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Alex Salmond is in the mood to celebrate when we meet for an informal lunch at a Westminster hotel. Never lacking in confidence, he seems even more satisfied than usual and physically heavier than he was when he resigned as first minister last autumn after the Scottish people rejected independence (“I’m about to go back on my diet,” he says). He is buoyed by the publication of his first book, The Dream Shall Never Die, an acerbic account of the last 100 days of the referendum campaign, a copy of which he produces and signs for me (“For Scotland and progressive politics,” he writes). He is also naturally delighted by the SNP surge and the consequent collapse in support for Labour in Scotland, and by the prospect of his imminent return to the Commons in May as the MP for Gordon in Aberdeenshire, the long-time seat of the Liberal Democrat veteran Malcolm Bruce.
Big Alex is unconcerned by the Conservatives’ demonisation of him in a series of propaganda posters and, most recently, in an animated cartoon in which Ed Miliband is portrayed compliantly dancing to Salmond the piper’s tune. “You should never put your opponent – any opponent – on one of your posters,” Salmond replies when I ask about the posters. “What government puts the leader of the opposition outside Downing Street? As leader of the opposition you should be unbelievably pleased. It’s the concession of the election.
“What Miliband should have done, rather than run from the Tories, is to have pointed at Cameron during Prime Minister’s Questions and simply said, ‘You’ve just conceded the election.’”
As we settle down at a table, Salmond orders a bottle of pink champagne – “to toast my book” – and it complements our fish, chips and mushy peas nicely and helps to quicken our conversation. As with Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson, both of whom could also be in the House come May, the former first minister is a politician of immense skill and cunning, at ease in his own skin and fully absorbed by the game of politics. “If you don’t enjoy the game you shouldn’t be a politician,” he says. “But if you don’t have a purpose you most certainly shouldn’t be a politician.”
More than ever Salmond is convinced that his destiny is not only to inspire his ancient nation to independence – “It’s not a question of if, but when,” he says of a second referendum – but also to play a significant role in the next UK government. The latest polling forecasts that the SNP could win between 35 and 50 of the 59 Scottish Westminster seats (in 2010 it won six to Labour’s 41). For his part, Salmond will offer no precise figure but predicts simply that “we will win a barrel-load”.
The mood among the electorate in Scotland reminds him of the final weeks of campaigning in the 2011 Scottish election, when, having been trailing in the polls, the SNP won a landslide in a proportional voting system that was designed to prevent such an outcome, setting us on the road to where we are today, with the British people so divided and the United Kingdom fracturing. “That night,” Salmond says of 2011, “I was just watching things fall one by one. It’s happening again.”
The decline of Labour in Scotland is deep and has been a long time in the making, the result of institutional complacency, failures of leadership and profound structural changes – deindustrialisation, the decline of the trade unions and of cross-border class solidarity, globalisation, the London effect, and so on – and also a legacy of the Iraq war. Yet it has been accelerated by the referendum campaign and the perception among many Scots that, as Salmond puts it, “Labour was hand-in-hand, hand-in-glove, shoulder to shoulder with the Conservative Party.” It didn’t help that, with the exception of Gordon Brown and romantic unionists such as the historians Tom Holland and Simon Schama, few in and around the Better Together camp were able to articulate a persuasive account of why the United Kingdom should be cherished. The No campaign was transactional and utilitarian – Alistair Darling addressed Scots like a financial director warning of a downturn in profits – and now, in an astounding reversal of fortune, those who lost have the swagger and exuberance of winners.
Reflecting on the final, frenetic days of the campaign, Salmond says: “I’ve no doubt that Gordon Brown saved the day for No. I had assumed there would be a last-minute offer, because [the Labour strategist] Douglas Alexander had discovered Quebec [he is referring to the Quebec sovereignty referendums of 1980 and 1995]: everything was gameplayed on Quebec, even down to ‘Non, merci’. It’s not subtle. But I also assumed that the people making the offer – Cameron, Clegg, Miliband – had no credibility. Which was why Brown had a role. To convince one in 20: that’s all the ‘Vow’ needed to do.”
