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

Photo: Getty
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Scotland's vast deficit remains an obstacle to independence

Though the country's financial position has improved, independence would still risk severe austerity. 

For the SNP, the annual Scottish public spending figures bring good and bad news. The good news, such as it is, is that Scotland's deficit fell by £1.3bn in 2016/17. The bad news is that it remains £13.3bn or 8.3 per cent of GDP – three times the UK figure of 2.4 per cent (£46.2bn) and vastly higher than the white paper's worst case scenario of £5.5bn. 

These figures, it's important to note, include Scotland's geographic share of North Sea oil and gas revenue. The "oil bonus" that the SNP once boasted of has withered since the collapse in commodity prices. Though revenue rose from £56m the previous year to £208m, this remains a fraction of the £8bn recorded in 2011/12. Total public sector revenue was £312 per person below the UK average, while expenditure was £1,437 higher. Though the SNP is playing down the figures as "a snapshot", the white paper unambiguously stated: "GERS [Government Expenditure and Revenue Scotland] is the authoritative publication on Scotland’s public finances". 

As before, Nicola Sturgeon has warned of the threat posed by Brexit to the Scottish economy. But the country's black hole means the risks of independence remain immense. As a new state, Scotland would be forced to pay a premium on its debt, resulting in an even greater fiscal gap. Were it to use the pound without permission, with no independent central bank and no lender of last resort, borrowing costs would rise still further. To offset a Greek-style crisis, Scotland would be forced to impose dramatic austerity. 

Sturgeon is undoubtedly right to warn of the risks of Brexit (particularly of the "hard" variety). But for a large number of Scots, this is merely cause to avoid the added turmoil of independence. Though eventual EU membership would benefit Scotland, its UK trade is worth four times as much as that with Europe. 

Of course, for a true nationalist, economics is irrelevant. Independence is a good in itself and sovereignty always trumps prosperity (a point on which Scottish nationalists align with English Brexiteers). But if Scotland is to ever depart the UK, the SNP will need to win over pragmatists, too. In that quest, Scotland's deficit remains a vast obstacle. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.