Alex Salmond on Iraq, Tony Blair and Scottish independence

Written by Mandy Rhodes on 2 March 2013 in Inside Politics

Interview with First Minister Alex Salmond

The SNP is nothing if not a party of hope. It has risen from being a UK fringe player to a party of government, to one that has now forced a referendum on independence for Scotland which we now know will be staged on Thursday 18th September 2014.

It’s a remarkable political journey of transformation that has, enviably, taken the SNP less than a decade. And it's success has its roots, not just in the impact of a series of failed electoral expectations, but in a meeting in June 2005 at Craigellachie Hotel in Speyside of a group of 25 or so senior party activists, led by Moray MP Angus Robertson, that had come together simply, says Robertson "as a group of us who just wanted the party to win".

That gathering not only fanned the embers of desire to succeed, which helped  create the blueprint for electoral success for the SNP first in 2007 and then again in 2011, but also provided the Eureka moment that would propel one man, Alex Salmond, back into pole position as the person to make it all happen.

The Highland conclave followed the battering the party received in the 2003 Scottish Parliament election and was born of a frustration that the SNP would never achieve independence unless it achieved political power. Something had to change.

It had been a bruising time; the party had lost eight of its MSPs in the election, there was a degree of internecine warfare going on, John Swinney, the then leader, was just not considered up for the job — too nice — and there were a number of threats to oust him before he eventually resigned, leading to a bitter leadership contest which pitted many of the party's big beasts against each other including Nicola Sturgeon and Roseanna Cunningham. It led to some longlasting but never publically displayed acrimony. And that could have been the make or break moment for the party but having previously announced that "if asked, I'll decline, if nominated, I'll defer, and if elected, I'll resign", a unifying force in the shape of the previous leader, Alex Salmond, emerged, as he announced that he would stand, prompting Sturgeon to withdraw, declare her support for Salmond and stand for Deputy Leader instead.

But even with Salmond sitting in both Westminster and Holyrood as leader, the party experienced mixed fortunes in the 2005 general election. They managed to gain two seats (Angus MacNeil winning in Na h-Eileanan An Iar and Stewart Hosie in Dundee) from the notional four they held to bring their total to six MPs but there was also disappointment that the sitting MP Annabelle Ewing did not manage to win the new Ochil and South Perthshire constituency, finishing some 600 votes behind the Labour candidate, there was upset that the SNP's share of the Scottish vote fell to just 17.7 per cent and dismay that they finished third behind the Liberal Democrats — for the first time. The SNP's share of the vote across the Scottish Central Belt was particularly low, with some candidates only just managing to achieve a high enough share of the vote in their constituency to retain their £500 deposit.

However, as has become his trademark, Salmond was buoyant; he immediately dubbed the SNP's Westminster parliamentary group as "Scotland's Super Six" and promised that the SNP would be far more competitive in the 2007 election for the Scottish Parliament.

Some describe Salmond's post-election character as verging on hubris, a display of an overly inflated ego, but it is that absolute confidence in the ability of his cause to succeed that marks Salmond out from other party leaders.

He doesn't appear to suffer from the same introspection or painful self-flagellation over defeat. I trailed him during the 1992 general election campaign when the world's media descended on Macduff Town Hall to hear the results that were expected to show big wins for the SNP and a surge for the independence movement. In the end, they did not but from Salmond's face, you would never have known. He is someone that recovers almost instantaneously from disappointment and while he has famously never lost any personal election, he has witnessed enough among party colleagues to know nothing is ever a sure-fire bet and as a gambling man, he will always call a bluff.

At the last party conference, Salmond, took to the stage, having been centre stage, metaphorically, at all the other UK party conferences. The Prime Minister had closed the Tory conference, warning Salmond that he was coming to Scotland to "sort that referendum on independence".  And five days later he flew into Edinburgh and was a signatory to the Edinburgh Agreement which paved the way for the Scottish Parliament to hold a referendum. In typically ebullient mood, Salmond told Holyrood that it was 'game on' and was expansive in his clear delight at the referendum process being concluded ahead of party conference.

"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.”