The three main party leaders’ “vow”, published on the front page of the Daily Record two days before the vote and offering Scotland what Salmond believes was “home rule, devo-to-the-max or near-federalism”, was made in great haste, with little consideration for its implementation or how it would affect England, Wales and Northern Ireland. And now, the British state is grappling with the consequences of what exactly was meant by “home rule” for Scotland and confronting the inevitability of a second independence referendum.
SNP insiders expect that, in spite of the Conservative Party’s enduring unpopularity but because of its strength in the populous south and south-east of England, the Tories will end up as the largest party in a hung parliament. The SNP, in turn, will form the most powerful bloc of nationalists at Westminster since the emergence of Charles Stewart Parnell’s Irish Parliamentary Party, which indulged in wrecking measures and filibustering during the protracted struggles over Irish home rule. (Under the later leadership of John Redmond the IPP eventually formed a coalition with Herbert Asquith’s Liberals in 1910, a government that passed the Parliament Act of 1911 that belatedly curtailed the House of Lords’s power of veto by which the landed aristocracy had resisted progressive reforms and defended its class interests.)
There has been discussion in recent days among Conservatives about whether Cameron should be prepared to negotiate with the SNP. The editor of the ConservativeHome website, Paul Goodman, suggested that Cameron could utilise “his First Mover Advantage as the serving prime minister . . . by coming to an arrangement with as many of the minor parties as he can, under which they agree not to bring down his minority government. This, in turn, would mean striving to come to one with Alex Salmond.”
But this is a non-starter. Salmond tells me that the SNP would not negotiate with the Tories, nor would it seek any compromise with them: instead, the SNP would act to bring down a Cameron minority government by voting against a Queen’s Speech. “The Tories would have to go straight effectively for a vote of confidence, usually the Queen’s Speech, although it could be otherwise, of course, and we’d be voting against,” he says. “So if Labour joins us in that pledge, then that’s Cameron locked out. And then under the [Fixed-Term] Parliaments Act that Westminster parliament’s passed but nobody seems to have read, you’d then have a two-week period to form another government – and of course you want to form another government because this might be people’s only chance to form another government.”
Would he expect Ed Miliband still to be Labour leader at this point?
“I have no idea,” he says. “But somebody will be. I mean, one of Labour’s big fibs – there are a number – but one of them has been that the party with the most seats forms the government. No, the party that can command a majority in the House of Commons forms the government as Ramsay MacDonald did [in 1924] . . . so it’s the party that has the majority. And the Parliament Act reinforced that, because it limits the ability of the incumbent to dictate an early election, and puts more power in the hands of parliament and indeed in the hands of your [party].”
Some of those close to Salmond believe that, offered an opportunity – any opportunity – to become prime minister, Miliband would be prepared to enter into full coalition with the SNP even though he has said that he would not. “If I were him, I wouldn’t have ruled it out. I wouldn’t give an inch to the Tory press or to the Tory party . . . Nicola [Sturgeon, the SNP leader] has always said that she thought full coalition was unlikely. But she didn’t rule it out: she said it was highly unlikely,” Salmond says. “So all they’ve done thus far, all Miliband’s done thus far, is rule out something which has already been defined by Nicola as highly unlikely. You know, so it’s still highly unlikely.”
Unlikely but not impossible? “I think,” Salmond says, leaning in as if taking me into his confidence, “probable would be vote-by-vote [support for Labour], and possible would be confidence and supply. This arrangement is . . . a narrow range of policies, and a narrow range of supported votes, obviously: that’s confidence and supply. And then in turn, of course, there has to be an agreed number of policies . . . not like the full coalition, where you take responsibility for every dot and comma, but a narrow range of policies, in return for which you make it possible for the government to function – over a period of time. Vote by vote is what I faced as leader of a minority government in Scotland [from 2007-2011] . . .
“A confidence-and-supply agreement has a formality to it; what people can and can’t do. A junior partner in confidence and supply has to have very defined and limited objectives, but objectives that are hugely important to them, and to their electorate, and in our case to our nation.”
In the event of any deal, or pact, the Labour Party would be expected to soften its stance on austerity and to move closer to the position of the SNP, which styles itself as an anti-austerity party and which, rather than cut public spending as the Tories and Labour would do, has pledged to increase it on departmental budgets by 0.5 per cent a year in real terms. Salmond says the SNP would make amendments to any proposed Labour budget to introduce “progressive tax measures”.
