Alex Salmond could come back as an MP. Photo: Getty
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Will Alex Salmond return to Westminster? He would relish such a homecoming

The natural next step for Scotland's outgoing First Minister would be a return to Westminster.

The thought of England being “much safer” in the hands of Alex Salmond is one which will cause mirth in Scotland and terror at Westminster. Bloodied and bruised by defeat in September’s independence referendum even this most confident and pugnacious of politicians could have been forgiven for quietly departing the political scene.

Not Salmond though; not when there’s plenty of fun and games to be had at the expense of the British state. Last week he made his final speech as SNP leader and bowed out with a live grenade of an interview for Newsweek Europe in which he spoke at length about the state of UK politics. In so doing he added to the already feverish speculation that he intends to stand as a candidate in next May’s general election and further ratcheted up the post-referendum ante.

“It’s likely there is a potential route of progress through Westminster, which has not been the usual circumstance before. Who knows, there might be one or two things we can knock off for the good citizens of Liverpool and Newcastle" he said “because they badly need a champion of some sort.”

This is plainly a message about using SNP muscle to bring about greater social justice across these islands. But there’s also a context – namely the most unpredictable general election in years. The SNP – currently projected to win all but a handful of the 59 Scottish Westminster seats – know they could hold the balance of power next spring.

Salmond’s more than able successor, Nicola Sturgeon, has said she would “never, ever” enter into government with the Conservatives. But what does this mean for Ed Miliband? Labour will strongly suspect the nationalists are likely to demand a hefty price for formal coalition – perhaps nothing less than another referendum in the lifetime of the coming parliament.

The one thing that would settle the political landscape a little is if the Smith Commission was able to move at speed and broker a workable deal on further devolved powers to Edinburgh. Frankly no one is putting their mortgage on that, least of all Salmond a canny gambler and long-standing exponent of guerrilla tactics.

Those who have observed him from his earliest days – such as former Foreign Secretary Malcolm Rifkind who described Salmond as “the infant Robespierre” – know only too well his knack of making waves. Here is a politician kicked out of the SNP as a leading member of the socialist '79 Group and who as a young MP had the temerity to interrupt Nigel Lawson's 1988 Budget speech shouting that the Chancellor’s tax measures were “an obscenity”. He was suspended for this controversial intervention but much later looked back on the incident as “pretty important on a personal level in terms of reputation.”

Even in recent days he has hinted at the prospect of a Scottish UDI, saying “Scotland will take matters into our own hands,” if London does not deliver on the promises made in the final days of the independence campaign. If such comments are a warm-up for his return to the green benches, where he sat as an MP between 1987 and 2010, it will seem as though he’s never been away.

The only oddity in all of this perhaps is that Salmond would be leaving Holyrood for what is, in his eyes, a foreign institution. However, he probably thinks he's seen and done it all and should get out of Sturgeon's way. Wise enough if that is so. Should we be surprised at any of this cunning? Not in the least. For Alex Salmond has long enjoyed being the Scottish fox let loose in the English establishment hen house.

Douglas Beattie is a journalist, author of The Rivals Game, Happy Birthday Dear Celtic, and The Pocket Book of Celtic, and a Labour Councillor based in London. He grew up in Scotland

Photo: Getty
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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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