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Mr Scotland, chauvinism and the SNP’s big-tent nationalism

In Edinburgh, Alex Salmond walks with the swagger of a man who feels that these could be the last days of the Union.


Throughout my time in Scotland I was asked, again and again, the same question, rhetorically or otherwise: can anyone stop Alex Salmond? At present, the Scottish National Party leader and First Minister seems pretty much unstoppable. A cult of personality exists around him. He is the Big Man, without political equal or rival in his homeland. He moves with the buoyancy and swagger of one who feels that these could be the last days of the United Kingdom.

Many of his old adversaries - Donald Dewar, Robin Cook, Jim Wallace, Jack McConnell, Gordon Brown - are dead or in retreat. He is the leader of the new establishment in Scotland, a formidable machine politician with the stamina, tenacity and opportunism of a Latin American charismatic. He is a kind of pale-faced, northern European Lula da Silva and his pro-market social-democratic populism, as with Lula's in Brazil, is proving to be very appealing to a Scottish electorate that had grown weary of Labour's client state and its entrenched culture of cronyism, and which long ago gave up on the Conservatives.

“When a Scotchman sets out from this port for England," Dr Johnson once said to his biographer James Boswell of the Firth of Forth seen from Edinburgh Castle, "he forgets his native country." It was never so for Salmond: during his years of exile in London as an MP he did not stop believing that he could break the British state and create an independent Scotland. For Salmond, Scotland was a proud nation without a state, if not quite a colony of imperial England's then an inferior partner in an unhappy union: exploited, condescended to. This was the grievance that fired his restless ambition and gave definition to his complaints. In politics it always helps to have conviction, as Margaret Thatcher did, and to believe in something big; to have a project and a clear and defined enemy. For Salmond, the enemy is England and the British state.

The SNP leader has never been in a hurry. He is a gradualist. He knows where his journey ends and where he wishes to plant his flag of victory - through the heart of the last British prime minister. But he knows, too, that most Scots remain sceptical of full independence, which is why in these early skirmishes over the 2014 referendum he is being flexible and pragmatic, cravenly shifting his position on the EU and the euro and exploring the possibilities of a third way between the status quo and independence, between a straight yes and no.

He operates with the freedom of one who knows that there is no one commanding opponent to challenge him - at least not yet. David Cameron, so nimble in a crisis and so fluent, is the only politician in Britain who could be his match but he has larger problems: in spite of his Scottish surname, he knows that as an upper-middle-class English Conservative - Eton-educated and plummily poised - he would in all likelihood be received with derision in Scotland as and when the time came for him to go up against Salmond in the pulpit.

Then there is Gordon Brown, who keeps his silence at home in Fife. "He's lost confidence," I was told by one of his former aides. "He keeps asking himself - 'What was that all about?' He can't quite believe what has happened to him and to Labour." Brown holds Salmond in as much contempt as Cameron and George Osborne do. But they have power and he doesn't; they ultimately won and he lost.

The scale of the defeat in the Scottish Parliament election of May 2011 was a shock from which Labour has not recovered. The proportional voting system was set up in Scotland - or rigged, if you will - to prevent any one party from achieving the kind of majority won by the SNP, and with it a mandate to hold a referendum on independence.

“The SNP victory took me completely by surprise, which feeds into a more general lack of awareness of what was happening in Scotland," Johann Lamont, elected as leader of the Scottish Labour Party in December, told me when I visited her at Holyrood. "We did not recognise what was happening to the Labour vote nor the way in which the SNP were positioning themselves, being both left, right and centre. And actually, they were putting a triple block virtually on the question of independence. It is their only policy, but that wasn't their message . . . We did not recognise the scale of the challenge in taking on a party which had constructed a coalition that included Tommy Sheridan and Brian Souter [a businessman and Christian fundamentalist]. So there is no politics there actually. This is all about identity and who is Scottish. I don't think in all honesty the Labour Party ever managed to include someone from the ultra left [Sheridan] and someone who is a right-wing homophobe [Souter]. Yes, you can strike coalitions, but if they are based on principle and politics."

