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

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What happens when a president refuses to step down?

An approaching constitutional crisis has triggered deep political unrest in the Congo.

Franck Diongo reached his party’s headquarters shortly after 10am and stepped out of a Range Rover. Staff and hangers-on rose from plastic chairs to greet the president of the Mouvement Lumumbiste Progressiste (MLP), named after the first elected leader of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Diongo, a compact and powerfully built man, was so tightly wound that his teeth ground as he talked. When agitated, he slammed his palms on the table and his speech became shrill. “We live under a dictatorial regime, so it used the security forces to kill us with live rounds to prevent our demonstration,” he said.

The MLP is part of a coalition of opposition parties known as the Rassemblement. Its aim is to ensure that the Congolese president, Joseph Kabila, who has been president since 2001, leaves office on 19 December, at the end of his second and supposedly final term.

Yet the elections that were meant to take place late last month have not been organised. The government has blamed logistical and financial difficulties, but Kabila’s opponents claim that the president has hamstrung the electoral commission in the hope that he can use his extended mandate to change the rules. “Mr Kabila doesn’t want to quit power,” said Diongo, expressing a widespread belief here.

On 19 September, the Rassemblement planned a march in Kinshasa, the capital, to protest the failure to deliver elections and to remind the president that his departure from office was imminent. But the demonstration never took place. At sunrise, clashes broke out between police and protesters in opposition strongholds. The military was deployed. By the time peace was restored 36 hours later, dozens had died. Kabila’s interior minister, claiming that the government had faced down an insurrection, acknowledged the deaths of 32 people but said that they were killed by criminals during looting.

Subsequent inquiries by the United Nations and Human Rights Watch (HRW) told a different story. They recorded more fatalities – at least 53 and 56, respectively – and said that the state had been responsible for most of the deaths. They claimed that the Congolese authorities had obstructed the investigators, and the true number of casualties was likely higher. According to HRW, security forces had seized and removed bodies “in an apparent effort to hide the evidence”.

The UN found that the lethal response was directed from a “central command centre. . . jointly managed” by officials from the police, army, presidential bodyguard and intelligence agency that “authorised the use of force, including firearms”.

The reports validated claims made by the Rassemblement that it was soldiers who had set fire to several opposition parties’ headquarters on 20 September. Six men were killed when the compound of the UDPS party was attacked.

On 1 November, their funerals took place where they fell. White coffins, each draped in a UDPS flag, were shielded from the midday sun by a gazebo, while mourners found shade inside the charred building. Pierrot Tshibangu lost his younger sibling, Evariste, in the attack. “When we arrived, we found my brother’s body covered in stab marks and bullet wounds,” he recalled.

Once the government had suppressed the demonstration, the attorney general compiled a list of influential figures in the Rassemblement – including Diongo – and forbade them from leaving the capital. Kinshasa’s governor then outlawed all political protest.

It was easy to understand why Diongo felt embattled, even paranoid. Midway through our conversation, his staff apprehended a man loitering in the courtyard. Several minutes of mayhem ensued before he was restrained and confined under suspicion of spying for the government.

Kabila is seldom seen in public and almost never addresses the nation. His long-term intentions are unclear, but the president’s chief diplomatic adviser maintains that his boss has no designs on altering the constitution or securing a third term. He insists that Kabila will happily step down once the country is ready for the polls.

Most refuse to believe such assurances. On 18 October, Kabila’s ruling alliance struck a deal with a different, smaller opposition faction. It allows Kabila to stay in office until the next election, which has been postponed until April 2018. A rickety government of national unity is being put in place but discord is already rife.

Jean-Lucien Bussa of the CDER party helped to negotiate the deal and is now a front-runner for a ministerial portfolio. At a corner table in the national assembly’s restaurant, he told me that the Rassemblement was guilty of “a lack of realism”, and that its fears were misplaced because Kabila won’t be able to prolong his presidency any further.

“On 29 April 2018, the Congolese will go to the ballot box to vote for their next president,” he said. “There is no other alternative for democrats than to find a negotiated solution, and this accord has given us one.”

Diongo was scathing of the pact (he called it “a farce intended to deceive”) and he excommunicated its adherents from his faction. “They are Mr Kabila’s collaborators, who came to divide the opposition,” he told me. “What kind of oppositionist can give Mr Kabila the power to violate the constitution beyond 19 December?”

Diongo is convinced that the president has no intention of walking away from power in April 2018. “Kabila will never organise elections if he cannot change the constitution,” he warned.

Diongo’s anger peaked at the suggestion that it will be an uphill struggle to dislodge a head of state who has control of the security forces. “What you need to consider,” he said, “is that no army can defy a people determined to take control of their destiny . . . The Congolese people will have the last word!”

A recent poll suggested that the president would win less than 8 per cent of the vote if an election were held this year. One can only assume that Kabila is hoping that the population will have no say at all.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage