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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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From wars to power ballads: the geopolitics of Eurovision

As the prospect of Brexit looms, the Eurovision song contest can tell us a lot about our place in Europe.

On the night of 14 May, a 92-year-old woman will be sitting somewhere in the Globe arena in Stockholm, amid glitter cannon and hopeful singers dressed in gauze. Her name is Lys Assia, and she was the winner of the first Eurovision Song Contest, held in the Swiss resort of Lugano in 1956. She will be attending this competition as its guest of honour.

In the past few years, “Lys’s List” – the 20 songs Assia believes have a chance of claiming the (cashless) prize and bringing the contest to their country next time – has become a tradition. Perhaps surprisingly, her 2016 selection is led by Malta, the tiny archipelago with a population of 414,000. Less surprisingly, it does not include the UK, a country of 64 million people.

Britain’s relationship with Eurovision is more tortured than anything involving this many sequins has a right to be – halfway between a superiority and an inferiority complex. Our attitude towards the music produced by the rest of the continent
was summed up by the New Yorker’s Anthony Lane in 2010, when he wrote that European pop “‘was all created by the great God of dreck, and Eurovision is his temple”. The problem is this: if the song contest really is just a camp parade of mediocre warbling, interspersed with yokels in twee national costume . . . why can’t we trounce the lot of them?

Even worse for a nation swollen with a maudlin sense of decline, Britain used to do far better. We have won five times in all, trailing behind only Sweden, Luxembourg and France (six) and Ireland (seven). Before 1999, we finished outside the top ten only twice; what screwed us over was the rule change that year which stopped countries having to sing in their national language. (Side note: the 1974 winner, “Waterloo”, which launched Abba’s career, sounds amazing in the original Swedish. It begins: “Jo, jo, vid Waterloo Napoleon fick ge sig . . .”) In all, songs in English have now won 26 times, but Britain hasn’t had a winner since 1997, when it sent Katrina and the Waves, whose earlier hit “Walking on Sunshine” has surely flogged a thousand high-fibre breakfast cereals in its time. We have, however, come last three times since then.

In the year of a Brexit referendum, the parallels between Eurovision and the European Union are too obvious to avoid. Both started small – six nations signed the Treaty of Rome in 1957, and the song contest had seven competitors in 1956. (Britain was not a founder of either, joining the European Community in 1973 and missing the first Eurovision by filing its papers too late.) Both are now bigger than originally envisaged: 52 countries have competed in Eurovision at least once, and today the EU counts 28 members. In the mid-2000s, both expanded east, provoking the same fears about identity and a shift in power. Both have struggled to negotiate where Russia ends and Europe begins. Oh, and both have Byzantine voting procedures, the European Parliament favouring the proportional d’Hondt system, and Eurovision choosing from this year to record the votes of juries and the public separately, rather than combining them before dishing out the points.

Yet there is one big difference. Eurovision has far greater popular appeal. Although only 6.6 million Britons watched last year’s final in Vienna, compared to the 16.5 million who voted in the European Parliament elections in 2014, the winners of the former often have more name recognition. Abba, Céline Dion (drafted in by Switzerland from Canada in 1988 to sing in French), Lordi, Conchita Wurst, Bucks Fizz . . . versus Jean-Claude Juncker, Jeroen Dijsselbloem and Jacques Delors. No contest.

So when did Britain, which once sent Cliff Richard and Sandie Shaw to Eurovision, fall out of love with the contest? And when did the contest fall out of love with Britain? The temptation is to follow the line advanced by the long-term Eurovision commentator Terry Wogan and claim that it’s all political. Countries support their neighbours – Scandinavia and the former Soviet states in particular – and diasporan voters support their home countries. After the former X Factor contestant Andy Abraham, the “singing binman”, came last in 2008, Sir Tel declared that it was “no longer a music contest”. Russia had received maximum points from Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Ukraine, Belarus and Armenia (can you spot a theme?) while the UK received just 14 points in total. “Western European participants have to decide whether they want to take part from here on in because their prospects are poor,” Wogan said.

