Alex Salmond: Cock of the North Plots His Next Move

It is hard to imagine that the 2011 Scottish Parliament elections were fought in a country which once had a reputation for being a measured and highly Presbyterian place. Intent on independence, the trans-class Scottish National party (SNP) won resounding endorsement from a business community once renounced for its caution. The serious and popular ends of the press went strongly for a party with such a news-making leader or else relapsed into incoherence (like the Mail and the Express). A gallery of media personalities anointed Alex Salmond.

His eloquence and informality are reminiscent of Ronald Reagan on a good day. Politicians with his easy charisma must have been quite common in Europe but he seems to be the last of the breed. Civil Society has long been eroding in Scotland and most of its five million inhabitants soak up their political information and form their opinions from the media over which the SNP has established mastery. But even as it basks in the triumph of an absolute majority, the party is policy- lite. There is no SNP policy that has the grip on the popular imagination as the welfare state had in Labour’s heyday. Independence, the SNP’s big idea , is one that most voters still recoil from.
Labour voters deserted the fold for a party with a manifesto uncannily similar to that of the party led by the stoical but unlucky Iain Gray. The electorate were mostly content with the SNP’s breezy and populist style and the easy authority and informality of its leader. It bear repeating that there are few other parties in the democratic west now led by someone with Salmond’s combination of political skills.
The opposition’s determination to block the SNP from passing any substantial legislation played into Salmond’s hands as the last thing he desired was to get bogged down in administering devolution. But surely he was unable to believe his luck that both Labour and the Liberal Democrats (in government together from 1999 to 2007), would have such a blasé approach to the SNP. In 2007, it was widely presumed that luck would run out for the protest movement suddenly catapulted to office; Salmond’s assuredness would turn into damaging hubris and the party would reveal itself to be an amateurish bunch of fanatics. But the 2009 release of Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, the Libyan convicted for the 19888 Lockerbie bombing, was the only major gaffe and the SNP languished in the polls for over a year afterwards.

Labour and the Lib Dems failed to see that they were up against a formidable opponent who was placing in jeopardy the central role they had grown used to in Scottish politics. Both parties fought insipid campaigns though it is easy to dump on Iain Gray and Tavish Scott who are serviceable leaders in normal times.

When Nick Clegg announced the Lib-Con government, his Scottish lieutenants do not appear to have thought ahead to consider its impact on the party’s fortunes in these elections. In Scotland, the Tories had been the historic rivals of the Liberals  to a greater extent than in England and memories of the depredations of English Tories in the Thatcher era still resonated with the Lib Dems natural electorate. The outcome has been the loss, perhaps for many years to come of two regional heartlands, the Scottish Borders and the North-east where the Lib Dems used to be well-ahead of the SNP.

Similarly, Labour made no effort to rejuvenate its parliamentary ranks, liberate itself from the London party’s apron strings, take on Salmond where he has over-reached himself, and devise a fresh set of policies showing how ordinary citizens could benefit from devolution. Today, nearly half its urban strongholds from Ayrshire to Fife have been stormed by the SNP. The fact that there are Labour rotten boroughs where an alternation in representation has occurred for the first time in several generations can only be progress. But nobody should claim that the political class in Scotland has reconnected with the people. No more than 50% of Scots voted and it was as low as 36% in at least one seat.

Mr Salmond is a politician of uncommon talents but he leads a still small party, more representative it is true of society as a whole than its rivals are, but it is one that treats him uncritically as a regal figure. As one SNP politician remarked on the BBC on Friday, if Salmond ordered all his lieutenants to arrive in their pyjamas they would dutifully oblige.
Now with an outright majority, it will be unable to evade the heavy lifting in policy terms that it side-stepped in its first term. Facing a massive round of cuts, controversial decisions will need to be taken on where these fall in relation to education, local services and health, ones that are bound to cause uproar. This makes it easy to assume that the SNP will be pre-occupied and soon tamed by the responsibilities of office, and the sheen will fade from it.

