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Play it again, Salmond

Time and again, Scotland’s First Minister has taken on the naysayers and won. He is a keen gambler b

Late on the evening of 6 May, Alex Salmond took to the stage of a nightclub in Edinburgh's New Town and performed the kind of routine of which a professional stand-up comic would have been proud. A few hours earlier he had learned that he'd been re-elected First Minister of Scotland. That in itself was cause aplenty for celebration. But Salmond's and the crowd's unconfined jubilation was enhanced because the Scottish National Party (SNP) had not only gained the most MSPs, it now had an overall majority. Under the byzantine electoral system promoted by the Labour Party this was never supposed to happen. Now, amazingly, it had. In a parliament of 129 MSPs, the Nationalists had 69. Salmond's joy was overflowing.

Salmond was introduced by Angus Robertson, the SNP's leader at Westminster. As he drove that morning from Glasgow to Edinburgh across the Central Belt, it had occurred to Robertson that every constituency he was passing through was now held by the Nationalists. But, as ever, Salmond was able to trump his campaign director. Affecting a broad Scottish accent, which comes and goes depending on who he is talking to, Salmond said that a similar thought had occurred to him as he flew south from his own count in Aberdeen. "I was thinking that a' the seats I flew o'er in ma helicopter were yellow."

He had also realised, he added, that every seat in which Ed Miliband had campaigned had been lost by Labour. To raucous cheering, he said: "If you chart every stop on the trail of doom of Ed Miliband's individual constituency visits to inspire Labour activists who were somewhere on the streets of Scotland, the SNP won every one of the seats. Mind you, we won all the seats that weren't paid visits as well."

No one does hubris with more barefaced cheek than Salmond. When things are going well, his confidence, of which he has a surfeit, overflows. It is not blood that courses through his veins, a pundit once opined, but optimism. Keen gambler that he is, Salmond exudes hope, but it is born of pragmatism, not delusion. As a backer of horses, he studies form with the same intensity as he does the ramifications of the Barnett formula. Once upon a time, he and the late Robin Cook were rival newspaper tipsters. Cook may have known how to groom horses, Salmond claimed, but he knew better - as the racing records apparently showed - how to spot a winner.

His competitiveness is legendary. The only election he has ever lost occurred in the late 1970s, when he stood for the student presidency of St Andrews University - then, as now, as Conservative-inclined as the Monday Club. Ask Salmond by how many votes he was defeated and he reels the figure off with the chagrin of someone whose grief knows no bounds. His main opponent was called Bainbridge and throughout the campaign Salmond could not resist calling him Braindamage, something which, he later conceded, may not have helped his cause. Nor was he a generous loser When this was pointed out to him he quoted the racing driver Jackie Stewart: "Show me a gracious loser, and I'll show you a loser."

Some view his pugnaciousness as arrogance, others as archetypically Scottish. It is probably a mixture of both. In person, he is affable, engaged, witty, feisty, occasionally peppery, always eager to offer an anecdote. The worst a recent biographer could find to say about him was that he sometimes shouted at civil servants. His memory of facts and statistics is geekish. As a fan of Heart of Midlothian FC (Hearts), he can reel off the names of who played in what cup tie back to the days when footballs were made of leather and Bovril was the half-time drink of choice. As a golfer, he knows not only who won the Open championship where and in which year, but what they scored in each round. It is odd, therefore, that one of the criticisms levelled at him is his lack of attention to detail. Like Winston Churchill, he has a desire to win arguments and swat opponents with rhetoric and that tends to obscure his interest in the nitty-gritty of policy.

Fight on three fronts

What cannot be gainsaid, however, is that Sal­mond is - as much as any other political leader in a western democracy - the unchallenged and acknowledged star of his bailiwick. Moreover, he is popular. Polls consistently put him ahead of his party in terms of public approval and he is far more popular than the Nats' avowed aim of independence. Love him or loathe him, he cannot be ignored.

Opponents in other parties attempt to use his ubiquity to the SNP's detriment. Salmond, they insist, is a one-man band, the only soloist in the orchestra. A few years ago this was perhaps true. Today it smacks of desperation or, worse, complacency and denial. Were Salmond to fall under a bus, those lining up to become his successor might not be legion, but they would be several and serious, and would include his deputy, Nicola Sturgeon, and others such as Michael Russell, the education secretary, and the justice secretary, Kenny MacAskill - on whose say-so Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed al-Megrahi, the only person to have been convicted of the Lockerbie bombing, was released from prison in 2009.