For Lamont, Salmond is not a social democrat: he's a single-issue opportunist. "Are they a social-democratic party? Some of them are. Alex Salmond isn't. I think he said: 'I don't have a problem with Thatcher's economics, it was the social consequences I have a problem with.' Why would you make a distinction between the two? How can you separate off a decision to destroy the mining industry and then be sad because the mining communities have been destroyed along with it? One of his key advisers, George Mathewson, is a Thatcherite.

“What is my problem with David Cameron? He is a Tory. What is Alex Salmond's problem with him? He's English. I don't mind people being nationalists. I worry when it trips over into chauvinism and I'm frustrated when it becomes a substitute for arguing about real politics."

On the issue of independence, Lamont says that Salmond "wants it to come down to a fight between himself and the Conservatives. Alex Salmond wants to say that those who disagree with him are talking down Scotland, that our vision of Scotland within the United Kingdom is a conservative one. He is making arguments for us that we are not making . . . Alex Salmond wants to be Mr Scotland. But he is not trying to separate us all from some kind of colonial empire. It is a partnership. There will be a Labour campaign that will be making the point about why you would want to stay strong within the United Kingdom." As for Salmond, "If he gets into a place where it looks as if he is trying to fix things, or be canny or clever, or whatever, that will damage him. And a lot of people in Scotland don't agree with him."

We will find out for sure soon enough.

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 30 January 2012 issue of the New Statesman, President Newt

Photo: Getty Images/Peter MacDiarmiud
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While teacher shortages threaten our schooling, the government is obsessing with free schools

Rather than worrying about the name of the place that teaches children, the government should focus on the shortage of people to teach them in the first place. 

This week new analysis was published that reveals the Government is set to miss its recruitment target for teachers for the fourth year in a row. Overall, applications to teach have fallen by almost 21,000 in one year. It is subjects that are key to boosting our country’s competitiveness, such as English and Maths, which are among the worst hit. Some headteachers are saying they have never known it so bad.

You would imagine that tackling this critical problem would be at the top of the list of priorities for the Prime Minister and the Education Secretary’s programme for schools over the next Parliament. The urgency of the situation cannot possibly have caught them off guard. Experts within the education sector have been warning for years that the Government’s approach to teacher recruitment, including doing down the profession, increasing workload, and completely failing to properly handle rapid changes to the teacher training model, was storing up trouble for our schools.

Now, with schools facing simultaneous challenges of falling applications into teaching, missed recruitment targets and the highest number of teachers quitting the profession in two decades, you would be fooled for thinking that David Cameron and Nicky Morgan would understand the importance of getting to grips with this crisis. And yet, instead of a comprehensive and robust plan of action to deal with the shortages that schools up and down the country are struggling with, significantly the Tories marked the beginning of the new academic year with an announcement to open 18 more free schools.

On the one hand, we shouldn’t be surprised. Over the last five years, despite the fact that time and time again it has been shown that free Schools are not a panacea and that they can fail with disastrous consequences, the Tories have not wavered from their obsession with them. I find it remarkable that in the face of all the evidence that says what actually matters most is the quality of teaching in a school, David Cameron chooses instead to be fanatical about the name of an institution above its door. Indeed he is so fixated, that just this summer his Government amended the regulations so that any new school will now be legally classed as a free school - all so in 2020 he can say he has met his target of 500 more. That the Prime Minister considers this the priority for Britain’s education system in the modern, competitive world is, quite frankly, embarrassing.

And while the Tories tinker around with whether a school is called an academy or a free school or whatever, they offer simply no serious solution to the immense challenges facing our schools. How will the Government reverse the falling number of applications to teach, which are affecting schools at the same time as the their number of pupils increases? Where is David Cameron’s plan for raising standards in the one in five academies that are currently failing their Ofsted inspections? Why is the attainment gap between children from disadvantaged backgrounds and the peers being allowed to widen and what will the Government do to reverse this?

For what the Prime Minister seems not to have grasped is that at the end of the day it won't matter one jot whether a school is a free school, academy, or maintained by the local authority, if there are not enough maths teachers to teach in it. The Tories may well bury their heads in the sand over the teacher recruitment crisis. But if it comes at the expense of the next generation’s education, it will be our children who suffer and the country that pays the price.

Lucy Powell is MP for Manchester Central and Shadow Secretary of State for Education.