Ayes on the prize: Alex Salmond visits Brownings bakers in Kilmarnock, 3 September. Photo: Getty
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Ed Smith: Alex Salmond may get the laughs – but would you trust him in a crisis?

It is easy to imagine him as the popular mayor of a minor American city. What works when he is playing to the gallery, however, will not work if he becomes the head of a sovereign nation.

There are two Alex Salmonds. The first, whom I’ve heard about from political commentators, is shrewd and canny, a “master strategist” always two steps ahead of the leaden-footed machine politicians of Westminster. The second Alex Salmond, familiar to me from his performances on television and radio, is a hectoring bar-room bully who, wandering out of his depth, risks taking an entire multinational state with him.

Indulge me an analogy from sport. One county cricketer was known for having the “X factor”. Charismatic, competitive and domineering, he was, first and foremost, a natural bully, a handy trait when facing opponents who were susceptible to being bullied. At a certain level, his modus operandi – a feisty brand of mouthy machismo – was quite effective.

In another context, however, it could be inappropriate and even counterproductive. Playing against Viv Richards, he “sledged” (or deliberately insulted) the greatest batsman of modern times. Richards didn’t say much in reply. He didn’t need to. If it had been a boxing match, the bout would have ended by technical knockout after a few bloody seconds.

What works on the way up won’t necessarily cut it at every level. True, Salmond has won two terms as Scottish First Minister, operating with limited powers. Yet the sovereign destiny of nations is a game of far higher stakes. His cocksure irreverence only works, I think, when it comes to portraying Scotland as the wronged party in an unhappy relationship. Without an unpopular other half to blame for everything that goes wrong, Salmond’s lack of gravitas would surely become painfully obvious.

On the principle that you shouldn’t kick a man when he is down, I resisted making this point after his disastrous first televised debate with Alistair Darling. Now, after his alleged “victory” in the second, it seems fair to judge the two performances. Although the polls have narrowed, I very much doubt that Salmond has helped the cause of independence. Moreover, I am certain that he has damaged Scotland’s standing in the rest of the UK. In seeking to overexploit a sense of disillusionment (Scotland’s with England), Salmond has created its mirror image: a lasting English disillusionment with Scotland.

So why is such a swath of the British political intelligentsia convinced of Salmond’s strategic brilliance? Many overestimate the skills he possesses – a certain native cunning, the ability to whip up populist fervour and a willingness (apparently unchecked by conscience) to say almost anything to serve the here and now.

It is easy to imagine Salmond as the popular mayor of a minor American city. What works when he is playing to the gallery, however, will not work if he becomes the head of a sovereign nation. In my adult lifetime, the UK has fought several wars and suffered the greatest financial crisis since the Great Depression. When I try to imagine Alex Salmond in charge, I picture him alone in his office, receiving a phone call of grave seriousness. As he hears about the crisis, he is winking at the gallery, smirking at the prospect of a cheap shot, fluffing out his populist feathers. Then there is a terrible realisation: no one is watching. He is alone, in private and in charge. Judgement and decision-making are all that matter. To tweak a line from the Curtis Hanson movie LA Confidential: it’s hard trying to do the right thing when you haven’t had the practice.

What about the argument, favoured by those who consider him a far-sighted strategist, that Salmond is playing a long game? Among the SNP ranks, he is regarded as a gradualist holding back the fundamentalists. Is he just playing an extravagant game? “Of course he didn’t think he was going to win a Yes vote,” this argument runs. “It is merely a battering ram to force major concessions from Westminster. He will lose the war but win the peace.” This theory also falls down quickly. Salmond may win concessions but they will come at a high price. Opinion polls do not record how leaders can deplete their country’s standing. History does.

There is no doubt that the independence movement has generated deep and wide political engagement (though Salmond’s recent claim that it is the greatest movement in European history was characteristically far-fetched). It does not follow, as many have argued, that the No campaign has been bloodless, unexciting and lacking in a central, galvanising theme. Of course it has: it is arguing for the status quo. You can’t get more steady, sensible and unexciting than that. Adopting a tone appropriate to your cause is an underrated strength. It is a myth propagated by the PR industry that every cause can be framed in a sexy way.

