah, had accused the Scottish Conservative leader, Ruth Davidson, of making “vainglorious boasts” about the Tories’ chances of ousting him and warned her that she faced being brought “back down to earth with a bump” by voters.
In the end, and in a battle between two egos, it was his own gasconade that hit the buffers as Davidson’s Tories snatched the seat from him with more than a 2,500 majority.
This was the first parliamentary election that Salmond had personally ever been beaten in, and while those closest to him say that he was, of course, devastated, he takes a slightly different tack.
“Well, not that I have entertained such thoughts with regularity, but I have wondered about losing an election and how I’d feel about it, because I’ve watched lots of other folk lose elections and with varying degrees of keeping themselves together.
"I always thought it would be particularly difficult, because even when people win an election, and if they’ve committed themselves to it, as they should, there is the adrenaline, the huge adrenaline rush and then the down, even when you win, and so you think it must be so difficult when you lose. But I must say it didn’t turn out like that at all. I wasn’t pleased, obviously, and I knew what I had to do on the night, in the sense that I knew I’d stay and do every interview, so actually, I was the last person out of the exhibition centre.
"We emerged blinking into the Aberdeenshire dawn, and of course the photographers were still there so I gave them a broad smile, etc, etc.
"Even then, I thought I’d get through that bit and I thought that the next day I’d feel really bad, but actually, I didn’t really feel that bad at all. In fact, I’m sure it’s a lot worse for people who were just in for the two years, people who have interrupted mid-career and gone into parliament and have sacrificed a great deal to find themselves now in a really difficult position. Fortunately, I’m not in that position personally.
“I think what people would normally feel is also a sense of personal rejection, and I do remember thinking, way back in 1987 when I first stood, that if I don’t win this, then I’ll never do this again, but I suppose if you’ve done it 10 times and you’ve managed not to be rejected in nine of them, then it’s kind of nine to one and you have to have a more balanced view of things.
“My one regret, though, would have been on the politics, and it’s not so much about me losing personally, but say I hadn’t held my seat and it was a balance of power situation in the parliament and the SNP, in an enlightened progressive way of course, had been in a DUP position with tartan bells on it, then it would have been a bit more regretful for me, but as it was neither personally nor politically the case, then it wasn’t anything like as devastating an impact as I thought it might have been.”
Since the election there has been much commentary about this having been peak Nat and that the only way now is down. Salmond is much less pessimistic.
“I hear all this stuff about momentum being all that matters. If that were true, then no doubt the momentum would have swept the Labour Party or the Tories past us, but none of that has happened, and I think in the 12 sub-samples of opinion polls since the election, every single one of them still puts the SNP in the lead.
“It’s not just momentum that matters, what actually matters is whether people are motivated to vote for the party that they’ve come to love and respect. Our key issue in this election was not the surge in the Tory party or Labour’s late revival, our key issue was that we had many, many SNP supporters who sat at home because they couldn’t see the immediate necessity to get out to vote for the party they supported. That’s what the SNP, more than anything else, must concentrate on now.
"One of the key ingredients of that is making people proud to vindicate the achievements of the SNP government over the past 10 years.
“Far from being past peak SNP, in my view, we’re already past peak Tory. They’ve enjoyed their best election result in Scotland in 30 years, but the afterblow of that has lasted about two minutes and I suppose the key moment of that, if we ignore the other obvious examples of parliamentary ineptitude and the lack of…well, anything, the key moment of course was when it was revealed that each Democratic Unionist was worth £100 million but each Scottish Tory is worth absolutely zero. That contrast is a difficult one to shake off.
“In my view, we have passed peak Tory and there will be perhaps a gentle, but nonetheless a decline, of Tory prospects. Time will tell, I think, about whether Ruth’s star has been exaggerated in terms of its luminosity, but we’ll see. It’s too early to say if it’s going to go up like a rocket and down like a stick.
