The thought of England being “much safer” in the hands of Alex Salmond is one which will cause mirth in Scotland and terror at Westminster. Bloodied and bruised by defeat in September’s independence referendum even this most confident and pugnacious of politicians could have been forgiven for quietly departing the political scene.
Not Salmond though; not when there’s plenty of fun and games to be had at the expense of the British state. Last week he made his final speech as SNP leader and bowed out with a live grenade of an interview for Newsweek Europe in which he spoke at length about the state of UK politics. In so doing he added to the already feverish speculation that he intends to stand as a candidate in next May’s general election and further ratcheted up the post-referendum ante.
“It’s likely there is a potential route of progress through Westminster, which has not been the usual circumstance before. Who knows, there might be one or two things we can knock off for the good citizens of Liverpool and Newcastle” he said “because they badly need a champion of some sort.”
This is plainly a message about using SNP muscle to bring about greater social justice across these islands. But there’s also a context – namely the most unpredictable general election in years. The SNP – currently projected to win all but a handful of the 59 Scottish Westminster seats – know they could hold the balance of power next spring.
Salmond’s more than able successor, Nicola Sturgeon, has said she would “never, ever” enter into government with the Conservatives. But what does this mean for Ed Miliband? Labour will strongly suspect the nationalists are likely to demand a hefty price for formal coalition – perhaps nothing less than another referendum in the lifetime of the coming parliament.
The one thing that would settle the political landscape a little is if the Smith Commission was able to move at speed and broker a workable deal on further devolved powers to Edinburgh. Frankly no one is putting their mortgage on that, least of all Salmond a canny gambler and long-standing exponent of guerrilla tactics.
Those who have observed him from his earliest days – such as former Foreign Secretary Malcolm Rifkind who described Salmond as “the infant Robespierre” – know only too well his knack of making waves. Here is a politician kicked out of the SNP as a leading member of the socialist ’79 Group and who as a young MP had the temerity to interrupt Nigel Lawson’s 1988 Budget speech shouting that the Chancellor’s tax measures were “an obscenity”. He was suspended for this controversial intervention but much later looked back on the incident as “pretty important on a personal level in terms of reputation.”
Even in recent days he has hinted at the prospect of a Scottish UDI, saying “Scotland will take matters into our own hands,” if London does not deliver on the promises made in the final days of the independence campaign. If such comments are a warm-up for his return to the green benches, where he sat as an MP between 1987 and 2010, it will seem as though he’s never been away.
The only oddity in all of this perhaps is that Salmond would be leaving Holyrood for what is, in his eyes, a foreign institution. However, he probably thinks he’s seen and done it all and should get out of Sturgeon’s way. Wise enough if that is so. Should we be surprised at any of this cunning? Not in the least. For Alex Salmond has long enjoyed being the Scottish fox let loose in the English establishment hen house.
Douglas Beattie is a journalist, author of The Rivals Game, Happy Birthday Dear Celtic, and The Pocket Book of Celtic, and a Labour Councillor based in London. He grew up in Scotland