Now, having just days ago finally named Scotland's date with destiny, this conference, at which he will announce party membership has reached a record-breaking 25,000, will also, no doubt, be Salmond’s greatest. This one will be, he says, the watershed in the 'Why for Independence', argument.

Salmond and I sit down immediately after the parliamentary debate marking 10 years on from the Iraq invasion; a war that Salmond always vigoursly opposed and one that put in place a very personal, gut dislike of Tony Blair and his approach to high office. The FM is in an unusually reflective mood. Joanne Lamont has said she was 'deeply disappointed' that he had chosen to turn the debate on the war into an argument for independence. But for him, the fact that the UK entered into an 'illegal war' strikes at the very heart of how he thinks an independent country should act and he says the fact that the Labour MSPs abstained in the vote last week was their “guilt abstention''.

"History will not be kind to Mr Blair and it will be one word 'Iraq' written on his political tombstone and that's why I can't understand why people can not see this is beyond politics; it is war and peace stuff.

"You know, it is not the case that I had this visceral dislike of Tony Blair before he went marching into other countries. It was when I realised that his ambitions were that he wanted the drama of being at the epicentre of world's events and that this country and its abilities were too small for him. He wanted to loom large on the world stage, which meant forcing situations where angels were afraid to tread and it was like he was drunk with the power and adrenalin of it all. That's why this precomitment he made to Bush is fundamental to this.

"Being a small country means you can't simply be the gunslinger's sidekick because you have a huge vested interest in multilateral agreements and actions. I believe that the UN approval was a necessary condition for supporting the conflict and small countries will project to the UN because that is a rule of international law and no, I can't imagine ever living my politics through someone else, like Blair did with Bush. There was something about the Crawford Ranch meeting that resonates for me, there was a picture of the two of them with their similar jackets on and their thumbs through their belt loops and it was almost like mimicking behaviour; Bush did it, so Blair did it and that is what set all kinds of alarm bells ringing for me at the time and whether it was then or later in the year as, according to the ambassador [Sir Christopher Mayer] at the time that Blair was saying to Bush 'I am with you, come what may', I don't know but meanwhile, he was selling the line to his Cabinet colleagues that he was a restraining influence on Bush while all the time he was egging him on.

"You have to remember that the Bush administration at the time was in particular need of a candid friend because after 9/11, the Bush administration was totally imbalanced. Pre 9/11, the top advisers to George W Bush were his father and Colin Powell and Colin Powell, by every account, is a fundamentally decent human being, a military man who knows the cost of conflict full up so they were the dominant forces. 

"But after 9/11, the world changed and the administration was unbalanced and Bush saw his popularity zoom the tougher he talked and the harder line he took and that's when this neocon argument surfaced to settle scores from the past and rebalance the world. That is when you got this neocon alliance between Bush's advisers and Blair, who was on this totally different messianic trip to remove the world of dictators. The problem with that was as soon as Blair had said he was with Bush, come what may, then everything in terms of influence was gone and everything had to be manufactured to fit the evidence because he wasn't going to be up front and just say, I am on this journey to rid the world of the dictators so everything had to fit that agenda and worst of all, because the pretence was there, there was no preparation for what would happen afterwards because any preparation would have betrayed the fact that we were on a conveyor belt to conflict. I have said it at various times but it became a manifest of tragedy.

"Labour in this parliament criticised last week's debate as a cynical move to talk about independence but that is just desperation. The debate was held because it is 10 years since the invasion. We didn't time the date for the referendum because of the Iraq war or time our party conference in Inverness because of the Iraq war; we had a debate because the Iraq war was 10 years ago.

"However, it is a perfectly legitimate point of view to say that independence would mean we would not be dragged into another illegal war. One of the advantages of being a small country like Scotland is you are not liable to get into gung ho military adventures, regardless of who the First Minister would be, so there is just something of the nature of a small independent country that would prevent that but also part of the nature of the Iraq war was the UK Government's position in support of an American administration and Blair's particular anxiety to be the big cheerleader for George W Bush and to achieve things by extension. If you recall Blair's 2002 speech to the Labour Party conference, he was going to run through all of Africa unseating regimes here, there and everywhere, so this messianic thing was going on and he was the gunslinger's sidekick and you could just not imagine a Scottish First Minister, however great their ambitions are, to be in that kind of sidekick role.

