Salmond is set to be the power behind another leader in May. Photo: Getty.
Show Hide image

Sketch: The Alex Salmond procession comes to London

An adoring crowd hung on the former First Minister’s words at a book signing last night.

This piece originally appeared on our election site, May2015.com.

Alex Salmond has drank the Kool-Aid. It wasn’t clear at first. He began innocuously enough. In London last night to promote his new book (“The Dream Shall Never Die: 100 Days that Changed Scotland Forever”) at a Q&A-cum-book signing in London’s Waterstones Piccadilly, he explained his book was about three things.

We got lost following the three things, but the night wasn’t really about them, or the book. It was about Alex Salmond performing to an adulatory audience. A diplomat recently described Salmond to me as “an old back-slapping Chicago politician – nothing more”, but he was greeted as a conquering hero in Waterstones’ well-packed and unremarkably lit basement.

The reaction is understandable. Salmond is the de facto co-leader of one of the most successful political parties in Europe. The SNP won 6 Scottish seats in the 2010 general election. In 45 days they are set to win more than 50. Scotland only has 59 MPs: it is on course to become a one-party state.

The SNP’s story is remarkable. So it’s unsurprising Salmond has been snapped up.

The SNP’s story is remarkable. So it’s unsurprising Salmond has been snapped up by the high-powered literary agent Caroline Michel, who was on hand, and was treated deferentially by his interviewer Helena Kennedy, the crusading QC and Oxford college principal.

Brian Cox, the impeccably dressed Shakespearian actor turned villain from the Bourne Supremacy and Agamemnon from Troy, was seated quietly at the back. He’s a new SNP convert (“A bunch of bandits” now run Scottish Labour, he told us, referring to Jim Murphy and his team). The BBC’s Michael Cockerell, who has covered elections for forty years, was at the back to “see how he [Salmond] does it”.

Salmond is basking in the limelight. Tonight was just another stop on a 45-day procession to power. Is Ed Miliband up to being Prime Minister? We asked him. “We don’t know yet. He’s not a great opposition leader.” “Obviously if there’s an influential group of MPs influencing him…”, he continued, mischievously. Then Salmond is on hand. “If he wants government experience…”, Salmond concluded, tailing off. He is ready to be consulted if necessary.

But Salmond isn’t planning to consult, he’s planning to direct. As he told Andrew Marr this weekend, “If you hold the balance of the power, you hold the power.” By all estimations, Labour can only replace the Tories in Number Ten with SNP support. A Lab-Lib pact is set to fall short of 300 MPs, let alone the 323 needed for a working majority.

Salmond isn’t planning to consult, he’s planning to direct.

As for the nature of SNP support, any deal is looking increasingly tenuous. When we met with Angus Robertson, the SNP’s Westminster leader, last month, he told us he was spending no time thinking about a coalition with Labour. A ‘confidence and supply’ deal would be the extent of any agreement. But last night Salmond suggested any pact would be far more precarious.

“Coalition was always highly unlikely, confidence & supply is possible, but a vote-by-vote deal is probable.”

A vote-by-vote deal? Labour won’t be able to do anything unless big Alec says so. Matthew D’Ancona wrote this weekend that Salmond is he “proposing to hammer the final nail in New Labour’s coffin and rewrite Ed Balls’s first budget”. How likely is that? Kennedy asked him. “High, I think,” he replied.

The SNP’s old caution – ‘We are focused on the task ahead, we aren’t speculating on a future government’ – has been slowly eroded as the scale of their victory becomes increasingly obvious.

Labour won’t be able to do anything unless big Alec says so.

It’s understandable. Their alternative to austerity is, for many, commendable, and their ability to organise so effectively has shamed every other political party.

But self-congratulation quickly becomes tiresome. Salmond peppered his predictions with talk of how ‘Yes’ voters became “knights” in September. The analogy had something to do with Kingdom of Heaven, a widely panned Hollywood blockbuster. Then he compared the referendum to South Africa’s 1994 elections. (Presumably he’s Mandela.)

For a man so focused on “the tactics, and the art” of politics, his grand statements seemed surprisingly carefree. Then again, the SNP’s victory in May appears inevitable. Jim Murphy and his “bandits” have been running Scottish Labour for three months without any change in the polls. There is little reason to suspect much change in the next six weeks.

Explore May2015.com.

Harry Lambert was the editor of May2015, the New Statesman's election website.

Getty
Show Hide image

Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle