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,

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.


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

Photo: Getty Images
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.