There are many academics who study Eurovision – oh come on, don’t tell me you’re surprised – and they take issue with Sir Terry’s analysis. In an essay titled “‘It’s Just Not Funny Any More’: Terry Wogan, Melancholy Britain and the Eurovision Song Contest” the Canadian critic Karen Fricker attributes Sir Terry’s grumpiness to ­“feelings of unprocessed anger, frustration and loss about the country’s changing relationship to Europe and the rest of the world”.

To Fricker, Wogan’s “increasingly paranoid tales of political voting conspiracies” were unsubstantiated: statistical analyses suggest that neighbour voting, though it undoubtedly exists, does not influence the final choice. Russia’s triumph in 2008 was the result of a “focused, well-researched, and well-funded campaign on the part of Russian political and broadcasting elites to master the codes of Eurovision ­success”, rather than frightened satellite states awarding douze points in the hope of not having their gas supply cut off. If we took the competition more seriously, we would do better. (Insiders are fond of pointing out that Britain’s record of bumping along the bottom of the table was alleviated in 2009 when we entered a song by Andrew Lloyd Webber, a writer with undoubted commercial appeal.) In other words: send for Adele!

The Irish journalist Julian Vignoles, who sat on Eurovision’s ruling body, the Reference Group, agrees. Since televoting began, Germany has given high points to Turkey, and Spain to Romania – reflecting diasporan populations “voting home”. But he points out that some neighbour voting springs from a shared language and culture: a big pop star in Serbia will be known in other parts of the former Yugoslavia.

Vignoles also has harsh words for Wogan: “There has been something of a bias against former communist countries and their efforts at popular music by some Western commentators – a kind of ‘Western chauv­inism’,” he writes in his 2015 book, Inside the Eurovision Song Contest. “This, I believe, is partly a taste issue.”

Whatever the truth, by 2009 Wogan had had enough. He vacated the presenter’s chair – now occupied by Graham Norton – and told a conference of Broadcasting Union bigwigs that the contest should not be “an opportunity to show your neighbours how much you love them. It is about picking the best popular song in Europe.”

It isn’t, though, is it? The Eurovision Song Contest is unavoidably political, because it presumes to rule on what counts as a country, and what counts as Europe. Take the inclusion of Israel, which has long baffled casual viewers. It gets a place because it’s a member of the European Broadcasting Union (EBU), which stretches from Iceland to Egypt and as far east as Azerbaijan.

To get into the EBU, a country must be within the European Broadcasting Area, or a member of the Council of Europe, and it must pay its dues. At present, Palestine and Kosovo do not meet the first of these criteria, and Romania falls foul of the second. (It owes the EBU 16 million Swiss francs – £11.4m – and has therefore been cast out of the 2016 competition.) Syria could enter, but understandably feels it has bigger fish to fry. Lebanon almost entered, once, in 2005, but had to withdraw when its national broadcaster refused to transmit the Israeli entry.

Exactly how thorny the issues involved can be was demonstrated on 30 April, when the venue for this year’s competition in Stockholm accidentally published a draft list of banned flags. The Palestinian flag was not allowed in the arena, it declared, alongside that of the Basque Country, the Welsh dragon and Scottish saltire – and nor was the black flag of Islamic State. Rainbow flags, a popular symbol of the LGBT rights movement, are permitted as a symbol of diversity, but only if they are not wielded “as tool to intentionally make a political statement” (in other words, while booing Russia).

Unsurprisingly, grouping together gay rights campaigners, Isis, Scottish nationalists and Basque separatists managed to upset just about everyone. The document was hurriedly unpublished, but the ban on “regional” flags remains. And the one on Isis.

If you think getting worked up about rectangles of cloth sounds awesomely petty, that’s just the beginning. In 2009 Azerbaijan and Armenia decided that the song contest was the perfect forum for their long-running dispute over the contested Nagorno-Karabakh region. During rehearsals, Azerbaijan complained that the introductory “postcard” to Armenia’s song contained footage of a statue in territory it claims as Azeri; the section was duly removed. Armenia was not beaten that easily: on the night of the final, its presenter read out the results from a clipboard adorned with a picture of the statue.

The fight didn’t stop there. It soon turned out that the Azerbaijani broadcaster, Ictimai Televiziya, had also blurred out the number to vote for Armenia from its terrestrial signal. Then in August that year, the ministry of national security in Baku summoned several Azeri citizens who had voted for Armenia to explain themselves. Eurovision threatened to ban Azerbaijan from the contest, but in the end settled for “undisclosed” damages and a rule change designed to ­suggest that countries probably shouldn’t set their secret police on citizens who vote in unpopular ways.

Talking of unpopularity, it’s probably a good time to mention Russia. That vast state has an uneasy relationship with Euro­vision. On the one hand, it clearly wants the prestige of winning (as it did in 2008) and when it hosted the competition in Moscow the following year the Russian government spent a record €35m. (It recouped only €8.9m in ticket sales, sponsorship and payments from the EBU.) Yet in the past decade, Russia has also brought in draconian anti-gay laws and banned Moscow’s Pride march. This has not gone unnoticed among the competition’s many LGBT fans. And make no mistake: Eurovision is pretty gay. One super-fan told me that when he arrived in Ukraine for the 2005 competition, there were “lots of women sitting on their own in the bar; we assumed they were prostitutes. But by the third night, they had realised they wouldn’t make any money, ­because the men were all gay.” Hence the ban on passive-aggressive rainbow flag-waving and the suggestion that last year’s contest in Vienna deployed “anti-booing” technology to drown out any protests.

Russia’s imperialist ambitions also make it unpopular. In 2008, Vladimir Putin’s government backed the creation of breakaway republics in South Ossetia and Abkha­zia, leading to a short war with Georgia. The next year, Georgia was told to amend the lyrics to its Eurovision entry, “We Don’t Wanna Put In”, after organisers saw through the cunning coded message of its chorus: “We don’t wanna put in/ The negative move/It’s killin’ the groove . . . Put in/Don’t wanna put in.”

***

“War is the continuation of politics by other means,” the Prussian general Carl von Clausewitz once wrote. Defenders of the European Union often point to its success in bringing decades of peace to a troubled continent, but perhaps it’s time to acknowledge that the Eurovision Song Contest has become a continuation of war by other means. The organisers of the competition are never going to succeed in making it apolitical, or “about picking the best popular song in Europe”, because an audience of 200 million people is too big an opportunity for any pressure group to pass up.

In 1956, no one could have predicted that the premier arena for political statements about European identity would be a music contest variously won by a bearded drag queen, a Finnish heavy metal group and a temporarily Swiss Céline Dion, but there you go. Still, no matter how much you hate disco or power ballads, they are infinitely preferable to a ground invasion. We should probably just let the Russians win it every year to keep them happy.

As for who will win this year, an insider tells me to look carefully at Australia, which came fifth in 2015 (I know, I know. Not even the EBU’s definition of Europe stretches that far; it was invited as a “special guest”). I like the idea of Australia taking the prize, for two reasons: a) shipping the whole circus to Sydney next year would be appropriately bonkers; b) a load of academics would have to come up with a grand thesis for What This Says About Being European Today.

The answer to that, I suspect, is that being European is about being part of a club that half a dozen countries are queuing up to join, but Britain regards as vaguely below its dignity. Which is why I’ll be voting Remain in June, even if I wouldn’t vote for our Eurovision entry, Joe and Jake, who appear to be two prepubescents with a guitar and the pained expressions of the severely constipated. And why, frankly, I would like to see Jean-Claude Juncker rock big hair and a sparkly jacket more often.

The Eurovision semi-finals will be broadcast on BBC4 on 10 and 12 May (8pm), and the final on 14 May (BBC1, 8pm)

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 05 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The longest hatred