“The much more substantial issue is what’s going to happen to the Labour Party. Now, the thing that the SNP has to its advantage is the issue which is going to dominate – Europe – and it is Corbyn’s big weakness. Jeremy’s got through the EU referendum and then got through the election with little examination of his European position.
"That is now starting to change and that is a fault line within Labour, almost as big as it is within the Conservatives, but it has not always been evident. Why? Because the Labour Party under Blair managed to marginalise people like Corbyn. I think Corbyn will have more difficulty marginalising the Labour pro-Europeans and that’s already happening. The first parliamentary vote exposed that.
“I’ve liked Jeremy Corbyn for 30 years. He isn’t an insubstantial figure and I have made the point often enough that you don’t stay in politics for 30 years if you’re a numpty. It just doesn’t happen. He isn’t, wasn’t, and therefore he fought a much better election than people suggested he would, but the Achilles heel for Jeremy is that a lot of his politics are unchanged.
"Now that is a big advantage in certain aspects, because people are crying out for a different attitude towards social and economic policy, so after a generation of neoliberalism, people are understandably saying, ‘stuff that for a laugh, let’s try something different’, but the other aspect to Jeremy’s politics is one of an isolationist trend, a suspicion, to say the least, of things foreign, and you see that around comments on immigration. These aren’t advantages. These things are almost a nullification of the crowds, for instance, at Glastonbury, and on that aspect of politics Jeremy has a diametrically opposed view to people under the age of 25 who are not suspicious of foreigners and who think it’s reasonable to think in a European context. They see the world in a different way than Jeremy does. The idea of a fortress Britain to these people would be ludicrous.
“So, that’s the first half. He’s got the advantage that he’s there at a time when people are sick and tired of neoliberal economics and neoliberal politics, but the SNP has more than enough radical ammunition in its armoury to counter that. It is also much more in tune with the modern world in terms of other issues.”
I ask him if he believes, like some in the party, that the SNP should move further to the left to out-Corbyn Corbyn?
“The SNP is a social democratic party with a few extremely radical policies on the constitution, on nuclear weapons, on its view on international affairs and that is how it should continue. It is, and should be proud of the fact that it is, one of the very few examples in a liberal democracy of a pro-immigration party which is also a popular, successful and galvanising party. It is a beacon in that respect.
“My advice, and you’re quite right, I’m not going to criticise Nicola on the constitutional position because I think what she did was quite understandable and what she did post-election was also quite understandable and the position she’s now in, I think, is a perfectly sustainable position which we will see vindicated, but the SNP, as a whole, needs to be much, much more upbeat about its record over the past 10 years.
"Apart from anything else, some of Jeremy Corbyn’s key attractions in terms of his antidote to neoliberalism is of course a select list of SNP policies, everything from greenhouse gas targets to free education to a free health service, these are all aspects of the SNP achievement over the past 10 years. But, and I know it’s difficult because I faced a media that was not uncritical, not to say obsessed, you must rise above the media onslaught and if Jeremy Corbyn’s rise indicates anything, it indicates how little impact the press assault on a party or an individual has.
"If a party or a politician has substance, it will have the opportunity to shine through. Therefore, getting yourself into the trenches against a media assault is not just the wrong thing to do, it’s totally unnecessary.
“The perception out there would be that the SNP government hasn’t been as upbeat about their policy achievements as they should have been or as innovative in explaining them as they should have been.
“And the only substantial time I’ve put fingers to word processor since the election is on the economic stuff, and particularly over what I call the BBC recession, when they led their news team out on the upcoming recession that wasn’t to be.
"I mean, it’s not actually difficult to predict Scottish GDP figures, because most of the stuff is already out in terms of industrial production, the employment figures and some other indicators, and that weekend, I ended up doing, literally, a back-of-the-envelope thing and it was obvious that it wasn’t going to be in recession that quarter, unless I had miscounted something. I could see it wasn’t going to be a negative figure, although I didn’t realise it was going to be as big a positive figure as it turned out, but certainly it wasn’t going to be a negative figure. So I took aim at the merchants of gloom.
