The curse of victory
From our archive: Prospect’s politics editor talks exclusively to Scotland’s first minister
The crown spire of St Giles’ Cathedral, which climbs high above Edinburgh’s old town, marks where the Church of Scotland blesses new members of the Scottish parliament. The Queen sends a representative. At the service on 10th May, the Scottish National Party leader Alex Salmond joined enthusiastically in with “God Save the Queen” and was greeted deferentially by church ministers and political rivals alike. Salmond, Scotland’s teddy-bear-like politician of the moment, has surprised everyone, including himself, by winning the first overall majority since the parliament’s creation in 1999.
This Scot from Linlithgow went from nationalist rebel, to SNP leader, to “King o’er the Water” and he now enjoys a broad support base. But he faces a dilemma. He has promised a referendum on Scottish independence, but the polls are stark and show that two thirds of Scots would vote to remain part of the United Kingdom.
“If the referendum was decided by me,” Salmond tells me in his parliament office the day after the service, “I’d vote for independence; the sooner the better.” He dismisses the assumption of some observers that he is “secretly alarmed” by the prospect of losing a referendum. Instead, he focuses on recent electoral success. Scotland uses a combination of first past the post and proportional representation. “The scale of the win is symbolised by the fact that the system was designed to make overall majorities impossible,” he said. “We’ve just broken the system.”
It was “obvious,” Salmond says, that devolution would advance independence. In 1997, such was the clamour in Scotland for a non-Tory government that Tony Blair could have shelved devolution, but he went ahead, assuming it would help preserve the Union. Blair was wrong and Salmond was right.
Salmond now sees the concept of “Britishness” as defunct. “Unionism hasn’t been based on culture. Obviously there is the same language albeit with different accents, but you couldn’t get two more different cultures. Nobody would mistake a Scottish novelist for an English novelist.”
Unionism, as he sees it, is a pragmatic concept based on institutions such as “the army, the BBC, British Airways, the Post Office, the health service—a very British institution.”
But unlike other nationalist opponents of unionism, Salmond talks of his fondness for the Queen who, he has said, would remain head of an independent Scottish state. He admires Englishness and enjoyed the royal wedding. He even says he “missed a trick” on the latter: “I was too busy with the campaign but I should have had this entire city—I would have had—covered in royal standards.”
He “liked the royal wedding because it broke the traditional English reserve” and ushered in a “carnival-like atmosphere” which he likens to Hogmanay. “It was pretty funny, actually, because we couldn’t go to the reception because of the campaign, so I left and in the crowds a Scot recognised me and in two minutes I was surrounded by people from around the globe. It’s the first time I’ve ever been in London and that happened.”
“There is a better case for an English republic than a Scottish one,” he says. Mainstream Scotland, in his view, is not anti-monarchy, because the royals don’t define a Scots class structure as they do in England. “I’m not saying Scotland is a classless society,” he says, “but I still think inequalities in Scotland are not generally linked to the monarchy.”
One consequence of independence would be perpetual Tory rule in England—Labour can’t win without Scotland. Does Salmond worry about destroying a party with which he shares crucial values? “It’s unlikely that if the Labour party faced English-only elections it would resist proportional representation… The one thing I think you’d definitely have is that the left… would move unanimously in favour of PR and be able to command a majority.”
Labour is in crisis. Iain Gray, who leads the party in Scotland, will resign by the autumn after retaining his seat by only 151 votes. Several of the shadow cabinet were routed and seven seats lost; the SNP gained 23. Salmond bats away the suggestion that Labour could be revived by a big figure. “I don’t think they’ve got any big figures left—if they did they’d be leader of the party. [Ed] Miliband is the weakest Labour leader I’ve seen in my political career. He’s not Neil Kinnock, who to be fair was actually a good motivator for the Labour party.”
Ed Miliband “went on the ‘trail of doom’ as I call it; every single seat he visited, we won. Him and Ed Balls… this guy, who had his hand on the tiller as he steered the UK economy to the rocks, comes up and tells us how to run the economy? I mean, come on.”
To some, Salmond is simply wrong. But after a rich political life consisting of more ups than downs, he is now at the top of his game. As we part ways, he taps the excellent biography of him, Against the Odds, by the Scottish journalist David Torrance. “That makes me seem a bit boring, by the way.” He pauses, before adding: “The autobiography will be better.”
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