Just over two weeks ago, as he prepared for his sojourn to the US to mark the annual Tartan Week extravaganza, Alex Salmond took time out to visit independent MSP Margo MacDonald at her home in Edinburgh. It was a poignant trip. Margo knew, at that stage, she was dying and whether Salmond knew or how soon that moment would come, it didn’t stop him promising to return when he got back from New York a week or so later.
It was a return visit he would never make. Margo died days later and Salmond heard the news from his chief of staff, Geoff Aberdein, just as he was about to go into a meeting with potential US investors. It would’ve been a moment that Margo herself would have patted him on the back and told him to put everything else to one side as she forcibly pushed him into that boardroom to sell Scotland for all his worth. For that was the common bond.
Margo’s relationship with the SNP, a party she once led as deputy leader and certainly one she thrust on to the political centre stage when she won the Govan by-election in 1973, might have been a difficult one, but fundamentally, even though she had variously been expelled from the party, chastised by it and finally exited the party to stand as an independent, she wanted the same as Salmond – independence for Scotland. It was just their way of going about it that differed.
And it was with that thought, no doubt in mind, that Salmond called Margo’s husband, also a former deputy leader of the SNP and enthusiastic ‘Yes’ campaigner, Jim Sillars, with a heavy heart to express his extreme and genuine sadness at Margo’s passing. Salmond later revealed, during a television interview, that during his last visit with Margo, when they had discussed the referendum campaign at great length, she had given him some sound advice which he said he would certainly follow.
What that advice was, for the moment, he is remaining tight-lipped about, but given the public outpouring of grief that there has been for such a popular and unifying campaigner for independence as Margo, he would be wise to recognise the power for that cause she wielded in life and could still do in death. If he can harness that strength to deliver a ‘Yes’ on 18 September, that would truly be a legacy of which she would approve.
Salmond and I meet days before he leaves for New York. His schedule is bruising so we agree to do the interview while he is on the move. He has just greeted the Isle of Man Chief Minister, Allan Bell, at Glasgow airport as Bell touched down on one of the first flights restoring links between Scotland and his own small, independent nation. And the sense of occasion and what could be is not lost on Salmond.
We conduct the interview in the back of his ministerial car, having rendezvoused at Harthill service station, and then we are driven back to Bute House where the two leaders will lunch. Today is one of Salmond’s eating days – he has lost more than two stones on the 5:2 diet and has almost reached his 14-stone target, an achievement that has already cost his special advisers dear, having bet him £50 a head that he wouldn’t succeed. He is fighting fit and in campaign mode and for anyone who has spent time around the FM during elections, they’ll know that is when he is at his most energetic.
We discuss everything from his now infamous weight loss, to Twitter, to trams and plans for transition to independence. But first, the currency… the Guardian had broken the news that an unnamed coalition minister had said that the UK Government’s position about Scotland not being allowed to share the pound in the event of independence was in fact what the First Minister had always claimed – bluff, bluster and bullying. Almost overnight, the nature of the referendum debate has turned on its head and commentators are asking, what else is the ‘No’ side lying about. Did he feel vindicated?
“Oh, yes,” he says.
But, how can he accept one side of the claims about the shared currency and not also accept the claim in the same story that the anonymous minister had said that Trident would also be a negotiating point?
“Well, because that’s not the story,” says Salmond. “The story is that it was a campaign tactic, a negotiating stance, that’s the story. What is in the mind of the unnamed minister about what he wants to negotiate about is neither here-nor-there, the point is, it’s a campaign tactic, you know, dreamt up by Alistair Darling and Andrew Dunlop [a special advisor to David Cameron], that’s one bit, the main bit of the story. The second bit is the negotiating position. Yeah, there’ll be negotiations but they certainly won’t be about Trident, they’ll be about debt.
“Of course, this is significant in terms of the campaign but it’s only one of a number of things, like Alistair now being denounced by Downing Street, or being distanced from Downing Street, because he blurts out that there would have to be a referendum in England about Scotland sharing the pound. I mean, how can you have a referendum on something that they’ve claimed they are not going to negotiate on? It doesn’t make sense.
“The problem is, that it is always more difficult to run a lie because you have to keep all the rest of your thoughts consistent with the basic untruth and when Darling and Dunlop put Nick Macpherson’s [Sir Nicholas Macpherson, Permanent Secretary to the Treasury] arm up his back…and incidentally, why is a backbench MP always going to see Nick Macpherson in the Treasury… they shifted the position for campaign purposes but they forgot to align the rest of the universe in cohesion with this big lie. So obviously, it’s going to be internally inconsistent, basically, because it doesn’t make sense. It was a scare tactic to frighten the natives and it’s been found out. They’ve been found out.”
There is no doubt that whatever the veracity of the claims from an anonymous source within government, the currency claims and counter claims have provided pivotal moments in the independence debate, if not in the polls, and the latest twist has provided succour to the ‘Yes’ campaign. With the SNP Government’s White Paper predicating many of its claims for how an independent Scotland would be structured on the basis that Scotland would share the pound, it seemed a tour de force when, firstly, the Governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney, plainly pointed out the risks and loss of sovereignty that an independent Scotland would face by going down that route.
