The 21st century is shaping up to be the era of the angry, bitter man.
On television, on social media, in the corridors of power, you can’t move for stroppy, overgrown teenagers who have lurched from puberty to middle-aged dyspepsia with no intervening period of maturity.
Donald Trump wields all the power any man could want and still he broods on Twitter, bellowing at his critics like the neighbourhood kids who won’t get off his damn lawn. Nigel Farage is on Question Time more often than David Dimbleby and seethes tirelessly (and tiresomely) at the “establishment” — the one that put him through private school, employed him as a City stockbroker, and now dances to his mad Brexit tune.
But no one does grievance like Alex Salmond. Behind the chuntering bonhomie, that practised belly chuckle, swirls a tempest of rage, resentment, and ruthlessness. He coulda had class. He coulda been a contender. He coulda been first minister of an independent Scotland. Instead, Salmond stalks Scottish political life, threatening to be relevant again. His media appearances are so frequent it’s not always clear where one ends and another begins. He even has his own phone-in programme on LBC radio. You might wonder if he stands in his familiar back garden every day waiting to hail down a passing Sky News outside broadcasting truck, just on the off-chance they want his take on politics, the performance of Ian Cathro, or who should replace Mary Berry on the Great British Bake-Off.
In politics, an ambitious woman is likely to find herself compared to Lady Macbeth or worse, Hillary Clinton. Salmond makes them both look like bashful ingenues. If he didn’t have ambition, all he’d be left with is conniving. After the collapse of John Swinney’s leadership in June 2004, Salmond was asked if he would seek the job again. He riffed on US Civil War general William T Sherman: ‘If nominated I’ll decline. If drafted I’ll defer. And if elected I’ll resign.’
Three weeks later, Salmond launched his leadership bid. He’s nothing if not a man of other people’s word.
A loudmouth with a radio programme is nothing new. Howard Stern does quite nicely, thank you very much. But talk radio screamers don’t travel in the circles Salmond does and don’t enjoy considerable residual influence over a government and its policies. His pronouncements on a second independence referendum are issued with dubious authority but reported breathlessly by news anchors. It sometimes seems as if he is still First Minister but has moved onto a freelance contract.
All of this begs some questions: What is Alex Salmond’s role today? How much power does he wield? And is the SNP still his party in all but name?
This week, the Scottish Government performed a significant U-turn on business rates. The levies on non-domestic properties last underwent revaluation in 2010 and the reassessment, carried out by an independent body for Scotland’s 32 local authorities, brought the news small businesses had feared. Their rates would leap, in some cases soar; there were firms that would in all likelihood go to the wall.
Entrepreneurs revolted. Hoteliers and the leisure industry in particular called for the Scottish Government to intervene. Glasgow Chamber of Commerce chief executive Stuart Patrick spoke of the injustice involved: ‘This is a broken tax which increasingly appears to lose touch with the ability to pay. The most concerned are clearly those who find their rates going up, irrespective of the business conditions in which they find themselves.’
These plaintive cries fell on deaf ears. The SNP’s finance secretary Derek Mackay said he was doing all he could, even though he had any number of the Nats’ beloved fiscal levers he could pull to avert a catastrophe in Scotland’s small and medium enterprise economy. The laddie was not for turning.
Little did he know, a stinging rebuke was on the way, one that would compel him to back down.
Word came from on high: ‘Of course there’s an argument against some of the rates rises and of course people feeling the hard edge of it and in the north-east there’s a very legitimate case… [I]n times like this we need our businesses to feel wanted, to be able to grow, to be able to survive and to be able to prosper in the future.’
Mr Mackay, well skelped and repentant, scurried back into the chamber at Holyrood on Tuesday to declare there had been a terrible mix-up. He had cleared out his junior saver account and would forgo his pocket money for a fortnight to pay for additional rates relief and take another 20,000 out of business rates altogether.
