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 Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.