Count the losers in this messy row. First, the Scots who wish to stay in the UK must resent the deepening perception of whining bitterness. Then there are the many Scots, including much of the artistic elite, who dislike Salmond and the SNP but support independence: how cruel for them to see an issue as personal and subtle as national identity handled so coarsely.

Meanwhile, the English, even those who were inclined to support the Union, are increasingly wondering if they want to tolerate much more of this. Every time Salmond exploits a half-truth – gaining a laugh, raising a cheer, perhaps even eliciting a vote – I see a strategic catastrophe unfolding. If he wins, Scotland will be saddled with a man who is utterly ill-equipped for statesmanship. If he loses – which he will – the manner of his campaign will linger for years. Far from a win-win for Scotland, it’s a lose-lose. How’s that for a strategic masterstroke? 

Ed Smith’s latest book is “Luck: a Fresh Look at Fortune” (Bloomsbury, £8.99)

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 03 September 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The summer of blood

Photo: Getty Images
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How can Britain become a nation of homeowners?

David Cameron must unlock the spirit of his postwar predecessors to get the housing market back on track. 

In the 1955 election, Anthony Eden described turning Britain into a “property-owning democracy” as his – and by extension, the Conservative Party’s – overarching mission.

60 years later, what’s changed? Then, as now, an Old Etonian sits in Downing Street. Then, as now, Labour are badly riven between left and right, with their last stay in government widely believed – by their activists at least – to have been a disappointment. Then as now, few commentators seriously believe the Tories will be out of power any time soon.

But as for a property-owning democracy? That’s going less well.

When Eden won in 1955, around a third of people owned their own homes. By the time the Conservative government gave way to Harold Wilson in 1964, 42 per cent of households were owner-occupiers.

That kicked off a long period – from the mid-50s right until the fall of the Berlin Wall – in which home ownership increased, before staying roughly flat at 70 per cent of the population from 1991 to 2001.

But over the course of the next decade, for the first time in over a hundred years, the proportion of owner-occupiers went to into reverse. Just 64 percent of households were owner-occupier in 2011. No-one seriously believes that number will have gone anywhere other than down by the time of the next census in 2021. Most troublingly, in London – which, for the most part, gives us a fairly accurate idea of what the demographics of Britain as a whole will be in 30 years’ time – more than half of households are now renters.

What’s gone wrong?

In short, property prices have shot out of reach of increasing numbers of people. The British housing market increasingly gets a failing grade at “Social Contract 101”: could someone, without a backstop of parental or family capital, entering the workforce today, working full-time, seriously hope to retire in 50 years in their own home with their mortgage paid off?

It’s useful to compare and contrast the policy levers of those two Old Etonians, Eden and Cameron. Cameron, so far, has favoured demand-side solutions: Help to Buy and the new Help to Buy ISA.

To take the second, newer of those two policy innovations first: the Help to Buy ISA. Does it work?

Well, if you are a pre-existing saver – you can’t use the Help to Buy ISA for another tax year. And you have to stop putting money into any existing ISAs. So anyone putting a little aside at the moment – not going to feel the benefit of a Help to Buy ISA.

And anyone solely reliant on a Help to Buy ISA – the most you can benefit from, if you are single, it is an extra three grand from the government. This is not going to shift any houses any time soon.

What it is is a bung for the only working-age demographic to have done well out of the Coalition: dual-earner couples with no children earning above average income.

What about Help to Buy itself? At the margins, Help to Buy is helping some people achieve completions – while driving up the big disincentive to home ownership in the shape of prices – and creating sub-prime style risks for the taxpayer in future.

Eden, in contrast, preferred supply-side policies: his government, like every peacetime government from Baldwin until Thatcher’s it was a housebuilding government.

Why are house prices so high? Because there aren’t enough of them. The sector is over-regulated, underprovided, there isn’t enough housing either for social lets or for buyers. And until today’s Conservatives rediscover the spirit of Eden, that is unlikely to change.

I was at a Conservative party fringe (I was on the far left, both in terms of seating and politics).This is what I said, minus the ums, the ahs, and the moment my screensaver kicked in.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.