I think there is every likelihood that it will sweep past its opponents in the next Westminster elections which might be held quite soon. The crisis of the other parties is so absolute that they are unlikely to mobilise even against a less popular SNP and voters will always have the option of abstaining. For the Lib Dems the position is grim and they face the real danger of total eclipse having run close to the SNP in past elections. Labour have only a slim chance of recovery. The longstanding MSP Ken McIntosh actually hung on by gaining a seat that should have gone Tory and he has the self-belief and intellectual stamina to take on the SNP even over their cherished identity issues. Graeme Pearson, an ex-police chief who was sideline by civil-servants because they did not like his approach to tackling the growing scourge of organized crime in Scotland, will also be a major figure in the parliament.

Alex Salmond is more self-confident and in a stronger position domestically than any of the Westminster –based leaders with whom he will negotiate over the future of Scotland. It is very likely that Scotland will move  close to independence in the next few years. Indeed, unless an opposition takes shape to confront the SNP, it may merely become a question of how the break occurs. Will it be a regular and pragmatic separation or a messy and ill-tempered one in which England gives a decisive shove to the Scots if they are slow to make up their minds about their political destiny.

 Whatever the timetable, the size of the SNP’s majority means that Salmond has been given the rare opportunity to influence the destiny of his country. He has to decide whether he wants to be a moderniser or reformer now or else someone who believes that change of this magnitude must await the promised land of independence. If he opts  to confront some of the critical weaknesses of state and society in Scotland now, it could strengthen rather than diminish the prospects of a post-British future. A lot of Scots have discarded their fatalism and if a remarkable leader with impressive motivational skills, does the unexpected which is seek to change the face of Scotland in his own lifetime, the rewards  would eclipse those acquired last Thursday.

  • Clanky

    For my money the SNP’s great show in the Scottish parliament elections was more a resounding approval for the job that they have done leading the Scottish government within the existing framework than any great cry for an independent Scotland.

    I think that when a referendum inevitably takes place there will be a quite few SNP voters who, while happy with the increased independence that Scotland has under the present system will hold back from severing ties completely.

    More importantly, where would an independent Scotland leave Ulster unionism, much of the provinces ties to the union are traditionally through Scotland rather than England and indeed there is much more shared heritage with the Scots than the English, if Scotland were to secede from the union where would that leave both the parties and the unionist vote? With an ever increasing catholic / nationalist population the spectre of a referendum on a United Ireland is growing ever closer for unionists, if the question was not about splitting ties with the UK as a whole, but rather splitting ties with England, could some parts of the protestant community be persuaded to jump into bed with the Republic.

    That is of course if the south would have us!

  • otto

    The question unionists will need to answer is what does the subordination of Scotland to Westminster bring Scotland that neighbourly relations in the EU wouldn’t. Plenty of people live in Malmo and commute across the Oresund to Copenhagen but no-one calls for the union of Sweden and Denmark.

    The Tories will give the SNP plenty of moments over the next four years when people will ask whether the preoccupations of London’s bankers (ie Tory financiers) should be those of the Scottish people.

    Salmond’s job is to give a little extra momentum to the UK constitution’s natural instability and to pick his moment. The AV referendum shows that rushing these things isn’t a good idea.

  • Tom Gallagher

    Clanky,
    The repercussions for Scotland of 30 years of intense civil conflict only a few miles across the North channel was remarkably slight; I would bet that the restoration of Scottish independence would not destabilise Northern Ireland’s role within the UK. Just what are the the remaining organic and institutional links between these two parts of the UK? I can only see increasingly distant historical associations.
    The prostrate condition of the Republic Ireland’s econony and the glaring defects in its public life and many of its institutions surely help to reinforce NI’s role in the UK whatever goes on in Scotland.

  • Clanky

    “The prostrate condition of the Republic Ireland’s econony and the glaring defects in its public life and many of its institutions surely help to reinforce NI’s role in the UK whatever goes on in Scotland.”

    Absolutely, but I was thinking more of a point in the future where there was a large enough nationalist community to warrant a referendum, by which time the republic could have pulled itself out of the mess in which it presently finds itself. As you rightly point out, in it’s present condition I think even a few nationalists would baulk at the idea of union with Dublin.

