Why Alex is staying in Jurassic Park

Scottish MPs at Westminster are "an endangered species with increasingly obsolete roles". Thus spake Alex Salmond as leader of the Scottish National Party.

When he stood down from that post, it was assumed he was weary of beating his head against the brick wall that is the Scottish electorate's refusal to cut ties with the UK. There was talk that he might cry "a pox on both your Houses" and quit Holyrood as well as Westminster.

So it is exceedingly strange that the SNP campaign to win more obsolescent seats at Westminster in the coming general election will be led by . . . none other than the man who is known, with varying degrees of affection, as Smart Alex.

Labour has been quick to accuse him of "crass hypocrisy". In the run-up to devolution, he had boasted that he was "one of the few people at Westminster trying to get out". And last July, when he announced that he was resigning as leader of the SNP, he cited the achievement of "moving from the fringe of Westminster to centre stage in the Scots Parliament" and pledged that he would remain as the MSP for Banff and Buchan.

Now, he hopes to drop the "S" and retain his status as MP. All very baffling - and a couple of hours over lunch with Salmond does not solve the mystery.

When he resigned the leadership and moved to the back benches with no particular role, it was widely expected that the former Royal Bank of Scotland oil economist would pop up in a lucrative post in the financial world. Salmond laughs this off: "I had a big job in the City before politics, so why would I go back to that? Ten years seems to be the lifespan for a party leader and, for me, that was long enough."

Perhaps closer to the truth is that he had become too big a fish for the smaller pond that is the Scottish Parliament. Perversely, he may hate the Union but he relished his status as a politician to watch - and his moments in the limelight, such as the time he was ejected from the Commons for interrupting Nigel Lawson's Budget speech in 1988.

He looks forward to a new position as leader of the SNP group in the Commons: "I hope to have Tony Blair on the ropes. He gets a hell of an easy ride in parliament now that William Hague has shaded off."

Salmond did not need much urging from John Swinney, his successor as SNP leader, who pointed out that his experience would be badly needed by the SNP group in the next UK parliament. With all the present Nationalist MPs opting for Holyrood and whatever talent the party had sprinkled among its 35 MSPs, there has been not so much a selection process as a barrel-scraping to contest the 72 Westminster seats.

Salmond justifies an SNP presence on the green benches: "As long as Westminster has influence over Scotland, the SNP has to be represented there. That is an important field of battle for us because we must oppose the people there who are hostile to independence or hostile to the Scottish Parliament."

He recalls the insults hurled from Westminster at the First Minister, Henry McLeish, the Scottish Executive and the Edinburgh parliament in the recent furore over care for the elderly: "That showed there are not too many friends of the Scottish Parliament down there. Their antagonism and prejudices against devolution will come out in debates on financing Scottish government and the impetus will be to short-change Scotland. Our impetus will be to win still more powers for the Scottish Parliament."

Salmond and Swinney boast that they are going into the general election with "a higher opinion poll rating than ever before in our history". Their real position, however, confirms the SNP's failure to break through the ceiling of one-third of the Scottish vote. The latest System Three poll for the Herald shows the party at 35 per cent in first-choice votes for the Scottish Parliament, but only 28 per cent in voting intentions for Westminster - enough to retain their six Westminster seats, but not much more.

Oddly, the SNP's campaign launch concentrated on the core issues of health, unemployment and the NHS, all of which have been devolved from Westminster. But its new slogan "We stand for Scotland" reveals that its true strategy will be to appeal to the keep-Labour-on-their-toes vote.

"In a tight election," says Salmond, "people might think, 'Don't let the Tories in', but if it's all over down south, it's a great position for the SNP. You only have to ask the question: Is William Hague going to be Prime Minister? Not likely!

"Scotland always gets a better deal when the SNP is stronger. The establishment of the Scottish Office over 100 years ago was a response to Scottish public feeling; the Scottish Development Agency in the 1970s was a result of the Nationalist surge. And SNP strength in the 1990s created the conditions for a Scottish parliament."

Salmond still speaks scornfully of the Scottish Labour MPs as "irrelevant dinosaurs", yet he seems happy enough to join them in Jurassic Park, SW1.

This article first appeared in the 12 February 2001 issue of the New Statesman, Exclusive: how Labour could lose