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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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How the United Nations should respond in the age of global dissent

Three former UN insiders on the future of the world's most ambitious organisation. 

US President Donald Trump is ardently embracing a toxic form of messianic nationalism, while demeaning those who oppose him as corrupt, and dishonest enemies. His "America First" chant is creating severe international tension, promoting extremism - within and outside the US - and undermining the homeland security that he has so insistently pledged to enhance.

Trump seems determined to implement policies and practices that could signal the weakening of democracy, and possibly even herald the onset of fascism. His programme to deport undocumented immigrants and to exclude all visitors from six designated Muslim majority countries is illustrative of a regressive and Islamophobic outlook.

The groundswell of popular dissent is vibrant and worldwide, from Romania to South Korea, Gambia to Brazil, from the UK to the Ukraine. Trump is dangerously exploiting the frustration of citizens with the political establishment, which is unprecedented in its depth and breadth. The umbilical cord that connects those governing with those governed is becoming dangerously stressed. The digital revolution is endowing governments with horrifying capabilities for oppression and control but it is also enhancing the ability of the citizenry to mount resistance and mobilize opposition forces.

UN charter law and power politics

As UN veterans, we recall and affirm the preamble to the UN Charter that reads “we the peoples” - not we the governments! The trust of people in their governments to work for social and economic progress and to prevent war has dramatically weakened, if not disappeared.

The prediction made by the Mexican delegate at the founding of the UN in 1945 that “we have created an institution which controls the mice but the tigers will roam around freely” seems truer today than at the moment of its utterance. The UN Security Council’s permanent members – China, France, Russia, the UK and the US – indeed "roam around freely" lacking respect for international law or the authority of the UN, once more pursuing their respective nationalist agendas without any pretence of accountability. These countries are also the major consumers and exporters of military hardware, facilitating both militarism and "merchants of death".

The international war supposedly being waged against political extremism and terrorism has predictably deteriorated into a series of horrific wildfires and slaughter. Wars that should never have happened, neither the overt ones in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria nor the partially covert ones in Yemen, Somalia, and a range of other countries in Africa and Asia have brought peace or stability, but a series of unspeakable ordeals of human suffering. Old struggles have been magnified while new ones have been created.

The US tiger, aged as it is, displays the most serious signs of political amnesia. Unilateralism and exceptionalism have just been reaffirmed as cornerstones of the current US worldview. The announced $54bn increase of the US defence budget is justified by Trump with the argument that "we must win wars again".

In contrast, the great majority of the other 192 UN member states have given notice that they clearly prefer a multilateral model premised on the equality of states and international co-operation. President Xi of China at the last Davos meeting of the global neoliberal elite gave voice to this more benign vision of world order.

The so-called "West" - the US, Canada, the EU including the UK -  is made up of 800m people, or a mere 12 per cent of the global population. These Westerners need to come to terms with growing de-Westernisation, a natural outgrowth of globalisation in all sectors of life.

Wise global leaders would respond by seeking an immediate realignment of international relations with a commitment to the promotion of principles of convergence, cooperation, and compromise. The objective would be a new world order based on mutual benefit, sustainability, prudence as well as a demilitarizing ethos.

The UN Security Council is the most important venue for making such an undertaking happen. It is here that bilateral and multilateral diplomacy takes place in a global setting. The primary goal remains to prevent the emergence of a world in which drones replace diplomats and inequality continues to undermine wellbeing.

The UN and civil society

The peoples of the world are confronted by a series of challenging global developments. Tectonic political changes are taking place in the US, Europe, and Asia, along with unresolved crises in the Middle East, Africa, and South Asia, and the formidable speed and effects of easternisation. Prospects for a politically effective UN, and most especially a robust UN Security Council, seem bleak - but hardly impossible. Globalisation potentially supports innovative expressions of multilateralism that are more oriented than in the past towards the global and human interest. The 2015 Paris Agreement on Climate Change is illustrative of such a hopeful turn.

The UN and Trumpism

It is our hope that Trumpism will not succeed in relegating the United Nations to a fringe role. The Mexicans refuse to pay for the wall that the US President insists on building, the UN will bear the costs of the invisible wall Trump and a subservient Republican Congress seems determined to construct between the US and the UN. If Washington goes ahead with its threats to reduce drastically UN funding and end cooperation with and participation in various UN organs, it should certainly be viewed as a significant setback for both the UN and its current US adversary. While we are confident that the UN as an institution would survive these financial and political setbacks, we are not so sure that Trumpism will long endure.

"Alternative facts" are set forth to demonstrate that the US is making sacrificial and disproportionate contributions to keep the UN alive. Real facts show a different picture: In 2016 the US Federal budget amounted to $3.2trn. The US assessed share of the UN budget of $2.7bn was $594m or 0.0019 per cent of the US federal budget!

At no time have US/UN relations been smooth. During the more than 70 years that they have travelled the same road, there have been many potholes along the way. The US often has been heavy-handed in a manner by which it exerted its influence on the UN’s agenda. It has often used its political leverage to weaken the organisation’s independence. Over the years it has manipulated the selection processes used to fill UN leadership positions. Washington has frequently flexed its muscles by delaying the annual payment of mandatory contributions to the UN budget. The US government has set some terrible examples by repeatedly violating the most fundamental provisions of the UN Charter governing the use of force. It has continuously defied international law in all parts of the world, including wars in Vietnam (1963), former Yugoslavia (1999), Afghanistan (2001), Iraq (2003), and Libya (2011). It has used its veto power in the UN Security Council to shield its allies from justifiable UN censure, while doing its best to punish its enemies with the threat of force.

