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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Erdogan’s purge was too big and too organised to be a mere reaction to the failed coup

There is a specific word for the melancholy of Istanbul. The city is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. 

Even at the worst of times Istanbul is a beautiful city, and the Bosphorus is a remarkable stretch of sea. Turks get very irritated if you call it a river. They are right. The Bosphorus has a life and energy that a river could never equal. Spend five minutes watching the Bosphorus and you can understand why Orhan Pamuk, Turkey’s Nobel laureate for literature, became fixated by it as he grew up, tracking the movements of the ocean-going vessels, the warships and the freighters as they steamed between Asia and Europe.

I went to an Ottoman palace on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, waiting to interview the former prime minister Ahmet Davu­toglu. He was pushed out of office two months ago by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan when he appeared to be too wedded to the clauses in the Turkish constitution which say that the prime minister is the head of government and the president is a ceremonial head of state. Erdogan was happy with that when he was prime minister. But now he’s president, he wants to change the constitution. If Erdogan can win the vote in parliament he will, in effect, be rubber-stamping the reality he has created since he became president. In the days since the attempted coup, no one has had any doubt about who is the power in the land.

 

City of melancholy

The view from the Ottoman palace was magnificent. Beneath a luscious, pine-shaded garden an oil tanker plied its way towards the Black Sea. Small ferries dodged across the sea lanes. It was not, I hasten to add, Davutoglu’s private residence. It had just been borrowed, for the backdrop. But it reminded a Turkish friend of something she had heard once from the AKP, Erdogan’s ruling party: that they would not rest until they were living in the apartments with balconies and gardens overlooking the Bosphorus that had always been the preserve of the secular elite they wanted to replace.

Pamuk also writes about hüzün, the melancholy that afflicts the citizens of Istanbul. It comes, he says, from the city’s history and its decline, the foghorns on the Bosphorus, from tumbledown walls that have been ruins since the fall of the Byzantine empire, unemployed men in tea houses, covered women waiting for buses that never come, pelting rain and dark evenings: the city’s whole fabric and all the lives within it. “My starting point,” Pamuk wrote, “was the emotion that a child might feel while looking through a steamy window.”

Istanbul is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. In Pamuk’s work the citizens of Istanbul take a perverse pride in hüzün. No one in Istanbul, or elsewhere in Turkey, can draw comfort from what is happening now. Erdogan’s opponents wonder what kind of future they can have in his Turkey. I think I sensed it, too, in the triumphalist crowds of Erdogan supporters that have been gathering day after day since the coup was defeated.

 

Down with the generals

Erdogan’s opponents are not downcast because the coup failed; a big reason why it did was that it had no public support. Turks know way too much about the authoritarian ways of military rule to want it back. The melancholy is because Erdogan is using the coup to entrench himself even more deeply in power. The purge looks too far-reaching, too organised and too big to have been a quick reaction to the attempt on his power. Instead it seems to be a plan that was waiting to be used.

Turkey is a deeply unhappy country. It is hard to imagine now, but when the Arab uprisings happened in 2011 it seemed to be a model for the Middle East. It had elections and an economy that worked and grew. When I asked Davutoglu around that time whether there would be a new Ottoman sphere of influence for the 21st century, he smiled modestly, denied any such ambition and went on to explain that the 2011 uprisings were the true succession to the Ottoman empire. A century of European, and then American, domination was ending. It had been a false start in Middle Eastern history. Now it was back on track. The people of the region were deciding their futures, and perhaps Turkey would have a role, almost like a big brother.

Turkey’s position – straddling east and west, facing Europe and Asia – is the key to its history and its future. It could be, should be, a rock of stability in a desperately un­stable part of the world. But it isn’t, and that is a problem for all of us.

 

Contagion of war

The coup did not come out of a clear sky. Turkey was in deep crisis before the attempt was made. Part of the problem has come from Erdogan’s divisive policies. He has led the AKP to successive election victories since it first won in 2002. But the policies of his governments have not been inclusive. As long as his supporters are happy, the president seems unconcerned about the resentment and opposition he is generating on the other side of politics.

Perhaps that was inevitable. His mission, as a political Islamist, was to change the country, to end the power of secular elites, including the army, which had been dominant since Mustafa Kemal Atatürk created modern Turkey after the collapse of the Ottoman empire. And there is also the influence of chaos and war in the Middle East. Turkey has borders with Iraq and Syria, and is deeply involved in their wars. The borders do not stop the contagion of violence. Hundreds of people have died in the past year in bomb attacks in Turkish cities, some carried out by the jihadists of so-called Islamic State, and some sent by Kurdish separatists working under the PKK.

It is a horrible mix. Erdogan might be able to deal with it better if he had used the attempted coup to try to unite Turkey. All the parliamentary parties condemned it. But instead, he has turned the power of the state against his opponents. More rough times lie ahead.

Jeremy Bowen is the BBC’s Middle East editor. He tweets @bowenbbc

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue