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

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To beat the Trump hype, we need a return to old-fashioned political virtues

If we want to resist the Trumpification of politics, what we need is restraint, duty and incorruptibility.

After the 1992 US presidential election, Alistair Cooke’s celebrated BBC radio series Letter from America struck a poignant note. Cooke described Bill Clinton’s worn jeans and checked wool shirt, contrasting them with George H W Bush’s buttoned-up Wasp manners and buttoned-down Ivy League shirts. Clinton’s style, Cooke argued, was a rebuke to a tired social and political establishment. His casualness was the new America.

Cooke, then 83, was honest enough to admit unease about this departure from the old, patrician modes and manners. “Along with the passing of George Bush,” he said, “we shall see, I fear, the passing of the blue blazer.” Cooke seemed right at the time. But don’t write off the blue blazer just yet. As ruling elites change, so does the appropriate counterpoint. To topple Bush’s stuffy golf club elites, Clinton picked up his saxophone, took off his tie and felt everyone’s pain. And now? The subtext of these turbulent months (the inevitable second question, prompted by “How do you beat Donald Trump?”) is: “What should ­tomorrow’s leaders, the leaders we crave, look and sound like?”

My conjecture is that, to beat Trump and his type – bling, shiny suits, dodgy deals – we should push towards centre stage an underestimated set of political virtues: restraint, duty and incorruptibility. If it weren’t for the gender associations, I would be tempted to call this quality gentlemanliness. Aside from personal virtue – signally lacking in the Clinton camp – how might decency inform public debate as it comes under attack from maverick showmen trained in the media circus? How can the middle ground regain its confidence?

First, level with the public. Maybe liberalism hasn’t failed so much as its messaging has failed. Instead of smashing the electorate over the head with the idea that everything is just great, make the case that not everything can be for the best in all possible worlds. As populists reach for empty slogans, a new space has opened up. Accept and exploit those asymmetries: more people are ready to hear uncomfortable truths than politicians imagine.

Kingsley Amis once argued that a writer’s voice should stay close to his speaking voice: not the same, but close. Adapting that idea, if politicians stayed closer in public debate to the truths that they articulate in casual conversation – some things are impossible; almost every policy creates a losing as well as a winning side; there really isn’t any money – they would be surprised how many people are ready to hear that not all problems can be evaporated into thin air. Stray too far from awkward truths and elections become about simple lies v tricksy lies.

Second, centrists do more harm than good when they rush to categorise dissenting opinion as not only wrong, but unacceptable. “Any suggestion that liberal values are not humanly universal,” as John Gray wrote in a recent NS essay, “will provoke spasms of righteous indignation.” Instead, we need to be more tolerant in our tolerance.

Third, stop pretending that everything desirable can be shoehorned into the “progressive” agenda. “I really care passionately about persevering with the common-sense middle ground and doing it quite well” is a problematic political sales pitch, but not for the reasons that are usually given. The gravest difficulty may come at the beginning, with the faux passion, rather than with the substance – public service and competence – underneath.

It is revealing that those closest to David Cameron expended so much energy trying to persuade us that he was not an updated version of Harold Macmillan. That is why the gay marriage reforms, though admirable, were accorded too much significance. Ah, Cameron was a natural crusader! But he paid a price for dressing up as a “radical” when greater challenges arrived. It weakened some of his strongest cards – calmness, perspective, proportion – just as politics was coarsening. Aren’t Tories supposed to understand the virtues of yesterday? In other words, as an electoral strategy to beat Trump (or Nigel Farage), I’d put up a Macmillan type over a Clinton type every time.

Fourth, cut ties with “messaging experts”. It’s a fraud. They teach that everything must be asserted with powerful conviction. Yet ideas unworthy of powerful conviction are best left shorn of them. The electorate has endured a communications version of crying wolf. As a result of the messaging game, when something genuinely important crops up, it sounds simply like the same old shtick.

Fifth, ditch the bogus quantification. Few things signal untrustworthiness more reliably than fake precision. Something shifted in me when George Osborne argued that Brexit would leave households £4,300 worse off. What, no decimal point? Voters understand uncertainty better than politicians imagine. Precise quantification used to sound professional. Now it sounds suspicious.

Finally, think about tone. Conventional wisdom holds that the mainstream must fight the Trumpian revolution on its own terms: a simple solution, memorably expressed, a guiding vision for the country or the world. If anyone has a good one to hand, I’m all for it. But what if – after decades of ­sophisticated argument and counterargument, as politics has solved the easy problems while parking the difficult or insoluble ones – we have reached a state of such evolved equilibrium that no such easy answer can exist?

Pretending otherwise is no longer a point of difference. It takes you towards the lowest common denominator. As Trump has shown, that is well-occupied territory. Perhaps wooing the angry mob is not the solution. Instead, the admirable and successful politician of the future will have to win back the support of moderate, sensible but disillusioned voters. 

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 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage