Alex Salmond: “This is the phoney war. This is not the campaign”

If Alex Salmond’s opponents are feeling confident, they shouldn’t be. In a rare print interview, the SNP leader takes aim at Nigel Farage, the bedroom tax and Scottish Labour – and reveals his plan to guarantee every young person a job.

Alex Salmond, First Minister of Scotland
Alex Salmond, First Minister of Scotland. Photograph: Tricia Malley & Ross Gillespie / Broad Daylight

I meet Alex Salmond on a humid afternoon at Bute House, the First Minister’s official residence in Charlotte Square, in Edinburgh’s magnificent 18th-century New Town, on the day after it was announced that Heart of Midlothian football club was entering administration. Hearts is the First Minister’s own club, the team he supports. Like the collapse of both Rangers, one half of Glasgow’s Old Firm, and the Royal Bank of Scotland, where Salmond used to work as an economist, Hearts’ struggles and fall are a parable of hubris and overreach. They remind us what can go wrong when a small country finds itself battered by the forces of free-market globalisation.

I suggest to Salmond that what is happening to these Scottish institutions – football clubs, banks, even once-great newspapers such as the Scotsman, which are rapidly losing circulation and authority – must be demoralising and might diminish the case for independence in the eyes of an anxious and recession-weary population.

He laughs dismissively and sips his ginger beer. He’d requested a glass of Irn-Bru but supplies had run out. “The demise of Hearts has been greatly exaggerated,” he says, leaning forward in his stiff-backed chair as I perch on the edge of a sofa. “The position of Rangers or of Hearts will not have any impact on the Scottish political situation. Administration is not the end of the world, as recent examples in football have demonstrated.”

Moving on to what he calls the political situation (“situation” is a favourite word, as it turns out), I remind Salmond that the polls are rigidly unshifting and indicate that a majority of Scots do not want independence. Women in particular are sceptical. “This is the phoney war. This is not the campaign. I went into an election [for the Scottish Parliament] in 2011 20 points behind in the polls and ended up 15 in front. The real game hasn’t even started. We are just clearing the ground.”

He mocks the Better Together campaign, led by the former Labour chancellor Alistair Darling, as “wholly negative” and predicts that it “will run out of steam”.

“If you feed people a diet of unremitting negativity they will laugh at you in the end. The campaign is a bit like Dracula in one of those Hammer films . . . it will be dragged out in the light of day and crumble. Darling is leading the Tory campaign [to retain the Union] and Gordon Brown is leading the Labour campaign. In that way, they won’t have to meet very often.”

Salmond’s conversation is punctuated by sarcastic jokes, mostly at the expense of Brown, Darling and the present Chancellor, the Conservative George Osborne, whom he scorns repeatedly. It’s notable that he never mocks David Cameron; he speaks about him more in sorrow and regret. He also digresses throughout to deliver amusing anecdotes about everything from his mother’s politics – he describes her as having been a “Churchill Tory” before she converted late to the SNP, having always believed that the likes of “Alec Douglas-Home should run the country because they were above corruption” – to his being, when he was at Westminster, the “only anglophile Scottish MP”.

He feels emboldened by Cameron’s European problem and believes the rise of Faragism – he suggests that the Ukip leader has no legitimacy in Scotland – will helpfully enhance the attraction of independence. “We don’t want people being transplanted into this debate who aren’t entitled to be,” he says of Nigel Farage. “If Ukip were [represented] in the Scottish Parliament as the Greens are, then fine . . .”

On the question of the European Union, Salmond has “no plans” for the SNP to hold an in/out referendum in the event of Scotland becoming independent. “You don’t offer a referendum unless you support the policy. Our policy is to remain part of Europe.” When I raise people’s legitimate concerns about the undemocratic remoteness of the EU bureaucracy he responds by saying: “If you and I were reformulating the EU we’d think up some democratic populist projects. And I might want to rearrange the pieces on the European game board. But do I want to abolish the board? No.”

He says the Tories have “learned nothing from history”, least of all from the way John Major’s government was debilitated and ultimately destroyed by the schism over Europe. “When Cameron came in in 2010,” he says, lowering his voice, “he did something very smart. He called the Scandinavian governments together and sat down in talks about a strategy for joint initiatives within the EU. That was very smart in the sense that some of these countries are natural allies. Sweden is a natural ally on the currency, for example. This got him a lot of credibility. Then he abandoned the attempt at reform from a perspective of building alliances and forming a northern bloc that would counterbalance some of the difficulties in the way the [European] Commission goes about its work . . . He’s done this in order to appease Nigel Farage! You can never out-swivel-eye the swivel-eyed.”

He senses that Cameron’s difficulties are his opportunity. “The Scotland/Europe platform was a huge advantage to the SNP in the Nineties. Because of what’s happened in Europe and the eurozone it was becoming a negative. Now it’s swung back to being a strong positive. Scots are much more comfortable about being an independent country in a European context.”

He believes the emergence of Ukip is no mere spasm of English unease but poses a profound challenge to the Conservatives. “Ukip has flung the United Kingdom government’s European policy into chaos. Instead of galvanising the support of Scandinavian prime ministers, Cameron has bemused an entire continent. Committing to renegotiation and then an in/out referendum is lunacy.”

 Alex Salmond is 58 and has been the leader of the SNP since 2004; he also led the party from 1990 to 2000 before resigning, only to return when it began losing support under John Swinney. His love for the game of politics is undiminished. He plays it well and he likes to win. In person, he is cocky yet also courteous. He speaks deliberatively and fluently, using your name and looking straight at you. He is sarcastic and never misses an opportunity to ridicule and disparage the coalition government; as he says: “No Scottish politician with an ounce of sanity would have introduced a bedroom tax.”

His hair is cut aggressively short above the ears and at the neck, like a ration-era schoolboy, and he has dark, shrewd eyes and a high, tanned forehead. He is portly and speaks with a slight breathlessness, as if he has just hurried up the stairs. He has a persistent back complaint and, it is said, he seldom walks anywhere. The comedian Frankie Boyle has suggested that the First Minister must have the cholesterol level of a fried egg. Unfair, but all part of the game, as Salmond would concede.

No other leader in Britain commands his party and the political scene as Salmond does. He relishes being both in power, in Scotland, and in opposition, to the Westminster establishment in England. Like Boris Johnson – but unlike David Cameron and Ed Miliband – Salmond has the gift of popular communication. A formidable campaigner, he is supported by a disciplined machine.

He has won two Scottish elections, the first as the largest party in a hung parliament and the second in 2011 with an overall majority, which, under the proportional voting system introduced after the 1998 devolution settlement, was forecast as highly improbable. He has since delivered the promise of a referendum on Scottish independence earlier than perhaps even his most ardent supporters could have hoped.

Although recently he has made a series of tactical retreats – on Nato membership, on sterling, on welfare and pensions and on what he calls “the monarchical union” – as the SNP struggles to articulate a coherent set of positions on independence, his party members still revere him. His only near rival in Scotland for profile and authority is not another party leader but his deputy Nicola Sturgeon, who will surely succeed him, even as early as next year, if the SNP loses the independence referendum. It all depends on the margin of defeat.

Born into a lower-middle-class family in Linlithgow, West Lothian, the son of civil servants, Salmond became politicised at St Andrews University in the 1970s, where he studied economics and history. The great Scottish universities, especially Edinburgh and St Andrews, have long been colonised by upper- and upper-middle-class, publicschool- educated students from England whose sense of entitlement enrages Scots.

The 1970s were a period when, to use a phrase of the young Gordon Brown, Scots’ nationalist ambitions were “oil-fired”. “We suggest,” Brown wrote in 1975, “that the rise of modern Scottish nationalism is less an assertion of Scotland’s permanence as a nation than a response to Scotland’s uneven development – in particular to the gap between people’s experiences as part of an increasingly demoralised Great Britain and their (oil-fired) expectations at a Scottish level.”

One of the paradoxes of Scottish independence is that its supporters long to break free from political and economic union with England but are equally eager to share or surrender sovereignty to the European Union. They understandably want responsibility for raising as well as spending tax revenues.

Yet, having once favoured joining the eurozone, the SNP now wants to be part of what it calls the “sterling zone” and to use the Bank of England as its central bank and lender of last resort. That position is not credible: the English in particular would not wish in a crisis to bail out an independent country with a large fiscal deficit over whose tax-and-spend policies it had no control. The crisis in the eurozone demonstrates what can happen when monetary and fiscal policies are not aligned.

Salmond says the comparison with the eurozone is “fatuous”. He leans forward again in his chair. “Osborne doesn’t own sterling. The Bank of England was set up by a Scot [Sir William Paterson]. It’s as much Scotland’s currency as England’s. You can do this in two ways. You can do what we’re proposing, which is you have a responsible division of assets and liabilities, and that includes monetary liabilities and monetary assets. But alternatively if one part is claiming ownership of all the assets, then by definition they end up landed with all the liabilities as well.

