He’s the politician of the moment. Every media organisation in the world will descend on Edinburgh in the early hours of Friday morning to listen to his reaction, once the votes are counted in the Scottish independence referendum. But what do we really know about Alex Salmond, or ‘Big ’Eck’ as he is known North of the Border? Is he a force for good or a divisive figure responsible for tearing apart the United Kingdom?
The first thing worth noting about Alex Salmond is that he has always taken a gradualist view of Scottish independence. In the late 1980s, Scottish nationalism was going nowhere, following the inconclusive result of the devolution referendum in 1979. The SNP had boycotted the Scottish Constitutional Convention, meaning that plans were drawn up for the Scottish Parliament without the SNP having a say. When he first became leader of the SNP in 1990 Salmond called a halt to his Party’s over-ambitious dreams of independence. He swallowed his pride, and backed the ‘Yes, Yes’ campaign in the 1997 referendum.
Ever since then, Salmond’s central strategy has been to persuade Scots to take baby steps to independence. Realising his compatriots’ basic lack of self-confidence (a national trait), he offered reassurance first with ‘Independence within Europe’, and when the Euro floundered, a watered down version of independence that involves keeping the Queen, the pound and staying in NATO. So, if Salmond pulls off a ‘Yes’ vote on Thursday, he will do so only because he has persuaded Scots that they aren’t voting for full independence.
The second significant feature of Salmond’s political rise has been his success in tweaking London’s tail. Whether he was complaining about ‘Tory Blair’s’ invasion of Iraq in 2003 or the formation of the ‘Tweedledum-Tweedledee Con-Dem Coalition’ at Westminster in 2010, Salmond has made a career of blaming everything on ‘London’. One of the most depressing features of the independence campaign has been the ease to which a large minority of Scottish voters swallow whole Salmond’s constant refrain about alleged bullying from ‘Team Westminster’ even when presented with hard logic and reasoned argument.
Salmond has been able to succeed against a backdrop of the demise of Labour’s dominance in Scotland. Ever since the tragic death of Donald Dewar in October 2000, Scottish Labour has elected sub-standard leaders (five in just fourteen years). It’s no wonder that Salmond has appeared as a political giant when set against the pygmies of Scottish Labour. And it’s no coincidence that two senior Westminster politicians – Alistair Darling, and belatedly Gordon Brown – have had to be drafted in to sell the case for preserving the Union.
Meanwhile, Salmond has almost completed the transition from bar-room brawler to Scottish statesman. His landslide victory in the 2011 Scottish Parliamentary elections was achieved because he took an inclusive approach to nationalism, attracting all sections of Scottish society with his appeal to stand up for their interests. But note the use of the word ‘almost’. There are still occasions when if cornered, Salmond can turn nasty, as last week when engaging in a shouting match against the massed ranks of the Treasury, the banks and the BBC.
Nevertheless, behind the occasional pugilism, Salmond’s pragmatism is worthy of note. Were he to win on Thursday, he would not seek to frighten the international money markets. While Salmond takes a distinctively left-of-centre approach to the NHS and education, his business-friendly approach is evidenced by the strong support he enjoys amongst small and medium-sized Scottish companies in the ‘Business for Scotland’ umbrella group. Lowering corporation tax North of the Border to attract inward investment would be one of Salmond’s early priorities in an independent Scotland.
Any yet, in his seven years as Scotland’s First Minister, Salmond has been able to exercise all of the power with none of the responsibility. Money is spent in Scotland on behalf of the UK taxpayer, but isn’t raised locally. Win or lose, that will change after Thursday. All the three main Unionist parties are committed to giving the Scottish Parliament further tax-raising powers. Such a policy will prove the undoing of Salmond. He will have no-one else to blame.
Moreover, under so called ‘Devo Max’ there may be room for a right-wing party in Scotland (perhaps not called the Conservatives) would call on the Scottish Parliament to spend less, not more. Hundreds of thousands of Scots would vote for such a party if the negative association with the largely English Conservatives were removed.
But that is for another day. What we really need to know is whether to trust Salmond. The jury is out on that one. I understand that the Scottish First Minister is a keen gambler, enjoying more than an occasional flutter on the horses. What Scots need to ask themselves on Thursday is should they be gambling for such high stakes as the possible break-up of the United Kingdom?