Exclusive: Alex Salmond on his youth jobs right, the bedroom tax and why he will win

In a rare interview, Salmond declares "the real game hasn’t even started" and reveals that a written Scottish constitution would guarantee every young person the right to a job or training.

Ever since David Cameron called his bluff on Scottish independence last year, Alex Salmond has been on the back foot. But in a rare interview in tomorrow's New Statesman, the Scottish First Minister comes out fighting. He tells NS editor Jason Cowley: 

This is the phony war. This is not the campaign. I went into an [Scottish] election 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.

After being forced on the defensive over issues such as EU membership and the currency, he seeks to flesh out the SNP's "positive programme", revealing that the written constitution of an independent Scotland would guarantee every young person the right to a job or training. 

"Every 16 and 19 year old", he says, would be offered "a training place or an opportunity of a job if they are not already in an apprenticeship or a job or full time education [...] we should aspire to establish certain rights – the right to a free education, the right to youth employment". 

You'll have to pick up tomorrow's NS to read the full piece (subscribe here), but here are some highlights. 

No EU referendum for Scots

Salmond rules out holding a referendum on the new EU membership terms of an independent Scotland. 

You don’t hold a referendum unless you support the policy. Our policy is to remain part of Europe 

On Cameron: "You can never out swivel-eye the swivel-eyed"

He derides Cameron's capitulation to UKIP and the Tory backbenches over an EU referendum, suggesting that he has "learned nothing from the past" and quipping, "you can never out swivel-eye the swivel-eyed". 

When Cameron came in in 2010 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 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 suggests that the increasing uncertainty over Britain's EU membership is already raising support for independence. 

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.

As I recently noted, one poll showed that the No campaign's eight-point lead disappears when Scots are asked how they would vote if the UK appeared likely to leave the EU. 

On Scottish national identity and Britishness

In some of his most striking comments, Salmond remarks that he has "a British aspect" to his identity. 

One of the great attractions of Scottish nationalism is that it’s very much a multilayered identity. It’s never been sensible to tell people they have only one to choose. I’m not sure what the Scottish equivalent of the cricket test would be.

I’ve got a British aspect to my identity. Scottishness is my primary identity but I’ve got Britishness and a European identity.

On the "bedroom tax": the new poll tax

One issue Salmond believes will tilt the odds in his favour is the "bedroom tax". He argues that it could have "the same galvanising effect as the poll tax" and declares that "no Scottish politician with an ounce of sanity would have introduced it". 

On Ed Miliband and Labour: "people still blame them"

He is unimpressed with Miliband's performance as Labour leader, citing his failure to separate himself from those "who could be given central responsibility" for the crash as his defining error. 

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

On Alistair Darling and Better Together: they'll "run out of steam"

Salmond accuses Darling of feeding voters "a diet of unremitting negativity" and declares that the No campaign will "run out of steam" before September 2014.

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

On tuition fees: English students would still pay

EU law allows discrimination within member states but not between them, which explains why Scottish universities are able to charge English students tuition fees, while other EU citizens enjoy free higher education. But Salmond suggests that this will remain the case even if Scotland and England separate.

English students would be required to pay tuition fees and other EU students would be required to pay a management fee, as in Ireland. This would be less than the cost of tuition fees. If anyone is discriminating against English students it is the Westminster government by introducing £9,000 tuition fees. The fault lies not with us but within yourselves, and by the way I like Shakespeare, even though he's English.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Lord Empey: Northern Ireland likely to be without government for a year

The former UUP leader says Gerry Adams is now in "complete control" of Sinn Fein and no longer wants to be "trapped" by the Good Friday Agreement

The death of Martin McGuinness has made a devolution settlement in Northern Ireland even more unlikely and has left Gerry Adams in "complete control" of Sinn Fein, the former Ulster Unionist leader Reg Empey has said.

In a wide-ranging interview with the New Statesman on the day of McGuinness’ death, the UUP peer claimed his absence would leave a vacuum that would allow Adams, the Sinn Fein president, to consolidate his hold over the party and dictate the trajectory of the crucial negotiations to come. Sinn Fein have since pulled out of power-sharing talks, leaving Northern Ireland facing the prospect of direct rule from Westminster or a third election in the space of a year. 