    As for an independent Scotland destabilising NI’s role within the UK I was thinking more of it making unionists reflect on that role rather than actually making any real difference to the role.

    The fact is that pure demographics are going to mean that at some point in the future there will be a majority of catholics (and one would assume nationalsits, although that is by no means certain) and unionists are going to need to consider there response to a referendum where 51% of the population of six counties vote for a united Ireland)

    Anyway, back to Scotland, as I said I don’t think that the SNPs success in the election is necessarily a mandate for independence, although I think the results of what is an almost inevitable referendum will be very interesting.

  • dodrade

    Scottish independence is like a united Ireland or an Australian Republic, something we keep being told is inevitable, but like Godot, never turns up.

    Alex Salmond is to Scotland what Rene Levesque was to Quebec, a talented and popular figure who many non-nationalists are happy to see in power, but who nevertheless cannot persuade them to make the break. And if it couldn’t be done in Quebec, where the Sovereigntist cause has gone from the brink of victory to a UUP-like slump in 16 years, I cannot see how it can be done in Scotland, where differences from the English are much less pronounced.

    The fact that even at it’s current zenith the SNP is putting a referendum off until 2014 at earliest shows that it is only excitable english journalists who are really interested in Scottish independence.

  • GuyBarry

    “I would bet that the restoration of Scottish independence would not destabilise Northern Ireland’s role within the UK.”

    I’m English but I’ve always had an interest in this matter.

    If Scotland became independent there would no longer be a UK – at least not in any sense that I understand it. The Kingdom of Great Britain was formed in 1707 out of the union of the kingdoms of England (including Wales) and Scotland. The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland was formed in 1801, subsequently becoming the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland after the creation of the Irish Free State in 1922.

    If Scotland became independent the British state would cease to exist. The unionists of Northern Ireland like to assert their British identity, but I’ve never heard any of them claiming to be English or Welsh. Northern Ireland has never been in a political union with England or Wales, only with Great Britain. Why is it assumed that it would join a union with England and Wales if Scotland became independent?

  • Tom Gallagher

    Dodrade,
    It is possible to argue that the SNP’s results on 5 May is the equivalent of a huge pools win for someone who has led a very straitened existence until now. The Nats now have the power to do many of the things they only dreamt of but the expectations others have iof them are immense. It would have been much better if they had clobbered the other parties but still been outnumbered by them; it would have given them an alibi for not delivering effective government, one which they no longer have.

  • Tom Gallagher

    Clanky,
    thanks for additional observations. I don’t think Catholics are uniform in their constitutional aspirations. if there are further gestures like Peter Robinson’s remarkable dedication to the murdered PSNI constable Ronan Kerr today, then I think more catholics may revise their attitude towards Northern Ireland. After all, which part of Ireland currently has more practical self-determination over its own affairs? – the distressed European way station with HQ in Dublin or the six counties of Northern Ireland whose views comnmand more respect in London than the 26 county statelet does in either Brussels, Frankfurt, or now we learn Washington DC.Should Obama still be welcome in Ireland after the way his Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner tightened the finnacial noose around Ireland during the fateful negotiations with the ECB, EU and IMF last November?

  • jonno99

    I don’t see the latest SNP electoral victory in Scotland as a vote for independence. It’s just one more step that may eventually lead to Scotland breaking from the union.

    The implications of such a split on the remaining members of the UK are profound. It’s bound to have major political ramifications for the NI state and its constitutional position. The British state will in effect cease to exist. Is there any provision for the break up of the UK in the GFA? The British/Irish Council of the Isles perhaps? A Scandinavian Nordic Council arrangement?

    It’s likely a referendum will take place before 2015. I’d be surprised if Scotland votes for indepedence. It depends on how the SNP can exploit the difficulties faced by the UK coalition govt. Four years may be a long tme in politics. Interesting times.

