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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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder