Deputy Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and First Minister Alex Salmond campaign in Piershill Square on September 10, 2014 in Edinburgh. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Why Salmond's departure won't weaken the SNP

Under the talented and popular Nicola Sturgeon, the party will become stronger still. Labour is on the run. 

Those unionists celebrating the resignation of Alex Salmond should pause a moment. Salmond is certainly the most impressive politician in these islands, a visionary leader and strategist. A great bruiser and street fighter, too. But his departure won’t now weaken the SNP or the independence cause, and I’ll explain why.

The New Statesman collaborated with the First Minister several times during the campaign – on a special issue of the magazine in February – you can read his essay here - and he came to London at our invitation in March to deliver the New Statesman lecture, “Scotland’s Future in Scotland’s Hands” (You can watch the lecture and a Newsnight discussion about it here). It was then that he popularised the metaphor of London as the "dark star", inexorably sucking in resources, people and energy. I had also visited him in June last year at Bute House, his official residence in Edinburgh, where we had a long conversation about the forthcoming referendum campaign.

Over dinner with us, in London, Salmond was delightful company: candid, learned, sarcastic, generous to former opponents (he spoke particularly fondly of John Major) and remorseless in his condemnation of those he least respected (George Osborne was mentioned more than once). Under his leadership the SNP was transformed from a protest party into the natural party of government in Scotland. He smashed Labour hegemony. And he watched delightedly as the party lost the backing first of much of Scotland’s leftish intelligentsia and then began to haemorrhage support in its old heartlands. And he persuaded his party, against some fierce opposition, that it would be right for an independent Scotland to join NATO.

Yet, as I said, the SNP will be stronger without Salmond, because his successor will be Nicola Sturgeon, who is adored by the party’s grassroots. A former lawyer, Sturgeon is a social democrat, politically to the left of Salmond, who is a free marketeer (his wish to cut corporation tax is unpopular with the SNP left) with some dodgy allies on the right. Sturgeon is building a power base in Glasgow, which voted Yes to independence. She is a formidable machine politician and an excellent platform speaker and media performer. She is a fine debater who speaks in complete sentences and knows exactly what she wants to say and how to say it. Labour in Scotland has no one of her calibre – or zeal. And she emerges from the referendum campaign with her reputation enhanced and her public profile as high as it has ever been.  

I was relieved that the 307-year old Union was not shattered. But here’s the thing: 45 per cent of Scots who voted still voted for independence. That’s a lot of people who wanted to break from Britain. And there is no quick fix. Deep, structural forces are cleaving our United Kingdom. Scottish nationalism, the Ukip insurgency in England as well the general anti-politics, "stuff them" mood are all symptoms of the need not only for constitutional reform and a reconfigured Union but for far-reaching economic and social change.  

From the beginning of the referendum campaign, Johann Lamont, the Scottish Labour leader, and her colleagues struggled to win over disillusioned voters – until a desperate, late scramble led by Gordon Brown pulled some of them back into the fold. Even so, Labour was routed in many of its old strongholds in Glasgow and Dundee. It also seems as if many working class Catholics in Glasgow voted for independence and have switched allegiance to the SNP, which was once perceived to be an anti-Catholic party.

Gordon Brown’s speech in Glasgow, on the eve of the vote, was the most inspiring exposition of the values of the Union and of Britishness I have read or heard in recent times. He took the fight to Alex Salmond and the pro-independence movement with all the fervor of an old-style Presbyterian preacher. And people loved it.

Here was the passion and emotion absent for so long from the Better Together campaign, which was too arid and technocratic. At times, it was as if Alistair Darling was afraid even to speak the word "British"

Is there any chance of a Labour revival in Scotland? Not yet. It would have been unthinkable even five years ago for Labour to take such a beating on independence in Glasgow.

Yet Gordon Brown offered a glimpse of the way ahead for Labour. Because of his deep understanding of history and economics, he articulated the unique achievement of the Union: the creation of a multinational state in which not merely civil and political freedoms but economic and social rights are shared.

If it is to recover, Labour must once again become the party of the masses in Scotland. It needs dynamic leadership and willing campaigners and activists on the ground.

For now, the SNP are in the ascendant and will become stronger still under the leadership of Sturgeon, who will succeed Alex Salmond in November.

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

ELLIE FOREMAN-PECK FOR NEW STATESMAN
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Craig Oliver, Cameron's attack dog, finally bites

A new book reveals the spiteful after life of Downing Street's unlikely spin doctor.

It must be hard being a spin doctor: always in the shadows but always on-message. The murky control that the role requires might explain why David Cameron’s former director of communications Craig Oliver has rushed out his political memoirs so soon after his boss left Downing Street. Now that he has been freed from the shackles of power, Oliver has chosen to expose the bitterness that lingers among those on the losing side in the EU referendum.

The book, which is aptly titled Unleashing Demons, made headlines with its revelation that Cameron felt “badly let down” by Theresa May during the campaign, and that some in the Remain camp regarded the then home secretary as an “enemy agent”. It makes for gripping reading – yet seems uncharacteristically provocative in style for a man who eschewed the sweary spin doctor stereotype, instead advising Cameron to “be Zen” while Tory civil war raged during the Brexit campaign.

It may be not only politicians who find the book a tough read. Oliver’s visceral account of his side’s defeat on 24 June includes a description of how he staggered in a daze down Whitehall until he retched “harder than I have done in my life. Nothing comes up. I retch again – so hard, it feels as if I’ll turn inside out.”

It’s easy to see why losing hit Oliver – who was knighted in Cameron’s resignation honours list – so hard. Arguably, this was the first time the 47-year-old father-of-three had ever failed at anything. The son of a former police chief constable, he grew up in Scotland, went to a state school and studied English at St Andrews University. He then became a broadcast journalist, holding senior posts at the BBC, ITV and Channel 4.

When the former News of the World editor Andy Coulson resigned as No 10’s communications director in January 2011 because of unceasing references in the press to his alleged involvement in the phone-hacking scandal, Oliver was not the obvious replacement. But he was seen as a scandal-free BBC pen-pusher who exuded calm authority, and that won him the job. The Cameron administration, tainted by its association with the Murdoch media empire, needed somebody uncontroversial who could blend into the background.

It wasn’t just Oliver’s relative blandness that recommended him. At the BBC, he had made his name revamping the corporation’s flagship News at Ten by identifying the news angles that would resonate with Middle England. The Conservatives then put this skill to very good use during their 2015 election campaign. His broadcast expertise also qualified him to sharpen up the then prime minister’s image.

Oliver’s own sense of style, however, was widely ridiculed when he showed up for his first week at Downing Street looking every inch the metropolitan media male with a trendy man bag and expensive Beats by Dre headphones, iPad in hand.

His apparent lack of political affiliation caused a stir at Westminster. Political hacks were perplexed by his anti-spin attitude. His style was the antithesis of the attack-dog mode popularised by Alastair Campbell and Damian McBride in the New Labour years. As Robert Peston told the Daily Mail: “Despite working closely with Oliver for three years, I had no clue about his politics or that he was interested in politics.” Five years on, critics still cast aspersions and question his commitment to the Conservative cause.

Oliver survived despite early wobbles. The most sinister of these was the allegation that in 2012 he tried to prevent the Daily Telegraph publishing a story about expenses claimed by the then culture secretary, Maria Miller, using her links to the Leveson inquiry as leverage – an accusation that Downing Street denied. Nevertheless, he became indispensable to Cameron, one of a handful of trusted advisers always at the prime minister’s side.

Newspapers grumbled about Oliver’s preference for broadcast and social media over print. “He’s made it clear he [Oliver] doesn’t give a s*** about us, so I don’t really give a s*** about him,” a veteran correspondent from a national newspaper told Politico.

Yet that approach was why he was hired. There was the occasional gaffe, including the clumsy shot of a stern-looking Cameron, apparently on the phone to President Obama discussing Putin’s incursion into Ukraine, which was widely mocked on Twitter. But overall, reducing Downing Street’s dependence on print media worked: Scotland voted against independence in 2014 and the Tories won a majority in the 2015 general election.

Then came Brexit, a blow to the whole Cameroon inner circle. In his rush to set the record straight and defend Cameron’s legacy – as well as his own – Oliver has finally broken free of the toned-down, straight-guy persona he perfected in power. His memoir is spiteful and melodramatic, like something straight from the mouth of Malcolm Tucker in The Thick of It. Perhaps, with this vengeful encore to his mild political career, the unlikely spin doctor has finally fulfilled his potential. 

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories