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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

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"Overnight, my school emptied": the story of a European border checkpoint

At a busy checkpoint between Turkey and Bulgaria near the Greek frontier, a long history of displacement and exile emerges.

“Bye-bye, komshu,” said the taxi driver. The Turkish word for “neighbour” is used throughout the Balkans.

We had reached the vici­nity of the Kapikule/Kapitan Andreevo checkpoint and he could go no further. We had driven past the mile-long queue of lorries waiting to be processed into the ­European Union. Some drivers waited for days and had come prepared: fold-up stools and portable stoves lined the road. I wondered what the sealed bulks of the lorries contained, and how much of it was fully known to their drivers.

A week earlier, I had crossed the other way – into Turkey – and witnessed a distressing bust by Bulgarian police of young Kurdish stowaways. The lorry driver seemed genuinely shocked, and he was in trouble. Lone women crossing this border in rented cars were regarded with suspicion, too: a Rom­anian woman had recently been caught with hard drugs inside the seats. In another recent incident, a smuggler had accelerated through customs and run over a border cop standing in his way. The smuggler was now in jail, the cop in a coma.

“Hello, arkadash,” said the new taxi driver as he loaded up my bag. Arkadash is Turkish for “mate”, also widely used in the Balkans. This driver had two cars: one with Turkish number plates, for domestic use, and another with Bulgarian plates, for border
purposes. We drove into customs. Slowly.

I was leaving behind the ­mosque-studded border town of Edirne and would soon reach the factory-filled border town of Svilengrad. Ruined factories, that is. For centuries, before the wounded leviathan of the planned economy collapsed, Svilengrad had produced silk. Today, it produced nothing. It was a transaction terminal for the pleasure-seeking populace of the three border nations: Turkey, Greece and Bulgaria. Here were casinos called “Pasha”, “Ali Baba” and “Saray” that promised “shows, prizes and many more surprises”. On the outskirts of town, in a former border army building, was a refugee camp that promised nothing.

The twin border cities of Svilengrad and Edirne sat in the fertile plains of Thrace where a section of the Roman Via Diagonalis passed and where everything grew: vines, sunflowers, cotton, wheat, and what early travellers described as the best watermelons in the Levant. Now the Greeks came across the border to both cities, to get what they needed, cheaply – including haircuts in Bulgaria and fake Levi’s jeans in Turkey. The checkpoint with Greece was just a few miles to the west, and from the last sleepy Greek town, Kastanies, across the swollen waters of the Evros-Maritsa River, you could see Edirne sprawled like a concubine in the haze of the Thracian plains.

The three border rivers (Arda, Tundja, Evros-Maritsa) flooded almost every year: if a dam upstream in Bulgaria opened a sluice, both Turkey and Greece would be flooded. Indeed, this border has seen many spillovers and upheavals over the years, including the catastrophic “exchange of populations” after the Balkan Wars of 1912-13, when borders were redrawn and many in Bulgaria, Greece and Turkey found themselves in alien territory overnight. They had to run for their lives across the new lines.

The road under the wheels became bumpy, a sign that we had crossed into Bulgaria. Ahead of us in the haze rose the communist-era apartment buildings of Svilengrad. In my youth, this area – like all towns, rivers and mountains that fell within 30 kilometres of the national border – was a militarised zone.

The border was a taboo subject. Hidden by Balkan peaks and electrified by Soviet technology, it was everywhere, like the state. The border was that which never slept. It was near the Black Sea beaches where, in my childhood, we went for holidays along with the East Germans, Poles and Czechoslovaks – some of whom went swimming towards Turkey, or made a run for the land border and got shot by Bulgarian guards. It was near the mountain villages where we went to pick berries and climb fir trees from which you could see Greece.

“Do you go to Greece?” I asked Ibrahim, the taxi driver. He had once been a schoolteacher.

“What would I do in Greece?” he replied, smiling. “I don’t speak Greek. This is my patch, here, Turkey and Bulgaria.”

Ibrahim was an ethnic Turk but his family had lived in Bulgaria for many generations. Bulgaria’s ethnic Turks account for roughly 10 per cent of the population, a natural effect of the long cosmopolitan centuries of these once Ottoman lands. But in the summer of 1989, just months before the fall of the Berlin Wall, Ibrahim and another 340,000 Bulgarian Turks passed through this checkpoint with all their worldly possessions. It was the largest exodus in Europe since the Second World War – but in peacetime.

They had been left with little choice in communist Bulgaria, where assimilation campaigns had been waged against them and other Muslims at frequent intervals during the Cold War. The last such campaign forced ethnic Turks with Muslim names to change them to Christian (Slavic) ones. In some parts of the country, even the names of the dead were changed in registries and on gravestones – an act of violence that strikes me as especially cruel.

This self-wounding campaign by the communist state was a diversionary tactic: despotic regimes need enemies. Ethnic minorities are easy prey. Those who resisted were told by the state to clear off to Turkey, and Bulgarian officials opened this checkpoint. Until then it had been closed to all Bulgarian citizens and was used only by Western travellers to Turkey or Turkish Gastarbeiter to Germany.

Ibrahim had been a young teacher in a town at the foot of the Balkan Mountains. “But what is a teacher without kids? Overnight, my school emptied,” he said.

Ibrahim decided to follow, although he spoke no Turkish. He departed alone, leaving behind his mother and sister, who couldn’t face a life of exile and took the new names instead. For the first few years, he lived in a leaking tent in a huge refugee camp in Edirne – where he saw some of his former pupils. He attended evening Turkish classes and eventually found his feet.

Many of those who had crossed the border that summer returned to Bulgaria after the collapse of the communist regime in 1990, reclaimed (or bought back) their houses, and started again. But many remained in Turkey and made new lives for themselves. Families were split down the middle. Today, entire neighbourhoods of Edirne and Istanbul are populated by Bulgarian Turks; one nation’s loss became the other nation’s gain. Then there were those, like Ibrahim, who continued to live a split life.

“Because my memories are all here, you see,” he said, without malice. “My mother, my sister, the old neighbours. But my wife, my kids, my business, are there.” He gestured back towards Turkey.

How do you feel, I asked him, when you see the refugees today? He shook his head. “It’s your pride that goes, you see. Back home, you were a person. With a history, with a future. When you become a forced exile . . .” He trailed off. “The life of an exile is worse than war.”

We arrived at the hotel in Svilengrad where I had booked a room. Ibrahim took out my bag and placed it on the pavement. “Bye-bye, arkadash,” he said; and standing by my bag, I watched him drive down the broken road back to the border.

Today, the Kapikule/Kapitan Andreevo checkpoint is said to be the world’s busiest land crossing. But back in 1989 Ibrahim had crossed this checkpoint alone, on foot. I will always think of him like this: a young teacher with a suitcase, walking through no-man’s-land, into the unknown.

Kapka Kassabova’s “Border: a Journey to the Edge of Europe” is published by Granta Books 

This article first appeared in the 09 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The return of al-Qaeda