"But the other aspect in all of this is that one of the whys of independence is how do you have a constitution which structures a state so you have protections on declarations of war and that is the opportunity we have to build it into a new constitution to give protection and disclosures in terms of facts and I was struck by the inability in last week's debate, by some people, to understand that decisions on war and peace are fundamentally different from the hurly burly of politics. Regardless of how much I disagree with someone on the interpretation on unemployment figures, or benefit or not of EU membership, and so on, the practice of politics is to present things from the best possible view of your side but on the question of a country going to war, you are meant to be above and beyond the artifice of politics and be thinking about the survivability of individuals and the integrity of the country and in terms of war and peace, you would have constitutional protection, other countries do, and Scotland should follow suit."

But before you have a constitution for an independent Scotland, you need to win a referendum and the current polls indicate no huge desire for Scotland to go that far. Is Salmond worried?

"I would love that we were 15 or 20 points up in the polls. Of course, I would love that but I am not over perplexed by it and if anything, the polls are starting to shade up the way."

I ask him when he expects them to move in his favour.

"Before the referendum," he laughs. "Before the last election, Labour were something like 20 points ahead at times and while referendums are not the same as elections, there are similarities and one of the big similarities is to know and understand that people make up their mind when they focus on the decision to be made and what they say before that is simply a reaction to something they haven't focused on, so that is something we look forward to.

"It seems to me the No campaign have already exhausted just about every scare story I could possibly imagine so perhaps, from their point of view, I would be wondering if there was anything else left in the locker.

"The most ridiculous scare story so far has been that there would be no blood left for blood transfusions or when William Hague said that whisky wouldn't be promoted anymore through UK embassies, which is ridiculous in itself because I am pretty sure the whisky industry would stagger on regardless but actually, the reality is they are charged at everyone of these receptions anyway so it is just an incredible lack of self-awareness but I thought the blood story was one of the best.

"Obviously, we have to knock the scare stories down and I am pleased that the No campaign are firing their ammunition so early because the first time you hear that an independent Scotland won't have any blood, you think you might believe it and second time, you say I know it's not true and third time, it's laughable. Scare stories are like the bogeyman in cupboards - the first time you pluck up the courage and go to the cupboards and have a look in and he's not there then the next bogeyman becomes less influential. These things evaporate and scaremongering crumbles and positive arguments are reinforced and sustained so their scaremongering will diminish over time and our whys for independence will amplify over time and this conference is like a watershed into the why of independence. Why is it a watershed because the final part of the framework of process, which had to be put in place in terms of the articulation of when the referendum would be, how is it going to be conducted, who will vote, that comes with the publication of the bill and that allows us to move on to the why of independence and that will be the preoccupation of this conference and the preoccupation for the next 18 months or so."

Scare stories apart, Salmond knows he has to convince the electorate that an independent Scotland will not be any worse off economically than the current position as part of the UK. And the might of the unionists is being thrown at everything, from Scotland's ability to defend itself to whether oil is a blessing or a curse but as a former oil economist, Salmond relishes the argument. "You know, every country in the world would love to have a natural resource like oil," he laughs, "apart, it seems, from the UK where it becomes a curse.

"The oil and gas boom is happening, it is under way. There used to be a group of economic forecasters called the Hudson Institute who made lots of money in the 1970s by making sub-regional forecasts and they would hire a room in the top hotel of the city and they would go to the top and count the number of cranes. If there were lots of cranes then they would give it a very favourable report and if there weren't, then they would call it empirical research. If you want to know about the oil boom that is going on in Scotland now then just go count the number of boats trying to get into Aberdeen harbour and they are backed all the way up to Mr Trump's golf course.

"You actually don't need to know that there was £11 billion last year and £13 billion next year and £100 billion over the next few years in terms of investment plans to come to the conclusion that people do not make these kind of investments without knowing they will get more out than they put in — just go count the number of boats waiting to get into the harbour like the Hudson Institute would have done and be convinced that there is a boom going on.