This was then compounded by unusually colourful advice contained within a letter written by Sir Nicholas Macpherson on his views about the matter which, in an unprecedented move, was published by the Treasury and was quickly followed by Osborne, Alexander and Balls agreeing that none of them would ever agree to a shared pound, no matter which of them was in power.
Salmond’s position on the pound then seemed impossible and almost churlish in the face of such opposition. How many times could he repeat that his option would happen regardless of how many times the unionists said it wouldn’t? It proved too much of a commercial threat for many, with Standard Life, RBS and fund management giant, Blackrock, to name but a few, all expressing grave concerns about their futures in an independent Scotland. This, it seemed, could be a risk too far.
But now Salmond not only feels vindicated but is buoyed by a series of opinion polls that indicates a small shift towards ‘Yes’. Perhaps Project Fear – as the ‘No’ side dubbed themselves – has cried wolf too many times and the Scots aren’t for fooling. However, I ask him, what happens if he wins and rUK weren’t bluffing?
“They will agree. And the reason they’ll agree is because it’s overwhelmingly in the interests of the rest of the UK, or, put more accurately, it’s overwhelmingly against their interests not to agree. And the key to all of this is debt. Their problem is not just that they want to keep possession of the Bank of England, it’s also that they want to keep possession of the BBC and in fact, they want to keep possession of everything”.
It’s the continuation of state principle. Now there is no doubt, not a scintilla of a doubt, that if you argue from that position then you end up lumbered with all of the debt too and that is why the Treasury put its note out to the markets in January, saying they would guarantee the debt ‘under any circumstances’ because they were preparing for their continuing state asset grab but if you grab the assets, you end up with the liability and as the Fiscal Commission rightly pointed out, there’s a number of currency options which would be perfectly viable for an independent Scotland – Plan B, C, D, E and F – but all of them involve the rest of the UK being lumbered with our share of the national debt and that is very much against their interests, which is why they’ll never agree to it. So all roads will lead back to the agreed currency zone.”
I suggest that some Scots may feel it’s quite an attractive prospect walking away from such a large debt.
“Well, I can understand that and it would be perfectly viable for an independent Scotland but it’s not in our interests to do something which is bad for our neighbours. Our neighbours are our biggest market and we don’t want their economy to suffer a setback, do we? It’s their weakness. That’s the key to this and that’s why our argument is so much stronger than theirs because we’re arguing from a consistent position.”
So would he envisage any circumstances in which he would say “we are not taking any of this debt”?
“Well, the circumstances would be, if they maintained a ‘continuation of state position’ then it’s automatic. They have to negotiate for us to take the debt and clearly, if they’re seizing all the assets, they also end up with all the liability. It’s the natural consequence of the argument they’re putting forward. Incidentally, their legal advice last year didn’t argue that position. It said, and I paraphrase Professor James Crawford, that of course, negotiations mean there’ll be a sharing of assets, there’s not a pure position.
Now, more recently, from January, they have started to argue that they will be the continuing UK and that the BBC is theirs, the Bank of England is theirs and so on and the natural, inevitable consequence of arguing that position is that we [in Scotland] start from a zero debt position and they have to negotiate a different position. Now my argument about the currency zone is that it’s in the best interests of both countries because they won’t, because no rational human being or Chancellor would want to end up lumbered with all the debt.”
OK, if we accept this position and that everything is up for negotiation, can he imagine circumstances changing whereby he would say “OK, we will keep Trident or its equivalent?”
“No. And the reason for that is that it’s one of our reasons for independence. It’s not a negotiating position. It’s not a campaign tactic. It’s not a counter on the board. It is one of our reasons for independence. One of our reasons for independence, not the only one, but one of our reasons is that we want Scotland to be a nuclear-free country, a country free of nuclear weapons. It’s one of the arguments for independence. So you don’t negotiate away the arguments for independence.”
Putting to one side the arguments that in fact that is exactly what he is doing by pushing for a shared pound because frankly, the phrase ‘flogging a dead horse’ comes to mind, I wonder what he feels about the actual nature of the debate. Did he expect it to be quite so relentless, quite so febrile?
“Yes…I don’t think anybody in the Yes campaign is particularly upset about it. We naturally hope our opposition will raise their game and find something positive to say but I don’t think the Yes campaign are at all disconcerted by the barrage from our opponents. On the contrary, I think we are confident in the mettle of our people and what Scotland’s reaction to the barrage is and will continue to be.
“Actually, I think this is a very engaged debate. I mean, I think there are bits of it that could be a better quality and I think a lot of the stuff that’s said is part of the candyfloss of politics but I think it would be wrong to characterise this political experience as a negative one. On the contrary, I think in terms of involving people in politics, I’ve seen nothing like it for a long, long time. There’s only been one period, that period just after we met, incidentally, for the first time, Mandy, [the 1992 General Election campaign] where I’ve experienced the degree of interest at public meetings we have now and that was in the early 90s.