Nor is Salmond unaware of this. At the outset of this year's election campaign, he said that the SNP proposed to fight it on three fronts: its record in government, its vision for Scotland and the quality of its "team". It was a gauntlet the other parties, most notably Labour, chose to disregard. Instead, the Scottish Labour leader, Iain Gray, preferred to concentrate his attack on the Tories at Westminster and the Cameron-Clegg coalition, even though it was pointed out repeatedly that they were not standing for election in Scotland. It was a huge tactical error. As the six-week-long campaign unfolded, the Nats moved from a distant second in the polls to command an insurmountable lead.

Time and again, it appeared it was Salmond, as much as his party, that the public supported; he was a gilt-edged asset in whom countless Scots were prepared to place their faith. In contrast to other party leaders in Scotland, he has the notable advantage of not having to look over his shoulder whenever he wants to say or do anything. When Labour is in need of ­succour in Scotland it sends for so-called big beasts such as Gordon Brown, Alistair Darling and Douglas Alexander. If Annabel Goldie, the erstwhile Conservative leader, wanted a shoulder to cry on, she could always depend on David Cam­eron, who is even less appealing to Scots than Margaret Thatcher. Meanwhile, the Lib Dem leader, Tavish Scott, tried desperately to distance himself from Nick Clegg, but to no avail. For his pains and for the loss of 11 of his 16 MSPs, he had no option but to resign. Was he, like Gray and Goldie, told by his southern masters that enough was enough?

For Scots, who perceive such interference as patronising, the signals that these moves send out are not reassuring. Salmond is far too savvy not to use this to his advantage. On BBC2's Newsnight recently, he asked Jeremy Paxman to allow him to finish his answer, after which Paxman would be free to patronise him. Such quick thinking endears him to Scots, who are constantly told they are not capable of managing their own affairs though other, even smaller nations appear perfectly able to do.

Similarly, the sight of expat Scots, such as the novelist Andrew O'Hagan, the historian Niall Ferguson or the professor of media Tim Luckhurst, denouncing the SNP and bemoaning the idea of independence only plays to Salmond's advantage. As he is well aware, nothing irks Scots so much as compatriots who've gone elsewhere telling those who stayed at home how they must vote. Salmond is happy with such adversaries, knowing that their influence achieves the opposite of what they intend.

Politics has been a way of life for Alex Salmond virtually since he was born nearly 57 years ago in Linlithgow, West Lothian - where, as he once told me, his putative biographer, "much of Scottish history was made and unmade". His parents were both civil servants, but the chief influence on his childhood was his grandfather, the town's plumber, who took him on tours spiced with tales from Walter Scott and Blind Harry. "For example, he showed me the ground where Edward I had camped before the Battle of Falkirk; he showed me the window from where the Regent Moray [James Stewart, 1st Earl of Moray] was shot dead in the street."

At primary school he savoured his first election victory after promising a free ice cream to those who voted for him. It is, say his critics, the kind of carrot he continues to offer without explaining fully how he intends to pay for it. As a schoolboy, he was unable to participate as much as he would have liked in sport because he was asthmatic. He made his biggest impact as a boy soprano. Singing the title role in Gian Carlo Menotti's Amahl and the Night Visitors, he received a warm review in the local newspaper and, had his voice not broken at the wrong moment, might have gone on to pursue a professional singing career. A novelty CD, released in 1999 to raise funds for the SNP, shows what a loss he was to the performing arts.

It was at St Andrews - long the most anglicised of the Scottish universities - where he studied medieval history and economics, that he joined the SNP after having an argument with a Labour-supporting girlfriend. On leaving university, he joined the department for agriculture and fisheries for Scotland and then worked for the Royal Bank of Scotland as an assistant to its chief economist. In 1981, he married Moira, who is 17 years his senior and who had been his boss in the civil service; the couple have no children. Then, in 1987, he ousted the incumbent Conservative MP for Banff and Buchan, Albert McQuarrie.

Back to Holyrood

It was the beginning of an enduring love affair with Westminster that he has never disguised, while attempting to disengage his country from it. Three years later he became SNP leader and a decade thereafter, having seen Scotland's parliament reconvened following a hiatus of 300 years, he stood down. At the time the decision was viewed with suspicion and fed rumours, which he revelled in acknowledging. He was, he told me on the day he announced his resignation, supposed to be terminally ill or have accumulated mountainous gambling debts or be having an affair with Sturgeon.

None was true. Salmond had always vowed to serve ten years as leader and, having done that, he intended to spend time reducing his golf handicap. In 2004, however, following John Swinney's resignation from the SNP leadership, he was back and determined to make the SNP the party of government. First, however, he had to win a seat that was far down the Nats' winnable list. His victory in Gordon, in north-east Scotland, with just over 2,000 votes to spare was symbolic, inspiring and typical, coming from behind in the polls to ease ahead in the final straight and romp lengths clear as the finishing line drew near.

