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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.

Ayes on the prize: Alex Salmond visits Brownings bakers in Kilmarnock, 3 September. Photo: Getty
Ayes on the prize: Alex Salmond visits Brownings bakers in Kilmarnock, 3 September. Photo: Getty

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)

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