West-centrism, alliances and UN multilateralism

Polarisation, alliance formation and West-centrism were central to the transformation of NATO from a Cold War arrangement intended to defend Europe from a Soviet attack to an American led global domination project with Europe as the junior partner. In this wider geographic setting the expanding eastern Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) can be understood as a geopolitical countermove led by China, which also has its own disturbing implications. In the face of these geopolitical initiatives, it becomes clear that the United Nations is being pushed to the outer margins of world politics in precisely those areas of peacekeeping and global security that were regarded as its primary mission when established in 1945.

The new US administration seems likely to fulfill another of President Trump’s ill-considered campaign promises to make a series of moves to weaken multilateral problem-solving even beyond damaging the UN. These dangerous and irresponsible manoeuvres may fail, as many governments around the world fully understand that multilateral diplomacy has become indispensable, and indeed needs to be strengthened to meet the global challenges facing humanity. It is our fervent hope that these governments will mobilise sufficient energy to rescue the UN in this hour of need. Dutch and Belgian authorities give us some slender hope that this might happen. The Netherlands goverment has already agreed to replenish funds if withdrawn by the US from certain international population programmes. Yet this is only a small and suggestive gesture of what must become a groundswell of support for the UN that will be needed to overcome the damage expected to be inflicted by this anti-UN activism of the US.

The politics of populism

What now appears to be a wave of resurgent nationalism around the world contains the potential to become a new internationalism. We have served in many parts of the world under UN auspices and therefore are keenly aware of the widespread anger and sharp demands for justice present among the peoples spread around the entire planet. These discontented multitudes share many of the same goals: peace, equity, an end to corruption, freedom from fear and want, the rule of law, accountability, and above all, a life of individual and collective dignity. In February 2017, during a meeting of the EU heads of government held in Malta, profound anxieties associated with political changes taking place in Washington were addressed. European leaders strongly reaffirmed their joint commitment to common principles and values as the continuing basis for interacting with the United States and the world, and in this way respond to the challenges being mounted by this ultra-nationalist thinking.

We believe that recent developments in Europe, the Middle East, and especially in the United States are reaching a boiling point. Many citizens are outraged and ready to challenge intolerable aspects of the global status quo. More than ever, Immanuel Kant’s wisdom is relevant and needed, especially his admonition to have the courage to use our brain for the construction of a benevolent public reality. In a similar spirit, we are encouraged by Hannah Arendt’s unforgettable reminder that “thinking gives people that rare ability to act when the chips are down!” And act we must.

The urgency of UN reforms and the incoming UN Secretary-General

For the political organs of the United Nations (the Security Council and the General Assembly) to play an influential role in conflict resolution in the 21st century, governments will have to act with resolve to overcome some formidable challenges. Such a resolve must include the renewed political determination by member governments to look afresh at some major UN reform proposals that are now collecting dust on the shelves of the UN Dag Hammarskjold Library in New York.

Let us also not forget that the UN is the most inclusive global institutional body that has ever existed. It is the only place on earth where there are, and can be, no foreigners. The UN therefore is the obvious venue at which to reflect upon how the increasing number of people throughout the world who have become forgotten could be given new and alternative perspectives.

The recently elected UN Secretary-General, António Guterres, if he acts to fulfil his role as the guardian of charter norms and values, including respect for international law, will face a daunting challenge. He will have to be prepared to remind the US administration and other political leaders of major UN members that peace can only be achieved when unilateralism gives way to genuine multilateralism, when monologues are replaced by dialogues, when convergence, cooperation, and compromise prevail, when civil society is respected and allowed to participate within the organisation, when root causes, not just symptoms, are recognised and understood and most importantly, when governmental decision makers, whether from large or small Member states, show respect for international law and are held accountable for their acts.

The peoples of the world need the United Nations more than at any time since 1945, the year the organisation was established “to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war". Only a strengthened, respected, and sufficiently funded UN can provide mechanisms for upholding global and human interest. It must not allow itself to serve any longer mainly as a vehicle for the aggregation of national interests, or worse, as an instrument of power to be deployed by the geopolitical giants, and especially by the United States.

The multiple challenges associated with climate change, nuclear weapons, sustaining biodiversity, and lessening global inequality put the future of civilization at great risk, and even endanger the survival of the human species. At such a time, we can only hope that enough political leaders are alert to this menacing situation, are emboldened by their citizens, and act with resolve and courage to create an alternative future for humanity that is responsive to the claims of peace, justice, sustainability, and community.

More than ever before in human history the peoples of the world are being severely challenged by problems of global danger that can only be solved globally. The best hope of humanity to meet these challenges is to abandon unilateralism and isolationism and instead empower the United Nations to become at last an effective mechanism for the protection of “fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion”.

Hans-C. von Sponeck served in the UN from 1968 to 2000, from 1998 to 2000 as the UN Humanitarian Coordinator for Iraq and UN Assistant Secretary-General. Richard Falk is Milbank Professor of International Law Emeritus, Princeton University and served as UN Special Rapporteur between 2008 and 2014. Denis Halliday served in the UN from 1964 to 1998, from 1994 to 1998 he held the position of UN Assistant Secretary-General and UN Humanitarian Coordinator for Iraq.