Empey, who led the UUP between and 2005 and 2010 and was briefly acting first minister in 2001, went on to suggest that, “as things stand”, Northern Ireland is unlikely to see a return to fully devolved government before the inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme is complete -  a process which could take up to a year to complete.

“Adams is now in complete control of Sinn Fein,” he said, adding that it remained unclear whether McGuinness’ successor Michelle O’Neill would be “allowed to plough an independent furrow”. “He has no equal within the organisation. He is in total command of Sinn Fein, and that is the way it is. I think he’s even more powerful today than he was before Martin died – by virtue of there just being nobody there.”

Asked what impact the passing of McGuinness, the former deputy first minister and leader of Sinn Fein in the north, would have on the chances of a devolution settlement, Empey, a member of the UUP’s Good Friday Agreement negotiating delegation, said: “I don’t think it’ll be positive – because, for all his faults, Martin was committed to making the institutions work. I don’t think Gerry Adams is as committed.

Empey added that he believed Adams did not want to work within the constitutional framework of the Good Friday Agreement. In a rebuke to nationalist claims that neither Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire nor Theresa May can act as honest or neutral brokers in power-sharing negotiations given their reliance on the DUP’s eight MPs, he said: “They’re not neutral. And they’re not supposed to be neutral.

“I don’t expect a prime minister or a secretary of state to be neutral. Brokenshire isn’t sitting wearing a hat with ostrich feathers – he’s not a governor, he’s a party politician who believes in the union. The language Sinn Fein uses makes it sound like they’re running a UN mandate... Gerry can go and shout at the British government all he likes. He doesn’t want to be trapped in the constitutional framework of the Belfast Agreement. He wants to move the debate outside those parameters, and he sees Brexit as a chance to mobilise opinion in the republic, and to be seen standing up for Irish interests.”

Empey went on to suggest that Adams, who he suggested exerted a “disruptive” influence on power-sharing talks, “might very well say” Sinn Fein were “’[taking a hard line] for Martin’s memory’” and added that he had been “hypocritical” in his approach.

“He’ll use all of that,” he said. “Republicans have always used people’s deaths to move the cause forward. The hunger strikers are the obvious example. They were effectively sacrificed to build up the base and energise people. But he still has to come to terms with the rest of us.”

Empey’s frank assessment of Sinn Fein’s likely approach to negotiations will cast yet more doubt on the prospect that devolved government might be salvaged before Monday’s deadline. Though he admitted Adams had demanded nothing unionists “should die in a ditch for”, he suggested neither party was likely to cede ground. “If Sinn Fein were to back down they would get hammered,” he said. “If Foster backs down the DUP would get hammered. So I think we’ve got ourselves a catch 22: they’ve both painted themselves into their respective corners.”

In addition, Empey accused DUP leader Arlene Foster of squandering the “dream scenario” unionist parties won at last year’s assembly election with a “disastrous” campaign, but added he did not believe she would resign despite repeated Sinn Fein demands for her to do so.

 “It’s very difficult to see how she’s turned that from being at the top of Mount Everest to being under five miles of water – because that’s where she is,” he said. “She no longer controls the institutions. Martin McGuinness effectively wrote her resignation letter for her. And it’s very difficult to see a way forward. The idea that she could stand down as first minister candidate and stay on as party leader is one option. But she could’ve done that for a few weeks before Christmas and we wouldn’t be here! She’s basically taken unionism from the top to the bottom – in less than a year”.

Though Foster has expressed regret over the tone of the DUP’s much-criticised election campaign and has been widely praised for her decision to attend Martin McGuinness’ funeral yesterday, she remains unlikely to step down, despite coded invitations for her to do so from several members of her own party.

The historically poor result for unionism she oversaw has led to calls from leading loyalists for the DUP and UUP – who lost 10 and eight seats respectively – to pursue a merger or electoral alliance, which Empey dismissed outright.

“The idea that you can weld all unionists together into a solid mass under a single leadership – I would struggle to see how that would actually work in practice. Can you cooperate at a certain level? I don’t doubt that that’s possible, especially with seats here. Trying to amalgamate everybody? I remain to be convinced that that should be the case.”

Accusing the DUP of having “led unionism into a valley”, and of “lashing out”, he added: “They’ll never absorb all of our votes. They can try as hard as they like, but they’d end up with fewer than they have now.”

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.