“I’m certain most people in England would not want to end up with all of the gigantic, voluminous national debt that Alistair Darling and George Osborne have managed to accumulate between them.”

Would he wish to retain the Bank of England as Scotland’s lender of last resort? “Yes, under what we propose. If you share a currency it’s sensible to share a central bank.”

It’s likely that in such circumstances the rest of the United Kingdom would want some control over Scottish fiscal policy. “You need a sustainability agreement on terms of borrowing and debt levels,” Salmond counters. “So long as you stick by that . . .” His voice fades.

“The plan is to do what is appropriate and in the best interests of Scotland. The currency is just a means of whatever is the best financial and monetary arrangement for an independent Scotland. I have never believed in a currency as a symbol of national [power] and I have never believed that monetary policy has primacy over fiscal policy.”

Would an independent Scotland borrow to invest in infrastructure projects, in line with the Keynesian model? “It’s not incompatible to have an oil fund and still to be borrowing. There are many good reasons why you would do that.”

He aspires to introduce a written constitution under which he would offer what he describes as a guarantee of work to young people. A constitutional right to work: this is powerful. “Already the European Convention [on Human Rights] is part of the bricks and mortar of the Scottish Parliament,” he says. “The European Convention is largely a defensive document . . . certain rights are enshrined. But modern, progressive constitutions should be enabling constitutions. We should aspire to establish certain rights – the right to a free education, the right to youth employment, the right not to have your country contaminated by nuclear weapons.”

He pledges that an independent Scotland would make it a constitutional right for “every young person to be offered the opportunity of education, work or training”.

Salmond’s independence dreams remain oil-fired. Oil is a diminishing asset but it is still the bedrock on which the SNP would build the new Scotland. He never discusses the need for cuts in public spending to reduce budget deficits, or austerity. “We are going through a maxi oil boom at the present moment,” he says, adding that Scotland and the south-east of England are the only parts of the country that are experiencing growth. “We’ve estimated $1.5trn, that’s a thousand billion, over the next 40 years, wholesale value of oil in the North Sea – that’s at an estimate of $100 a barrel. Most projections are way, way beyond $100 a barrel.”

There is much unhappiness on the Scottish left about Salmond’s desire to slash corporation tax. George Osborne has pledged to reduce corporation tax to 20 per cent by 2015, the lowest in the G20. Salmond says that whatever the rate was in the rest of the UK, an independent Scotland would set corporation tax 3 per cent lower. “There is a legitimate place for fiscal competition. We have to have an argument for people locating companies’ headquarters and research and development divisions in Scotland rather than in London. How do you retain decisionmaking centres in Scotland, where the profits are legitimately generated? We need a sensible, competitive position.”

By contrast, he refuses to rule out incometax rises. “I don’t envisage any income-tax rises now but I wouldn’t have reduced the 50p rate.” And he supports the introduction of a Europe-wide tariff on financial transactions or so-called Tobin tax. “Yes, I support it. But it has to be everyone in.”

Salmond remains largely a mystery even to those who work closely with him. “No one knows him well,” says David Torrance, his unauthorised biographer. “He doesn’t really have friends. Halfway through his time at university he became absolutely possessed by politics and has been ever since. If he has a hinterland, it comes across as a bit contrived or phoney. He claims to be interested in football, horse racing and gambling – but there’s not a lot of evidence that he is. It’s all about politics for him.”

“Of course Alex has friends,” Alan Taylor, the influential columnist and editor of the Scottish Review of Books, told me over coffee one morning at the Whisky Society on Queen Street. “It’s just that he’s not very clubbable. The more interesting question is how effective is his present administration. And he’s not doing as well as he was.”

An accusation levelled against Salmond is that he does not have a coherent macroeconomic strategy. The SNP itself is divided between “fundamentalists” and “pragmatists”. The fundamentalists are invariably republican, unilateralist on nuclear weapons and opposed to Nato membership. They want Scotland to become a kind of Nordic-style social democracy, with a big, interventionist state, high welfare spending and strict regulation of financial capitalism. The pragmatists – and Salmond is one – supported devolution when it was rejected by the nationalist fundamentalists. The pragmatists, especially Salmond, were beguiled by the so-called Irish economic miracle of the late 1990s. They supported the disastrous takeover by RBS of the Dutch bank ABN Amro – Salmond signed off a letter of support to the disgraced RBS chief executive Fred Goodwin with the flourish “Yours, Scotland”.