"But that was over a fairly short period of time, this has been a growing thing and I’ve never seen people as engaged as they are now and of course, because of the means and mechanisms of involvement, that is much wider spread. I think one of the things the No campaign doesn’t understand about town-hall meetings is that town-hall meetings have a huge amplifying effect now because of social media.
"So it’s not just somebody going to a meeting and going down the pub the next night and saying, ‘guess where I was last night. I was at the Yes meeting in Dunoon’. It’s now a question of pictures instantaneously being shared with thousands of folk, with people saying, ‘guess where I was…here’s the picture and this is what was said’. The actual event is now as an amplification bringing grassroots politics back into vogue and the strength of that and the resonance of that is very, very substantial.”
This has been a recurrent theme during interviews about the referendum that as a debate it has re-engaged people with politics. I wonder how that will be harnessed and nurtured after the vote.
“I think the constitution building in an independent Scotland will be very important,” says Salmond. Iceland is a good example of how that process can help reinvigorate a country and I think that’s one of the reasons why when people say ‘why don’t you just have a constitution off the shelf?’ I actually think the process of writing the constitution is as important as the outcome – capturing that process of engagement just as people have an interest in shaping their new country.
“At the heart of the constitution is obviously the freedom and protections that people should have before the law and of course, we have that to some extent in writing in the European Convention but more than that in this enabling constitution, I’m interested in the positive assertion of rights and not because I or anyone thinks that if you say ‘let’s have a right to a decent house’ that’s going to mean that the day after you assert that everybody has the right to it and it comes into being but if you assert some things as fundamental to people’s right to live in the pursuit of happiness, then it makes the priority all the more likely as time goes on.
"A number of constitutions now do that and do it rather successfully so I think we need to have a positive assertion, not just looking at people’s rights but as a positive assertion of how people can pursue happiness. That is at the heart and an enabling constitution seems to be a very exciting idea.”
But who will be involved in drawing up that constitution. Who will he have in the big tent? Margo’s husband, Jim Sillars, has already written forcibly against the idea of Salmond, Sturgeon, et al simply marching down to London to assert what Scots want.
“I’m glad you ask about this, Mandy, because this process will be very important…this 18 months during the transition period from the vote to Independence Day in March 2016 is really important. You know, the day after a Yes vote, everybody’s now in the same camp and we’ll want to use the talents of all the people and not just across the political spectrum but the specialisms that people have, the experience that people have, the talents that people have, we will want to use everyone in terms of making sure we get the best possible start for the new state.”
Could he imagine a former Chancellor being in that big tent?
“Depends which one.”
“Well, the way things are going with Alistair in Downing Street, he might be looking for a job soon.”
“Look, I’m not going to pick names out because that wouldn’t be fair at this stage but I’m just going to say that we’re open to using the best talent available because everybody will be on the same team – ‘Team Scotland’. We have some amazing people in Scotland, and I don’t want to go into names just now because I’m not just talking about politicians, who have already said to me that whatever their views on the referendum now, they will be available under the circumstances of a ‘Yes’ vote to work with us for Scotland, but I’m not just talking about politicians; I’m talking about people of great prominence, people of huge experience, people who give evidence to parliamentary Scottish committees.”
And they have already been approached?
“Yes. I have spoken to them.”
In terms of playing fantasy nation building, Salmond already has his result and his key players in place but the battle is far from over. What, I wonder, can we expect from both campaigns in the next five months to make the difference?
“Well,” he laughs. “I think the key to this is Andrew Dunlop [Cameron’s adviser on the referendum]. Now I don’t know Andrew Dunlop, I’ve met him a couple of times maybe, but let’s think about his remarkable political career and I’ll explain to you why I think he’s a ‘Yes’ sleeper. He devised, as political adviser to Scotland to Lady Thatcher, the Poll Tax and instead of being welcomed by the Scots, they didn’t only end up dumping the Poll Tax but the Prime Minister with it. Now, if we believe the Guardian, and I don’t see why we shouldn’t, he was the prime instigator in ‘they can’t get the pound’ strategy which is now disintegrating before our eyes.
"He is also of course the guy that was sent to Madrid to stitch-up the European demarche. So the Poll Tax having gone 25 years ago to this very day, the pound campaign from Westminster well on its way to, as you say, flipping on its head, and we’re now left with his European demarche which, in the way of things, because they usually come in threes, will collapse as well without any question. So there, yes, I do admit it, Andrew Dunlop is one of ours. He’s not one of them after all. And he’s doing a great job.
“But seriously, the day after the Yes vote, Clause 30 of the Edinburgh Agreement kicks in and people will sit down and try to do their best for each country. That’s what people do. That is the power of democracy so I have no fears about the transition. In terms of independence, Scotland faces the same challenges, the same opportunities as other countries but we’re in a much better place than I think any other country which has become independent in history. But nonetheless, we’ll face the challenges and opportunities as an independent country. We’ll make mistakes, no doubt, but they’ll be our mistakes and we’ll have the opportunities to fix them. But I suspect we’ll also have some great successes.”
With that, the ministerial car stops at the traffic lights at the bottom of Lothian Road and Salmond points: “Oh, a tram went past…now that just shows you, Mandy, that anything is possible.”
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