Like Labour, the SNP opposes a referendum on UK membership of the European Union, and Salmond has no interest in seeking to renegotiate British membership of the EU. He is unashamedly in favour of immigration and, indeed, wants more of it. “Does Scotland need more people? Yes. The debate I want to have is one that recognises the underlying challenge, which is how to balance your working age and your retired population . . . You want to encourage people to come and stay, but I’m in favour of immigration rather than migrant labour . . . The offer you want to make to people is: if you like us, come be part of us.”
What about the need to limit the availability of welfare benefits for EU migrants, as both the Tories and Labour propose? Are you bothered about migrants being able to claim benefits as soon as they arrive?
“No,” Salmond says. “I’m much more concerned with the thought that we want to be leading Europe in terms of the balance of the working and non-working population.”
On the issue of nuclear weapons on the Clyde, he is encouraged that some of the new generation of Labour MPs as well as many of the party’s activists are unilateralists, resolutely opposed to renewal of the Trident missile system. Parliament is due to vote in 2016 on whether to proceed. “Remember the vote that’s coming up is the gateway vote on the renewal of Trident. It’s not on the current existence of Trident; it’s the gateway vote on the renewal. Now we can’t count on another 50 years of nuclear weapons on the Clyde. But then that gateway vote: does that have to be next year?”
Let’s return to the early morning of Friday 19 September. Alex Salmond knows that the Yes campaign has lost and that he will be announcing his intention to resign as first minister and SNP leader later that day. And yet, even in defeat, with those around him exhausted and despondent, he suddenly sees a way back for himself and the independence movement. He is watching on television as David Cameron, who shortly before had been speaking to Salmond on the phone, steps on to the pavement outside 10 Downing Street and makes a mistake. A big mistake. Instead of being magnanimous in victory, the Prime Minister seeks cynically and immediately to address the English Question – the matter of Scottish MPs voting on English laws – in an attempt to appease his restive backbenchers and Nigel Farage, who, as it happens, is the first politician interviewed by the BBC at the end of Cameron’s short address to the nation.
“I was asked this morning by a correspondent,” Salmond says – “I’ve forgotten his name, the one who does the Sky newspaper review – oh yes, [Tom] Newton Dunn from the Sun. He says, ‘But if Cameron were to offer you everything you wanted, you would want to do a deal with him, would you not?’ I said no. He was obviously upset. The reason for me is, why on earth would you trust somebody who comes up to Scotland, makes promises, and then saunters out and says, ‘Sorry, I forgot to mention about this English vote thing in tandem [with more devolution to Scotland].’ I mean, that’s as bad as you get. Bad politics has created a fantastic opening for us to take matters forward.”
And now, the former first minister and soon-to-be MP for Gordon is preparing for his return to Westminster – he represented Banff and Buchan in parliament from 1987 to 2010 – because, as he says more than once, “I think the stars might be in alignment. I wouldn’t come to Westminster to make up the numbers. . . What I’ve got to offer of course is the experience of having run a minority government.”
The referendum campaign energised and changed Scotland and the effect of this national awakening has been to create one of the most politically savvy electorates – perhaps the most – in Europe. Visit Scotland and you have a sense of a nation moving inexorably away from England. There’s restlessness for change, for alternatives, for new possibilities, for the creation of a fairer, more social-democratic society, and this desire has only grown stronger since September, powered by social media. The Scots are relishing what the writer Gerry Hassan calls “an independence of the mind”.
“Absolutely head-on,” Salmond says. “That’s dead right. The Scotland of 2015 is not the Scotland of 2014, never mind the Scotland of 20 years ago . . . We had a bad – by and large, a bad 20th century. If you do things by the century, we had a bad 20th century. There were reasons for it, of course . . . Yet last year I was looking forward to the Commonwealth Games, the Ryder Cup, the referendum, and Cameron said he was going to, as he put it, celebrate the First World War. Now, Scotland is a martial nation, fiercely proud of what it fought for, but we don’t ‘celebrate’ the Great War. It’s not to be celebrated. The point is, Cameron thought that pride would come from the Great War, with regards a bloody, devastating carnage. And the relevance to your point is this, Jason – that in Scotland, in many communities, it wasn’t a decimation; it was a three times decimation of men of fighting age. And I think the impact was very substantial. Scottish heavy industry should have transformed into light industry and it didn’t happen, and one of the reasons – one of the reasons; not the only one, but one of the reasons – it didn’t happen was that the people that would have done it were nae there.” But now there are opportunities. “If the stars align,” he says again, “we could have the delivery of what Scotland was promised last September – devo to the max, home rule.”
