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.

Tom Gallagher taught politics – related subjects at Bradford University’s the Department of Peace Studies from 1980 to 2011, specialising on identity conflicts in Europe and ways of managing them. He has written widely on the Balkans as well as several books on Scotland.

He is currently researching civil wars and averted conflicts in Western Europe and North America and what they reveal about the growing internal cleavages in England and their possible outcome.