It was a gamble that might have ended his career, had it not paid off. But it is at the root of Salmond's success, and those opposed to independence overlook it at their peril. These are the same people with the same tired and negative arguments who said a Scottish parliament would never work and that, if it did, there would never be a Nationalist government and that, if ever that came to pass, it would never in its wildest dreams have a majority of MSPs.

One by one, Salmond has overcome the odds to make all of these a reality. Who, four or five years hence and irrespective of what the pollscurrently predict, would bet against him delivering independence?

Alan Taylor edits the Scottish Review of Books

This article first appeared in the 23 May 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Obama 2.0

Mike Niles/PEAS
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How to keep a girl in school for 56p

In Uganda, a strip of fabric can help lift families out of poverty.

“Every school holiday, we lose ten to 15 girls. They elope or conceive.” I’m sitting in an orange-brick house, mint-green and pink paint flaking off the walls. This is the front line of an ambitious social experiment: trying to lift families out of poverty by convincing them to educate their daughters.

My guide is Paul Lyavaala, the head of school at Kityerera High in Mayuge, eastern Uganda. The son of a local dignitary, he studied in the capital, Kampala, but returned home to run this institution, which has 605 students, 58 per cent of them female. Before the British charity PEAS opened Kityerera, students faced a ten-kilometre walk to the nearest secondary school.

Most of the school’s pupils come from homes like this one, just ten minutes’ walk from the gates. There are few possessions in the front room here – a grain silo, a vivid poster of the country’s president, Yoweri Museveni, unironically photoshopped into various Rambo-style poses – but there are handmade doilies on the table.

The homeowner, Yusuf, never went to school; he depends on agricultural labour, digging in a nearby field for himself in the morning and for others in the afternoon. One of his eight children comes to meet us, introducing herself as Phionah. She is 18 and hopes to train as a nurse. The country sorely needs girls like her – there is one nurse for every 11,000 people – but the training costs two million Ugandan shillings (£445), and her family does not have the money.

Further down the road, Paul greets another family: a father and his two wives. Two months earlier, the second wife’s teenage daughter Precious had a baby, Moses. Many schools wouldn’t have allowed her to return but Kityerera has, and she comes home every lunchtime to breastfeed. “When they found out she was pregnant, they were afraid she would be ashamed and feel small,” Paul says, translating for us. “They were extremely happy the school let her come back and gave her free time to breastfeed.”

Precious is lucky, he tells us afterwards. The family believes in witchcraft, and a few years ago might have thrown her and the baby out for bringing bad luck and attracting the disapproval of neighbours. Earlier, on the short drive to the village, we had passed a mound of rocks by the road. “They caught a thief yesterday; he stole a motorbike,” Paul had observed, with no visible emotion. A pause. “Mob justice.”

Yusuf and Phionah. Photo: Mike Niles/PEAS

Uganda is a beautiful country: iron-red soil and lush green grass. It defies easy characterisation. Middle-aged men hold hands unselfconsciously in public, but in 2013 the parliament debated a bill that would have made homosexuality punishable by death. Poverty rates have fallen dramatically in the past two decades, but 37.8 per cent of the people still live on less than £1 a day. Yet in Kampala you can (if you have the money) eat a takeaway chicken with ginger and spring onion that tastes like Chinatown’s finest. The recent arrival of Chinese investment money is obvious – the highway running from Entebbe Airport to the capital is plastered with signs in Mandarin next to half-built roundabouts.

 I arrive a month after the presidential election, which brought about the unsurprising re-election of Museveni. The victory was helped by his chief rival, Kizza Besigye, being under house arrest. That said, the appeal of continuity under a strongman – Muse­veni has been in charge since 1986 – is more understandable when you look at some of the countries that share a border with Uganda: Rwanda to the south, the Democratic Republic of Congo to the west, Kenya to the east and South Sudan to the north.

I’m here as the guest of PEAS, a charity supported by the New Statesman which runs 28 schools in Uganda and two in Zambia. In recent years, most development money has been focused on primary education, pushed by the second Millennium Devel­opment Goal, which states that every child in the world should complete five or six years of schooling. In 1997 Uganda began to make primary education available to all, and it now spends 900 billion shillings (£200m) a year supporting the policy, though Museveni’s government is troubled by rising dropout rates.