An embarrassing volte-face is nothing new in politics. What was remarkable about this one was that the reproach from on high came not from the current First Minister, who is nominally in charge of things, but from her predecessor.
Alex Salmond, First Minister from 2007 until his timely demise in 2014, no longer holds ministerial office. He is MP for Gordon, a Privy Counsellor, and speaks for the Nationalists on foreign affairs at Westminster. Had one of the other 53 Nationalist MPs broken ranks so sharply, they would surely not have inspired a humiliating, headline-grabbing climbdown by the Scottish Government. More to the point, they would currently be fastened to a rack in a dank basement of Bute House having electrodes attached to unpleasant places by an icily composed Peter Murrell.
How then does Salmond get away with it?
In part because of who he is. He is not simply a former party leader. Gordon Wilson is a pleasant and likeable man but he inspires nothing like the adoration Salmond attracts from Nationalists, young and of sturdier vintage. He led the SNP out of Egypt and into the Promised Land, delivering them their first election victory, and first taste of power, in the history of the movement. When you have spent 70 years wandering the political desert, wondering if you’ll ever get into government, the elation of victory has a powerful half-life. Ten years on, even those Nats who were always more Sillars than Salmond, admire him for carrying them so far and for the history he made.
He enjoys a power base in the SNP comparable to Margaret Thatcher’s after her defenestration as Tory leader — the grassroots are wild for him. Anyone in the leadership who might want to rein him in would have tens of thousands of members and activists to contend with. True, the SNP shares many similarities with a religion but it has never been tested whether adherents, faced with a schism, would bend knee to the old pope or the new.
That is why Salmond is indulged in his sometimes bizarre, often counterproductive behaviour. Like when he opened a branch of the discount supermarket Lidl as a dig at Asda for warning of price rises during the independence referendum. Or the time he skipped a prime ministerial statement on Syria to unveil a portrait of himself in Edinburgh. Or his frequent appearances on Russia Today, the propaganda outlet of Russian strongman Vladimir Putin, whom he praised in 2014 for ‘restor[ing] a substantial part of Russian pride and that must be a good thing’.
It’s why the ardent feminists of the nationalist movement had to be shamed into issuing even a mild rebuke when he brayed ‘behave yourself, woman’ at former government minister Anna Soubry in the Commons. It’s why his outburst earlier this week at the ‘Yoon media’ – ‘the element of the Scottish press who interpret any story, any issue, and makes it an attempt to either attack or discredit the SNP’ – drew no reproof from Nicola Sturgeon. (‘Yoon’, short for Unionist, is a term of abuse used on social media by the SNP’s abusive cybernats.) It’s why he thought nothing of jetting off to Iran, ably assisted by Nationalist MP Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh, for ‘trade talks’ in 2015. This was despite the regime in Tehran being described by the Obama administration as ‘an active state sponsor of terrorism’ and, perhaps more pertinently, Salmond’s authority to negotiate trade deals with Iran extending no further than ordering a chelo kabab from his local Persian takeaway.
These strange behaviours, and his undisguised broadside against the Scottish Government’s initial stance on business rates, might lead the more suspicious to wonder if he’s on manoeuvres. Nicola Sturgeon’s grip on power is still firm but not as iron-tight as it was mere months ago. The First Minister has antsy activists to placate, the hardliners who dominate her party’s membership rolls and don’t want a second independence referendum tomorrow so much as a unilateral declaration of independence yesterday. How much longer can she hold them at bay? At what point do the rock star rallies and the smiley selfies begin to lose their lustre? The impatient Mr Salmond would surely be more precipitous in the timing of a referendum do-over.
That’s the Devil but don’t forget the deep blue sea. Should Ms Sturgeon call Indyref 2 at her party’s conference in March — as is the rumour swirling around the corridors of the Scottish Parliament — the polls at present suggest she would lose and on much the same split as dashed the separatists’ dreams in 2014. It’s difficult to imagine circumstances in which she could remain in post after a second trouncing, so off she’d be sent on her merry way. The throne vacated, a Salmond-shaped opening would emerge.