"The unionists want to give the impression that oil and gas is history but it is actually a substantial part of the future. It is not a sunset industry but a sunrise one in terms of the technology to be used to extract the resource and that is of fundamental importance, which takes you to the start of this story 40 years ago, with another 40 to come.

"The case for Scottish independence predated oil and gas but I think oil was important, not because it was oil but because it transformed the economic outlook for an independent Scotland and the next 40 years of oil and gas is important because it helps to inform the economic prospects of an independent Scotland but the case for independence does not rest on that, it rests on the idea that the people best able to run this country are the people that live in it and make the best possible decisions. Scotland would be a rich country without oil but why should we discount a major natural resource?

"If you look at the structure of the Scottish economy, we have some good things going for us and at the heart are the energy prospects but we also have a financial sector which, in key areas, particularly asset management, is doing extremely well, a life science industry which is at last flourishing, a food and drink industry which is doing amazingly well and a tourism industry that is exceptional. All these things we can do better, incidentally, but they are all strong and to a certain extent, the incredible thing is that when we are talking about a UK economy flatlining for three or four years, after a huge decline, there are signs of economic life in Scotland and if you look at the detail south of the border then it is all concentrated in that nexus of the south east so for us to have unemployment, as we did last month lower than the rest of the UK average, is amazing and last month’s figures shows youth unemployment down 5 per cent on the year and lots of indications that it is heading in the right direction but still far too high, obviously, but how many other countries would have liked to see those small signs that we are seeing in that corrosive influence on society which is youth unemployment. So the resilience of the Scottish economy against a disaster of this UK economic policy is substantial."

On reviewing interviews that I have done with Salmond over the last six years, there is a common theme of ambition, aspiration and self-belief. Some call it arrogance but above all, Salmond's ambition for himself is only matched by his ambition for Scotland. He has undoubtedly taken the role of First Minister to a higher level but while he is regarded as one of the most talented politicians of the day, by everyone other than those on the opposition home-front who quite blatantly dismiss him as smug, goggle eyed and a liar, he is, above all, seen as an operator. Whether it be a debate on Iraq, oil prices or even a date for a referendum, there is a common belief that he has a reason for everything. He laughs at the suggestion that he has somehow manipulated every event to suit his own agenda.

"Look, the referendum was always going to be 2014 and when you take into account the big sporting events of that year and you take account of the consultation in terms of what day of the week we choose, you do come to a conclusion about what is the best date and then some dates become unsuitable, for a range of reasons, so your choice, actually, becomes quite narrow when it is closely examined.

"I have to say that this has not been a tease. This is the legislation going before Parliament and everything that has been said before is that Parliament must be told first and that is what we are doing now, which is the right way to do it and every time a date has been suggested, I have been told how outrageous this has been that a date has been mooted and I think this is now probably the most notice of any date for a referenda in the world's history. The choice would have been to leave the date blank in the Referendum Bill to be inserted at a later date.

"The Labour Party are, of course, still deeply wounded by their removal from the top of Scottish politics that they had enjoyed for more than 75 years and therefore, it comforts them to believe that this is down to the great artifice of me being political rather than thinking that they have made some ridiculous blunders, one of which is Iraq, and the fault of where the Labour Party sits is not with the stars on the SNP front bench but with themselves.

"I am all for people having this great estimation of my sophistication and abilities in being the master of the game and so fine, great, it's just one of the things that is said about me, whether true or not. Having said that, I always thought one of the great assets I had as SNP leader, in terms of party discipline, was that everybody assumed things about me, that I was about to do something draconian in terms of enforcing discipline, or whatever and again, it’s one of the things that gets said but when you look at my reputation and then actually look at the record for doing things, like expelling people from the SNP, I have virtually never expelled anybody and certainly not on political grounds and I hope and believe that I have been extremely forgiving of people in terms of difficulties or of great past differences and I have tried to bring them back in but actually, maybe it is no bad thing that people think I am this fearsome character, this awesome great disciplinarian who is always plotting..."

I suggest this makes him sound like the Wizard of Oz; all smoke and mirrors and a big booming voice which transpired to be actually a small man hiding behind a heavy curtain with a megaphone. Salmond laughs and points out that the wizard turned out to be a really nice guy in the end who only had his people's interests at heart!

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