The polls may be static, showing support for independence at between 32 and 36 per cent, yet on the ground something is happening. There is a sense, especially among the liberal and progressive elite as well as in literary and arts circles, that independence is preferable to the status quo and the collapsing authority of the British state. Alan Taylor, who once supported Labour, told me that he would vote Yes to independence, even though he was “relaxed about the result either way”. He said: “I believe we need deep and fundamental change to improve people’s lives: health, employment, social conditions. The very poor. Labour hasn’t helped them for decades. If you have independence you have no choice but to help yourself.

“I want people to be responsible for the place. At present, they think it’s someone else’s fault. And the truth is people in England don’t care about Scotland. They might come here on holiday but they don’t understand or know what’s going on.”

In England if you are on the liberal left there is nowhere to go but the Labour Party. In Scotland – where support for the Liberal Democrats has collapsed, unlikely ever to be restored, as happened to the Conservatives and Unionists before them – the choice is much greater. To the left of Labour and the SNP there are groupings such as the Greens, the Scottish Socialists, Solidarity and the Communist Party of Scotland. These all support independence and have been empowered by proportional representation. They have a political system that allows them to be heard.

In the closing paragraph of Homage to Catalonia, George Orwell describes returning to England from fighting in the Spanish civil war, where he was shot in the throat. He finds England comfortingly and yet complacently unchanged. “And then England,” he writes, “southern England, probably the sleekest landscape in the world. It is difficult when you pass that way . . . to believe that anything is really happening anywhere . . . all sleeping the deep, deep sleep of England, from which I sometimes fear that we shall never wake till we are jerked out of it by the roar of bombs.”

It is notable that Orwell writes not of Britain, but of England. Scottish nationalists such as Tom Nairn have long described Britain as a kind of pseudo-state, without democratic or moral legitimacy. According to the historian Linda Colley, the forces that “forged” the British nation after the Act of Union between England and Scotland in 1707 were Protestantism, wars with Catholic Europe, especially with France, and imperialism. These were the forces that united the disparate peoples of these islands.

In his 2012 Hugo Young Lecture delivered in London, Salmond spoke about how the “social union” between England and Scotland would deepen after the break-up of Britain. It was a good speech because it also raised the English question. Englishness is a less assertive national identity than Scottishness, perhaps because it is much more confident: for many English people their identity is coterminous with Britishness, in spite of all its complicated associations with postimperial decline and present anxiety about European integration.

“One of the disappointments of the referendum campaign so far,” says the writer and activist Anthony Barnett, who supports the creation of an English parliament, “is that Salmond is not making the case for a new relationship with England.

“I liked his Hugo Young speech but he should be going to Newcastle, Manchester and Birmingham and making speeches in these cities. What’s lacking so far is the big vision. He’s fighting the referendum campaign like an election. He’s being moderate; it’s tactical. He doesn’t want to frighten people away. But surely independence must mean something different – a break with the past. There’s a lack of vision when you really need it.”

Any post-referendum settlement should at least attempt to address the deep structural imbalances and weaknesses of the British state: Scottish MPs voting on English affairs; the feelings many English people have of disenfranchisement and voicelessness; the overcentralisation of power at Westminster; intensifying Euroscepticism; institutional corruption. The peoples of these islands might indeed ultimately be better together, but no one is telling us convincingly why this is so or why we should even care. The arguments are aridly economic, not cultural and patriotic.

I ask Salmond if he feels British and, if so, what does Britishness – a notion with which Gordon Brown grappled so unsatisfactorily – mean to him. “I’ve got a British aspect to my identity,” he says. “I’ve got a multilayered identity. Scottishness is my primary identity but I’ve got Britishness and a European identity.”

He moves from the general to the particular. “One of the great attractions of Scottish nationalism is that it’s very much a multi-layered identity. It’s never been sensible to tell people they only have one identity and that they have to choose. I’m not sure what the Scottish equivalent of [Norman Tebbit’s] cricket test would be? A Hampden test, I suppose . . . People in Scotland are Scottish and British, English and British, Irish and Scottish, and Pakistani and Kashmiri and Indian and Chinese and whatever nationality I’ve missed out. A fact of the SNP is that in the 2011 election we had the support of 45 per cent of the population as a whole and more than 50 per cent support among the Asian community in Scotland.”