  • Tom Gallagher

    GuyBarry,
    In terms of constitutional law, you are almost certainly correct in what you assert. But a post-Scottish state would not be ‘reduced’ to England given the existence of Wales and Northern Ireland. What is to prevent a new law stating that these 3 components make up a revamped United Kingdom?
    I find it hard to see Scotland having any gravitational pull over Northern Ireland. Edinburgh, a capital which has failed at enormous cost in the last 4 years to build a small tram system, does not have the appeal of London (and perhaps most Scots would also agree with such a comment).
    An independent Scotland is likely to be introspective and run from the east; since the Glaswegians would be seen as a liability for such a regime, can you imagine the welcome carpet being extended for post-conflict Northern Ireland?

  • GuyBarry

    Well I certainly don’t see any prospect of the creation of a state consisting exclusively of Scotland and Northern Ireland. If Scotland became independent it could hardly be expected to take Northern Ireland with it.

    And yet I don’t see any political support for a state consisting of England, Wales and Northern Ireland. What exactly would bind this state together? The Unionists would be robbed of their British identity and symbols like the Union flag. Would they really wish to pledge allegiance to an English/Welsh state with which they have no traditional ties? Even if the new state was referred to as “the United Kingdom” (which would be a misnomer in my view), it wouldn’t be “united” in the sense that I currently understand.

    It doesn’t make sense geographically either. The main surface routes between England and Northern Ireland are via Scotland. Would we really want two parts of one state separated by a foreign country?

  • Tom Gallagher

    For much if not all of the time, a high-level of pragmatism and adaptation has characterised the peoples of these islands in their political arrangements choices. A non-Scottish union is unlikely to be deterred by the absence of a convenient surface route between Belfast and the English south .And what if the catacyclymic choices made by a brainless Irish elite so beggar the Dublin ruled state that a new generation emerges with absolutely no hang-ups about embracing Arthur Griffith’s Dual Monarchy a century on?

  • I have in my possession an early pamphlet by Alex Salmond written in 1979 entitled “Och ma stroogle”. My bet is that he’ll invade England.

  • HeinzGuderian

    yes,but WHAT IF………………

    Biggest lot of talk about nothing !!

    Scots in favour of independence…..30% !!

    Northern Irish in favour of a ui…………..20% !!

    English in favour of becoming a republic………..18% !!

    Welsh in favour of more sheep in the valleys…….100% !!

    Sorry for inserting some harsh reality into the discussion………….but there ya go….( or in Scotland’s case…..NOT ) 😉

  • JR

    Any chance of posting a reference to any of those stats Heinz?

    Daily telegraph poll from 2006,
    Question should Scotland become an Independent Country?

    In England 59% approve, 28% disapprove.
    In Scotland 52% approve 35% disapprove.

    Belfast telegraph poll in 2010,
    Would you vote for a united Ireland Yes 36% No 55%

  • Michael Gillespie

    Ireland should follow Scotland’s constitutional Path.

    In a T.V. interview Alex Salmond stated categorically that he envisaged an independent Scotland with the Crown as head of state like those other independent nations in the modern world that have the Crown as head of state. In this Alex Salmond is stating clearly that he is a constitutional nationalist not a Republican. With that distinction a suggested referendum for Scotland’s independence should take the following form: –

    Do you wish Scotland to be a sovereign independent nation with
    (a) The Scotland Constitution Act as its constitution making the Crown Scotland’s head of state?
    (b) A Republican Constitution with a president as head of state?

    For a nation to be a nation it must have an agreed constitution. The Irish have been in conflict over the constitution for centuries. In a referendum for all Ireland identical to the suggested Scotland’s referendum Ireland should replace Scotland and The National Government of Ireland Act should replace the Scotland Constitution Act. The referendum should be counted separately in the 6 and 26 counties. The Queen’s state visit to the Republic is a step in the right direction but to unite and stabilise Ireland an agreed constitution will require the acceptance of a reformed elected Crown as head of state in an all Ireland within a Federal Kingdom. There is more on a Federal Kingdom at http://www.authorhouse.co.uk by typing my name into search.

    Michael Gillespie Federal Unionist-Early Sinn Fein Derry

  • Dewi

    Michael – perhaps there should be a third option? Like No? Or do you think them’s the only two choices?