"The BBC then spent the whole Sunday Politics programme suggesting why I might be wrong, without actually having me on. They didn’t even reply to my assault, but they said, ‘ah, yes, but one quarter’s figure is not really the issue, it’s about the long-term trend’, but of course, they got it so wrong about the long-term trend too. The long-term trend is exactly the opposite to what the BBC thinks it is.
“The last two years in Scotland have had an oil-led impact; we’ve lost 100,000 jobs. It’s been particularly savage in the north-east of Scotland, which is Scotland’s most prosperous area. It’s been extremely difficult for people and it’s had an impact on Scottish GDP, but even with the oil effect, Scottish GDP as a whole was keeping pace with UK GDP for the first time in a century over the previous eight years and the Scottish GDP per head, which takes out the beneficial impact of immigration, has grown faster since 2007 than the UK GDP per head.
"So, the long-term trend is exactly the opposite of what the BBC said. I say this to demonstrate that it is perfectly possible to get on the front foot about these figures and explain that we’ve had a decade where for the first time, on average, Scottish employment has been higher than UK employment and Scottish unemployment has been lower than UK unemployment. That hasn’t happened before in the 20th century.
“That is a positive story and I understand that when people are in ministerial office, it’s easy to get into a mentality of being besieged by critical and unfair media, some of whom don’t even pay lip service to anything factual anymore – and I’m not just talking about the fantasy of the Daily Express or the entrenched hostility of the Scotsman, of the Herald, or the Mail or whatever – but none of this matters, and shouldn’t matter, to the SNP. If Jeremy Corbyn can withstand a press barrage of the extent that hit him, then so too can the SNP. It only matters if you let it affect you.
“I think after 10 years in the trenches, the SNP government over the last year has been guilty of allowing that unfairness to blunt its ability to get on the front foot and relish and celebrate its achievements as well as accepting challenges, as you always should do.
"The SNP has got plenty of ammunition to do it and they’ve got ammunition foremost on the two issues which dominate politics which are a) the economy and b) the health service, both of which have ample evidence of why any sane person would think the Scottish economy has had a better period over the past 10 years than it has ever over the previous century and secondly, no sane person wouldn’t rather be in the care of the Scottish health service, or any of our health boards, than any down south.
“What I’m saying is the media bit doesn’t really matter, all that matters is making sure that the party and the government put out their message effectively, and there are ample means now to get that message out.
“I think Nicola will bounce back in the autumn with a reinvigorated programme, and I think strategically on the referendum, she is in the right position. Nicola was only wrongfooted in the referendum because Theresa May, by accident, wrongfooted her in the timing of the election, but in doing so destroyed her own career, her own premiership and her own majority so, you know, on balance, May has achieved the ultimate pinnacle of temporary victory, she has achieved a victory over the SNP at the cost of her own prime ministership. Come this Hogmanay, Nicola Sturgeon will be in office. I doubt very much that Theresa May will be in office.”
I ask him if Sturgeon should revisit a tried and tested winning formula of ‘Record, Team, Vision’. He laughs and looks quite pleased with himself.
“I think it would’ve been very handy if the SNP had had such a theme for its recent election campaign and I’m quite certain we would have fought in the election when we expected to fight the election in two or three years’ time on a distinct theme, but ‘Record, Team, Vision’ is interesting, is it not, because here we are sitting in 2017 and you remember the SNP theme from the 2011 election? What was the Labour Party theme in 2010, for instance? I only remember one slogan from it, which was ‘He’s not flash, he’s Gordon’, and I can’t even remember if they used that eventually. What was the Tory theme? Don’t know.