This expressed sense of civic nationalism is, however, no different from most people’s sense of Englishness or indeed Britishness: in an age of globalisation, when capital and people are so mobile and we have never been more interdependent, more and more of us are comfortable with having compound or hyphenated identities and with sharing sovereignties. “But,” Salmond says, “we are doing substantially better in Scotland [than England] as far as our immigrant communities are concerned.”

That’s easy to say when Scotland has not experienced the kind of mass immigration that England has known over many decades. Spend any time in Scotland and you have a sense of an overwhelmingly white country. You hear more eastern European accents than you see black or mixed-race faces.

When I visited Johann Lamont, the leader of Scottish Labour, in her office at Holyrood last year, she said this: “What is my problem with David Cameron? He is a Tory. What is Alex Salmond’s problem with him? He’s English. I don’t mind people being nationalists. I worry about when it trips over into chauvinism, and I am frustrated when it becomes a substitute for arguing about real politics. Alex Salmond wants to be Mr Scotland. But he is not trying to separate us all from some kind of colonial empire – it is a partnership.”

What did Salmond think of what she said? “It’s just silly.” And then he makes a nicely cutting remark: “I would have thought that line, like everything else with Johann, was written for her.”

Earlier in the day, a senior contact in Scottish Labour had described Salmond’s nationalism as “being slightly fascistic. There are comparisons between the SNP and Ukip.” I was not convinced. Labour should be wary of fighting dirty and of being drawn into an increasingly fractious and personally abusive campaign. This is just as the First Minister, the ultimate long-game gradualist, would wish it.

As for Ed Miliband, Salmond is unimpressed by his leadership. “I’d agree with the polls that he’s lagging some way behind his party. What’s Labour’s central problem? People still blame them for the financial situation in the country. That’s essential. It’s the ‘blame for the economic crisis, stupid’ argument.

“What Miliband had to do was separate himself totally from the people who could be given central responsibility. He attempted to do that when he appointed [Alan] Johnson as shadow chancellor. He can’t forswear the past when he has the past sitting next to him. Ed Balls? Yes, absolutely. He’s got a choice. He can combine bits of the Brownite wing with his wing or whatever. Or he’s got to say: ‘Look, we have to win an election and to win we have to clear the decks.’ But time is getting quite short for clearing the decks. He’s said that Gordon Brown was wrong on immigration. But a departure on economic policy is the more important, and involves a more substantial thing to do.” Salmond’s pragmatism has taken him a long way. He holds up a big umbrella under which any number of ideologues, mavericks and nationalists can happily shelter, from the neoliberal financier and SNP paymaster Brian Souter to the self-exiled, sun-seeking actor Sean Connery. He has encouraged Donald Trump to build a golf resort on the north-east coast, only to end up in dispute with him. He embraces Rupert Murdoch, a hard, unyielding Eurosceptic.

“But I’ve only met Trump once,” he protests. “We have a disagreement over an offshore wind demonstrator.

“My view is I welcome investment in Scotland. I welcome the investment of the golf course in Scotland. But investing in Scotland doesn’t mean you have the right to run its energy policy.

“No doubt Trump Inc feels it has a right to sue the Scottish government. And Rupert Murdoch is a huge investor in the Scottish economy. It’s my obligation and duty to maximise that investment.”

There is always speculation about Salmond at Holyrood. The latest is that his health is poor and that he will resign as leader next year. But he looked well enough to me: affable, hugely self-assured, relishing the game, as combative and in command of his brief as he ever was.

“I spent a lot of time in my life losing national elections,” he says as we prepare to part. “And eventually I stumbled across the reason why. At one point I was in opposition in Westminster and had three MPs in a parliament of 650. The Conservatives were imposing the poll tax on the country, like they’re imposing the bedroom tax now.”

He digresses: “The bedroom tax might well have the same galvanising effect as the poll tax. I think it will.”

Then he returns, obliquely, to his theme: “I interrupted a Budget [Nigel Lawson’s taxcutting project] in 1988 on that basis [sic]. It was a legitimate thing to do and achieved a high profile for the SNP. The point I realised was that if you wanted to be in government, or to win an argument for that matter on a referendum, you couldn’t do it with a moaning opposition psychology. You had to have a positive programme to offer.

“Part of that positivity is getting your party into the attitude in a campaign that, if it applies itself properly, it can win. Since 2007, that’s what I’ve done and since 2007 I haven’t lost a national election.

“We’ll approach the referendum in the same way we approached these two Scottish elections. And that is, we will set a vision for the people. I’ll certainly hypothesise on the future and I shall do so on the basis of success, not failure.”

And what if you lose? Will you resign? “We can win.”