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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Welcome to feminism's new gross out frontier

This new movement normalises women by focusing on their bodies, warts and all.

Vaginas are so hot right now. If that sentence shocks you, then you’ve been out of the cultural loop. Thanks to a new wave of television and autobiographies by some very funny women, female privates have moved to the front and centre of popular entertainment.

Male bits, once the only game in town, are now chiefly of interest only as a sidebar to hilarious female riffs on misfiring, awkward and unsatisfactory sex, thanks to recent work by the likes of Lena Dunham, Britain’s Phoebe Waller-Bridge (writer, actor and star of BBC series Fleabag), and now Amy Schumer, whose smash hit “femoir”, The Girl With the Lower Back Tattoo, recently hit stores.

This is all part of a new movement – what I like to call “gross-out feminism”. It is gleeful, honest to a fault, and practised exclusively by women who long ago kissed goodbye to the capacity to be embarrassed. Its goal – apart from to make people laugh – is to provide a kind of shock therapy to those still harbouring the notion that women don’t have bodily functions, trapped gas, or insubordinate periods. Or that women must either be thin or desperately wishing they were so.

Gross-out feminism works by normalising women through focusing on their bodies: traditionally, the first and final frontier of femininity. It violently pushes all remaining cats out of the bag. Women have smelly, sometimes even extremely malodorous vaginas – Schumer’s smells like “chicken ramen”; “baby diaper” morning breath; explosive diarrhoea; acne. They sometimes fart during sex.

You’d be right if you noticed that this type of feminism doesn’t look like the iconic polemics of Shulamith Firestone, Naomi Wolf or Germaine Greer. It does not fit the sociological paradigm of Natasha Walter, Ariel Levy or Laurie Penny, all of whom have tackled a classic 20th century feminist subject – objectification – with political panache. And no, it’s not related either to the brainy fiction of Erica Jong or Marilyn French.

But gross-out feminism owes much to these. The classic texts of feminism laid down the parameters of the various struggles women engage in on a daily basis. One of these was the battle to be taken as full humans, complete with an independent sexuality. As far back as the 1790s, Mary Wollestonecraft raged against the reductive construction of doll-like femininity.

The new feminism builds on all this, but its toolbox is drawn not from an intellectual arena but rather from a peculiarly modern fascination with personal and especially sexual transparency. Honesty shall set us free: as sociologist Richard Sennett lamented, we moderns trade first and foremost in intimacies. But wrapped tightly in gut-busting hilarity, the relentless personal honesty of Schumer et al loses its potential for hollow narcissism and instead becomes powerful, adding vim to the traditional message to women to be strong and confident.

Schumer in particular paints an honest, if troubling picture of the impact of what Naomi Wolf so famously addressed in The Beauty Myth. Money, pain, time: a bewildering amount of these are required in order for most women to feel presentable, let alone attractive. Schumer nails this, but also admits to her own “beauty myth” victimhood.

Before a date she too waxes, straightens her hair, fasts, and tries to squeeze into Spanx so tight that they threaten to splice her guts in two. Schumer, then, is taking one for the team. She’s performing her truth so that we can exorcise our demons. The intriguing implication is that she, like Dunham and Fey, is an everywoman as well as herself. “I am myself,” in her words. “And I am all of you.”

A new sisterhood

Might this signal a reinvigoration of the idea of a universal “sisterhood” that since the 1970s has buckled under the weight of concerns about racial, ethnic and class difference? Perhaps so.

In her hit sitcom Fleabag, Phoebe Waller-Bridge does similar work to Schumer, if less autobiographical. She doesn’t spend much time on her appearance, but when an attractive man calls in the middle of the night asking to come over, waking her up, she excruciatingly manufactures the appearance of having just come in from a night out. She throws off her pyjamas, pulls on her glad rags, a coat, and swigs some wine in preparation. She is soon speaking deadpan to the camera while being taken up the backside. Her sexual honesty is eminently relatable to by millennials, and tinged with sadness. Waller-Bridge’s genius is reading with jaded perfection the sexual proclivities of men half her intellect and beauty.

There are caveats, of course. Some might argue that bringing feminism back into the body merely reaffirms the idea that women are principally bodies rather than whole people. And putting sex front and centre emphasises a potentially one-dimensional representation of what it is to be human. Both of these objections are fair. But when it comes to mainstream, massively entertaining representations of women, gross-out feminism may finally be what has been missing all these years, showing once and for all that the “fair sex” is human in both body and spirit. Warts and all.

Zoe Strimpel is a doctoral researcher in history at the University of Sussex

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.