Jason Cowley: Post-Salmond, the SNP will be stronger than ever

Nicola Sturgeon is adored by the party’s activists. She is a formidable machine politician and a capable media performer.

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Those unionists celebrating the resignation of Alex Salmond should pause. Salmond is certainly the most impressive politician I have met in these islands, a visionary leader and strategist. A relentless scrapper, too. But his departure won’t weaken the Scottish National Party or its cause. Indeed, since 18 September, when Scots voted No to independence, the membership of the SNP has risen by 94 per cent to more than 50,000. That’s a startling increase in so few days and more evidence, if any were needed, that if our panicked, vow-making Westminster elite get this one wrong, there will be a second referendum soon enough and it will be lost, to their eternal discredit.

Under Salmond’s leadership the SNP was transformed from an often cranky protest movement into the natural party of government in Scotland. He weakened and then smashed Labour hegemony. First Labour lost the support of Scotland’s leftish intelligentsia – the writers, artists and commentators who create a culture and a climate, perhaps now too cold for Labour – and then it began to haemorrhage support in its old working-class heartlands. In the final weeks of the referendum campaign, Salmond’s Panglossian rhetoric may have become ever more ludicrous, but he did not resign broken or diminished; rather, he had redefined the art of political leadership in these islands and demonstrated what can be achieved through a combination of conviction, pragmatism, extreme patience and low cunning.

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Yet the SNP will now be stronger without Salmond, who has been muttering strangely in recent days about making unilateral declarations of independence, as if he were some latter-day Ian Smith raging against treacherous colonial overlords. His successor will be Nicola Sturgeon, who is adored by the party’s activists. A former lawyer, Sturgeon is a social democrat, and to the left of Salmond, who has some dodgy allies on the right. Sturgeon, who is 44, is building a power base in Glasgow, which voted Yes to independence. She is a formidable machine politician and a capable media performer. Labour in Scotland has no one of her calibre, or zeal. Unless it finds someone soon – Jim Murphy seems to me ideally positioned if he could be persuaded to head north – it should prepare for another heavy defeat in the 2016 Scottish election.

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The bombing campaign has begun against the barbarous Islamic State in Syria. The Gulf autocracies, which have been funding and arming anti-Assad jihadis and now fear blowback, have joined the coalition of the willing against Isis, whose latest onslaught in the north of Syria has pushed tens of thousands of traumatised Kurds over the border into Turkey. Once again there are reports of villagers being beheaded and women and girls being captured as sex slaves. A blood-dimmed tide continues to wash over the desert sands of the Middle East and the suffering of the innocents is perpetual.

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Mark Amory has retired after 30 years as literary editor of the Spectator – or, at least, he thinks he held the post for 30 years. “The trouble is I am not quite sure and it is curiously difficult to find out,” he wrote in a splendidly modest diary announcing his retirement. The style and tone – amateurish, reticent, self-deprecating – were entirely in keeping with the man. On the few occasions I spoke to Amory, I found him courteous, elusive, a little bashful and as posh as you would wish a Spectator literary editor to be. When he answered the phone, he did not speak his name so much as sing it mellifluously: “Mark Amoreee . . .”

Time was when literary editor was among the most distinguished and desirable of all the positions on a newspaper or weekly. When I graduated at the end of the Eighties it was the only job that I really wanted to do. I’m not sure why this was but I remember as a boy how my father, who was the autodidact son of a bus driver from the East End, used to spend hours reading the books pages of the Sunday Times, the Observer, the Listener and the New Statesman. I got a sense from him that there was no pursuit more worthwhile than writing literary criticism for the intelligent general reader. He sometimes tried to discuss the reviews he had read – something on Philip Larkin, perhaps, or by Hugh Trevor-Roper. Yet, back then, all I wanted to do was read about and play sport.

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The first literary editor of the New Statesman, J C Squire, was a model man of letters of a kind that has disappeared from public life. The papers, even the Sunday Tele­graph, which used to have great books pages, no longer tolerate such people – not active or smart enough on Twitter, you see. Squire was a belletrist who could turn his hand to many things, including on one occasion commentating on the Boat Race for the BBC.

“There was no part of the paper which he could not write,” wrote Edward Hyams in his history of the New Statesman. Squire even edited the paper for three years when Clifford Sharp, our first editor, was otherwise engaged on spying missions in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution; or, later, when he was too drunk to work. He evidently knew enough about politics to satisfy the Webbs.

You feel that Squire would have recognised in Mark Amory a fellow member of the club: the scholarly amateur who carried out his duties not as a means to an end but as an end in themselves. “Now I have decided I must retire,” Amory wrote in his farewell diary. Why so soon, Mark? His successor is the estimable Sam Leith. 

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 24 September 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The cult of Boris