I’m not here to defend Alex Salmond’s “joke”. It is indefensible on grounds of both taste and humour.
At the opening night of his Edinburgh festival show he told the audience: “I promised you today we’d either have Theresa May or Nicola Sturgeon or Ruth Davidson or Melania Trump, but I couldn’t make any of these wonderful women come…” cue a “boom-tish” from his on-stage drummer then the punchline “…to the show.”
Basically he should’ve just said, “Women are all sex objects and I’m shit at sex.”
This man used to be Scotland’s First Minister. It’s impossible to imagine another senior politician of that rank making such a crass comment in such a public place.
And I, as the co-author of a book called The Gender Agenda and guest on a forthcoming Woman’s Hour special about it, am appalled.
The Scottish National Party press office’s official response that those that did not see the funny side were failing to get into the spirit of the Fringe was as lame as the original gag. If SNP staffers think Salmond’s turn embodied the essence of the festival, it suggests they are spectacularly unlucky in their choice of Edinburgh show.
But hang on just a moment. Other political journalists may have rushed to condemn Salmond, or simply sat back content that the public were now being exposed to the sort of behaviour they’d observed over the years. I, on the other hand, had some sympathy. And, heaven knows, having once endured a monstering at Salmond’s hands, I would be within my rights to gloat at his mis-step.
But I know comedy is tricky.
I know because, like Salmond, I once took to the stage at the Edinburgh Fringe. I’d argue my turn was tougher. I joined the bill for Late n Live, then undisputed as the most raucous of late night shows on the Fringe. I was great for the first three minutes. (Scots comic Fred MacAulay would later joke with me that that was a sentence that could apply to so many areas of life – proving that you can make self-deprecating jokes about sex that are funny and inoffensive). I was awful for the next three minutes, finishing up with an improvised rant aimed at Dame Vera Lynn. And to top it all my failure was aired on Channel 4. It’s probably on the internet somewhere.
I met my now partner after my performance.
Salmond’s fellow former MP Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh and current partner in business was apparently standing by the stage in her role as producer. It is not the first time they’ve worked together – see Salmond’s turn as a ghost in a Pakistani soap opera.
Yes, Salmond’s joke was bad. But writing and telling jokes is hard. And Salmond, like almost all of us, isn’t really very good at it. Even in his pomp, his evident self-satisfaction precluded the self-deprecation at the heart of so many good gags.
Previous to this week’s turn on stage, his most famous joke was probably the time he gave a Telegraph reporter a bag of sweets. That really was the sum of it.
What Salmond is good at is politics. But courtesy of the electorate, that’s not his job any more.
And his predicament does rather sum up the state of the SNP this summer.
He, like the party he led, is adrift, unsure of what to do next, and devoid of any decent material.
Scotland’s so-called Yes movement has turned in on itself. Most of those that followed Salmond to the summit in 2014 would have been appalled to hear their former master introduce David Davis at his Fringe show as a “good pal”.
All the while Salmond was publicly demonising the Tories in Scotland, he was chumming around with right-wing Brexiteer Davis in Westminster (he of the “it’s DD for me” campaign).
Perhaps if they had noticed, they might have been less surprised when Scotland returned 13 Conservative MPs in June.
And with indyref2 if not unpopular then certainly not popular enough to pick up as a policy, the party has to think hard about what to do next.
Faced with the accusation that the Scottish government had not passed any legislation since winning the 2016 Holyrood election, the best it could come up with was a bill to legalise cutting dogs tails off. Really.
Nicola Sturgeon (who remained strangely silent on her predecessor’s sexist joke despite piling into the row over children’s shoes) has promised a relaunch in the autumn. Party sources are already downgrading that to a re-set. There likely be a reshuffle that’ll amount to little more than Jeane Freeman getting promoted, due to a dearth of other talent knocking on the cabinet room’s door. And as for a policy programme, ask an SNP politician for a big idea that they are going to drop into the policy mix and you’ll get some waffle about Brexit and independence. Neither are going to wash with an electorate increasingly concerned about Scotland’s health and education, rather than issues that’ll ultimately be decided at Westminster.
The party’s autumn conference could be a jamboree of big thinking. Instead sources close to Bute House confess the First Minister is paralysed. Her Spring gambit of calling for indyref2 backfired when Theresa May stared her down, then launched a snap election that cost her 20 MPs. Consequently Sturgeon’s lost her confidence.
One party source told me: “Our moment has passed.”
As so often, what’s said about the SNP could equally apply to Salmond.
But the same gloomy source’s prediction that “we’re fucked” is altogether premature. The SNP has proved itself supremely nimble, not least because it remains the pre-eminent party in Scotland by a distance. Brexit is yet to unfold, and the sands of UK politics look destined to shift around for some time yet.
Unlike Salmond in the imaginary sexual couplings he has with leading female politicians, the SNP will come again.