At secondary level, those are hugely magnified. Even schools supported by charities need to charge fees to become sustainable in the long term, and the cost, plus books and uniform (between 25,000 and 35,000 shillings, or £5.50-£7.70), is too much for many parents. Children are also often needed at home to do seasonal work, or they get married young, or families decide there is no point educating their daughters – hence Paul Lyavaala’s gloom about the numbers of pupils who disappear from the rolls over the summer holiday.

***

Travelling through rural Uganda, I get used to double-takes and occasional cries of “Mzungu!” (a Bantu word, first used for European explorers, that is now applied to any white person). Yet the class sitting in front of me at Kityerera High could not be more polite. There’s a formality to schooling in Uganda that jars with my recent trips to state schools in London. The uniforms – orange dresses, and white shirts with grey trousers – are immaculately washed and pressed even though the school offers little in the way of laundry facilities. This school has a “senior woman teacher”, Lilian ­Wamai, and a “senior man teacher”, Moses Kibita. There is one laptop, which belongs to the headmaster, Albert Ondonyi.

The school has gathered pupils to talk to me about their lives and aspirations. Jonathan, 17, loves music but wants to be an aeronautical engineer. Eighteen-year-old Felistus is the third of six children and one of the few boys to join the “Girls’ Club”. The children’s names – Isaac, Zakaria, Fatumah, Aloysius – reflect the country’s religious ­diversity, with a population that is 44 per cent Catholic, 39 per cent Anglican and 10 per cent Muslim.

PEAS puts extra effort into female education, with the support of money made available by the UN and NGOs. (The boys at ­Kityerera tell me they are annoyed that their dormitory, unlike the girls’ one, doesn’t have solar-powered lights.) All the research suggests that better-educated women are healthier, are more able to work for money, marry later and have healthier children. “Educate a girl, education a nation,” reads a sign stuck into the grass.

Sitting in a cool classroom, we talk about the Girls’ Club, an after-school group the school has established to try to retain more female pupils. Here, they do what we might call PSHE (personal, social, health and economic education) and learn skills such as basket-weaving. The boys help by collecting the raw materials, such as papyrus reeds or palm leaves, from nearby swamps. At the local market, a small basket might sell for 2,000 Ugandan shillings (44p) and a large one for 10,000 (£2.20). The profits help ­pupils buy extras they need.

There is one particular extra I’m interested in because it can make a huge difference to girls’ chances of making it to the end of secondary education: sanitary towels. At the school canteen, a pack of disposable pads costs 2,500 shillings (56p), putting them out of reach for many pupils. The girls have to use rags, or whatever else they can find. Some parents keep them at home and they lose a week of lessons every month.

As girl after girl tells me how much she worries about standing up in class to find blood all over her orange dress, I remember how much the same thought preoccupied me as a teenager. At my school, we compulsively shared stories of the apocryphal girl who had started her first period during a choir recital and had fled the assembly hall, eternally shamed as a scarlet stain spread across her uniform.

Mixed up with embarrassment here in Uganda is a fundamental issue of hygiene: managing a period without running water or sanitary bins can be messy and smelly. It might be only an eggcup of blood, but often it feels like a deluge. Across the developing world, and in refugee camps, a lack of safe, clean, single-sex toilet facilities exposes women to violence and disease.

For that reason, the girls and boys of Kit­yerera are well coached in telling Western visitors about menstruation; I’ve never had a 15-year-old boy talk to me about periods before, never mind half a dozen of them. Two years ago, the girls in Kityerera were ­issued with AFRIpads, made by a local company. Reusable, washable sanitary pads clip into a fabric holder that can be slotted inside knickers. There is only one problem: they are supposed to be used for not much longer than a year. So the girls want more.

PEAS is trying to identify more of these small-scale ideas that can have larger benefits. At another school, this one in Malongo, near Lake Victoria, five hours’ drive from Kampala, Annie Theresa Akech from the board of governors tells me how important it is to let parents pay in instalments. (Subsistence farmers and fisherfolk can rarely produce a lump sum.) Yet the schools do charge fees, because the aim is for all of them to become self-sustaining within a year and to be run and staffed by local people. Solar panels provide electricity, which in turn ­allows for the installation of computer labs. None of the PEAS schools uses corporal punishment, in contrast to a nearby primary school we visit, where a long, swishing cane keeps the children in line.

In this context, sanitary pads – and the craftwork on offer at Girls’ Clubs that makes it possible for pupils to buy them – are liberating. They offer equality, helping girls get as much out of school as their brothers do. They free girls from the extra burden of worrying that they will be shamed in front of their classmates. They give girls in Uganda what they need: a chance.

Helen Lewis stayed with PEAS at its house in Kampala. You can donate to the charity here: peas.org.uk

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 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, From the Somme to lraq