So if the Vow was honoured, would that be enough for the SNP? Would federalism, or neo-federalism, satisfy you?
“No. The SNP is a party of independence. But, of course, the people the question should be asked of are the Scottish people . . . The great secret weapon of the SNP is that it is a cause, an objective and an ideal. And when you’ve got an objective and an ideal the rest of the stuff is not nearly as important. I’m having another tilt at Westminster because I think the stars might be in alignment. I wouldn’t come to Westminster to make up the numbers.”
The New Statesman Q&A
Jason Cowley: Is there a Labour politician you admire?
Alex Salmond: Andrew MacKinlay, former MP for Thurrock. Andrew’s one of the best parliamentarians I ever came across. I liked him to bits. Hell of a nice guy, and a hell of an effective parliamentarian.
JC Do you have a favourite Tory?
AS John Biffen.
JC Wasn’t he a dry-as-dust Thatcherite?
AS I felt John Biffen knew more about English history than most Conservatives since have ever learned.
JC Any Tories in the House you admire today?
AS I don’t really know them . . . William Hague.
JC Historical figure you identify with?
AS Nelson Mandela. Everybody of my generation would say that. My dad’s greatest hero is the 1st Marquess of Montrose, James Graham: “He either fears his fate too much,/Or his deserts are small,/That puts it not unto the touch/To win or lose it all.” Interesting times.
JC And number of seats the SNP will win in May?
AS A barrel-load.
JC A barrel-load? Forty?
AS It’s up to Scotland to determine the size of the barrel.
JC Not six, then. Not a barrel of six.
AS [Laughs] No. If it was six I wouldn’t be here. And I’m planning to be here.
JC And do you think the most likely outcome is a minority Cameron government that falls early on?
AS In terms of seats, I think the Tories will be down . . . I just think a minority government looks likely and if it’s a Cameron government, that falls because of the quote I’ve just given you. Or if it’s a Miliband government that has a shot. But whoever is, is going to have to come to terms – not so much with the SNP but with reality. Is a minority government a bad thing? We had one for four years, and the people of Scotland were so enthused by it they made us a majority government!
JC You don’t think a Tory-Liberal coalition is likely?
AS Well, my view on that, is that it’s quite interesting what David Steel said a couple of days ago: if the Liberals are reduced to half their MPs the last thing they’re going to be doing is going into a coalition. The surviving half will want to survive. I don’t think the Liberals are going to be a big factor in this. I think it’s going to be us, the Ulster Unionists and our allies.
JC Some are saying that you, the Nationalists, secretly would like a Tory government because it would bolster the independence movement.
AS That’s a misjudgement – certainly of me. You have to look forward to holding the balance.
JC You like Westminster, don’t you?
AS I like the chamber.
JC Do you think Douglas Alexander will lose in Paisley?
JC Your candidate there [Mhairi Black] is only 20, isn’t she?
JC Do you know her name?
AS I do, but I mean . . . I’m not going to insult you by going through the names of our candidates. She was interviewed on Channel 4 and I was very impressed by that. She doesn’t look like the kind of woman to be intimidated easily.
JC What about Danny Alexander in Inverness? He’s gone?
JC Charles Kennedy, will he hang on?
AS I’m not going to write off any seats. I don’t think we’ll win every seat but I’m not going to disrespect any of our candidates. Two weeks ago, in two successive nights, I went to Kelso and I spoke to about 500 people. And that’s our worst seat. I went to Dumfries the next evening, and spoke to lots of candidates and had this enormous meeting. And they are totally mobilised. You wouldn’t for a second say either of these seats were out of the running. And this is the south-west and the borders of Scotland!