On balance, then, ‘Record, Team, Vision’ wasn’t bad, because six years later, you remember it. How about 2007? I think to be fair, it was probably ‘Alex Salmond for First Minister’… I think the point about both is that they were right, egotistical or not, and clearly the 2011 slogan was much less egotistical than the first, maybe that’s why it was much more successful than the first, but both were necessary at the time.
“If you wanted to win an election for the first time in 50 years or for the Labour Party to lose one, you needed to win the populace for the first minister. If you wanted to stay in office, you needed to demonstrate three things: one, that you’ve got a record to be proud of – note the SNP now; two, you had a team which, person for person, was superior to the other alternatives – again, note the SNP now; and thirdly, vision.
"You need a vision for the future and you don’t justify your existence by saying, ‘we want your vote because we’ve always had your vote’, like Labour tried for a long time, or ‘we want your vote because we’d like to push our self-interest and stay in office’, like the Conservatives have just done. No, the SNP has to say, ‘we want your vote because we’ve got a vision for the future of this country’. So, that was the 2011 theme and there’s nothing wrong with that formula now.
“The reason I changed my approach to politics in 2007 in the run-up to the election is that I was persuaded that if people were choosing a government, they would choose by different criteria and you had to persuade people properly that you had an interest in running the country, not just running a campaign and not just shouting a lot about how bad the other lot would be. So, I did that. You also have to demonstrate that you’re fit for office.
"You have to demonstrate that every day and Nicola doesn’t need me to mention these things because she was there as deputy first minister. But you have to expect that from all of your ministers, that every single day they justify their position in the office they are privileged to hold and they are there by virtue of the confidence that people have in us. Particularly in the first four years, unless we had expressed our confidence every day, the government would have fallen.
“She used to question me all the time. The ministerial team used to question each other and one of the great virtues of that cabinet was that there was a lot of strong people in it, which helps enormously. I used to let cabinet discussions go on for ages and ages, much to other people’s irritation, because I used to quite enjoy them, you see. I thought it was very fruitful. I liked that style of things, in a sense of allowing people of stature like Mike Russell, Kenny MacAskill, Nicola, John…to talk, to discuss, to share.
"She has good people and in the last intake of the Scottish Parliament, incredibly talented people, particularly women, who’ve come in as part of the 2016 intake. Now, you don’t expect people to become cabinet secretaries overnight, that doesn’t happen that way, but there’s certainly people who have earned their spurs and will now be looking to show what they can do in office, in addition to the ones who are already there.
“There’s nothing here rotting away at the timbers of government, this is just a question of getting out of the trenches, getting onto the front foot and promulgating, in an attractive way, what has been done, what remains to be done and what will be done. Nothing can’t be sorted, and Nicola Sturgeon of all people is perfectly capable of sorting that.
“Speaking as an SNP strategist, I think go on the front foot, promulgate your successes and your ideas for the future and know that your time is about to come, because unless Monsieur Barnier gets into the shower one morning and says that the essential mission gleaned from his background, as a right of centre French politician in all those hard-nosed negotiations for the last 30 years, is that actually, what he’s been trying to achieve over that time is to be nice to the Brits, to take pity on the weakness of the position that Theresa May has put our government in, unless there’s a character change from Mr Barnier and that he decides to move away from the lesson of a lifetime, then we’re about to move into a pretty rough passage.”
Shortly after Theresa May’s, now infamous, admission that the naughtiest thing she had ever done involved running through a wheat field as child, Salmond tweeted a picture of himself standing next to a wheat field, saying, ‘feeling naughty’. I ask him what is the naughtiest thing he has actually ever done?
“Certainly, substantially more than Theresa May, I suspect,” he laughs. “Now, I want to be careful, I’m not going to give you the naughtiest thing I’ve ever done, but I can swing back to my fifth year at school when I got my roulette wheel confiscated in the common room because some of the losers complained about the house. That was one reason why I was the only pupil in the history of Linlithgow Academy to never become a prefect. That’s true, actually.”
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