What conceivable alternatives are there? Deputy first minister John Swinney, of course. Westminster leader Angus Robertson, perhaps. Beyond that the Nats are keenly lacking in leadership talent. Hapless health secretary Shona Robison would first have to emerge from the witness protection programme she’s been put in to avoid tough questions about the hash she is making of the health service. After the business rates debacle, the shine has started to come off golden boy Derek Mackay. And justice secretary Michael Matheson would struggle to pick himself out of a police line-up. Salmond would be extraordinarily well placed.
Could it really happen? Could he be the once and future king?
It should be remembered that in his first term, the minority administration from 2007 to 2011, Salmond was a first minister of rare quality. No offence to the late Donald Dewar, the decent Jack McConnell, or that other guy, but Labour’s first ministers were a modest lot, what little ambition they had limited to the fortunes of the Labour Party rather than the country. Salmond got it. Salmond knew Scots needed a government — not a diddy “executive” — that inspired pride and confidence with its broad-horizons vision for the country.
Few politicians elevate their office, and few so dramatically, but Salmond is one of them. When historians come to write of his era, independence will of course dominate but a chapter or two will be given over to how he (almost single-handedly) transformed the role of first minister from regional functionary to national statesman. Sure, he took Labour’s devolution settlement and fashioned a springboard for separation but even the most ardent Unionist must admit he brought, in the early years at least, a certain gravitas to the office.
Alas, hamartia — the fatal flaw that brings about the downfall of tragic heroes. The Prince of Denmark had his indecisiveness, the King of Thebes his hubris. The Member for Gordon is cursed by ego, doubly cursed because his talents merit a little arrogance but he is unable to keep it in check. That is what would stand in the way of Eck: The Sequel. His opponents are no longer as intimidated by him and the public at large not quite as enamoured as they once were. The prospect of his return to Bute House would strike terror into the hearts of no one and tedium into the hearts of many.
Not only has the charm gone, it’s been replaced by a sneer that is off-putting to those of no fixed political abode. Politics isn’t just about what you want to say; it’s about convincing the voters to give you a fair hearing. There is large section of the Scottish electorate, many but by no means all of them women, who switch off when Salmond’s name comes up. Here’s an experiment: Ask five friends at random to say the first word that comes to mind about Salmond. I guarantee the most common responses will be: “Arrogant.” “Cocky.” “Bigmouth.” These qualities appeal to card-carrying Nats in the same way that Donald Trump’s haranguing of journalists and opponents delights his basket of deplorables. But what of the vast middle ground, where most of the country is pitched? It’s entirely possible that Nicola Sturgeon could win Indyref 2 but could the Salmond National Party? In 2015, the SNP helped the Tories to a majority by playing up to their ‘Vote Labour, Get SNP’ message. That tactic might come back to haunt them if Unionists frame Indyref 2 as a question of ‘Vote Nic, get Eck’.
‘Would you buy a used car from this man?’ Richard Nixon’s opponents once asked. When it comes to Alex Salmond, a more apposite question arises: ‘Would you buy a new country from this man?’
There is one last remaining royal sinecure open to Salmond. As a doughty former guardian of the nation, one who has done his bit and earned his rest, he could draw on the example — and the dignity — of our late, great Queen Mother. Her Majesty recognised her reign was over and never sought to rob her daughter of the spotlight, settling for a quieter life, a good nip of whisky, and offering wise counsel when it was needed. Such an emeritus role would be more fitting for Salmond than clowning around trying to pretend he is a trade negotiator or a media critic. He could ease himself into retirement, perhaps opening the odd garden centre or judging the jam-making contest at this village fete or that. Anything but pining for another shot of the crown.
Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Contact Stephen at firstname.lastname@example.org.