Alex Salmond biography: 'He had a highly developed political philosophy even at the age of 19'
Alex Salmond's best friend at St Andrews University was an Englishman called Peter Brunskill. He recalls the day in September 1974 when he first encountered Salmond. "I was sitting in my room one evening when there was a knock on the door and it was Alex. Sartorially he was quite scruffy and wore a denim jacket and cap with an SNP badge on it.
He was very skinny then despite putting away lots of food. He sat there and talked to me for about two-and-a-half hours and a lot of it went way over my head, because this was a guy with a highly developed political philosophy even at the age of 19.
"He spoke about his influences, all left-wing radicals, then he spoke about the St Andrews FSN (Federation of Student Nationalists], which he said had been controlled by a right-wing group, so he and some mates had got some people elected and staged a coup. Thereafter a bunch of us followed the Salmond whip, but we were happy to do so. He was the best sort of evangelist; he made you feel happy to be helping out."
Salmond's friendship with the Burnley-born Brunskill is interesting. "One thing that emerged over the few years we were at university was that I never once detected a trace of anti-Englishness in him, which was unusual," recalled Brunskill. "We used to go along to (SNP] meetings where I was regarded with suspicion for being English, but Alex always accepted my explanation for why I was involved." In Peter Brunskill, Salmond spotted the potential for winning converts from the unlikeliest quarters.
One indulgence in his student days was a board game called Diplomacy, also a favourite of Henry Kissinger and John F Kennedy, which he sometimes stayed up all night playing. Based upon a geopolitical map of Europe, Diplomacy required strategy and negotiation as well as bluff and backstabbing, so was good training for a future politician. Dave Smith, a Labour activist, also remembers playing 'postal Diplomacy' with Salmond, in which participants would record their moves and comments on slips of paper later typed up as a 'press' by whoever was in charge. In these, Salmond displayed his sense of humour and fondness for Churchillian quotes. "If I was asked to choose between Eurpoe (sic] and the sea, I would choose the sea", he wrote on one slip.
Another obsession was pinball, which Salmond would often play throughout the night at David Russell Hall. "We all had our own shots," recalled Peter Brunskill. "Alex didn't have a shot, but he did have something called the 'Salmond bum-up' in which his first ball would knock down everything, producing the biggest score possible.
"At that point, just when he had everything, he would want that little bit more; tilt the machine and then lose the game. I mention that because that's Alex all over. He just had this idea that there was no limit to what he could do.I was the same as him, brought up in a council house and from a modest background, but while I reckoned I'd done pretty well to get into St Andrews, while the rest of us were pleased with position 'A', Alex was already thinking about position 'C'. It wasn't just ambition; he had this feeling that the whole world was out there and that he could do what he wanted. This was really inspiring stuff and that's how he persuaded people to follow him."
The same trait manifested itself in Salmond's approach to Bridge, a card game that, like politics, required a good short-term memory and strong tactical skills. Brunskill, his bridge partner, remembered him playing Bridge "like he played pinball, always tried to go for more than his cards really warranted, and often succeeded. This meant we sometimes won games when we shouldn't have done, though occasionally we went down so spectacularly that we ended up buying the pies at 6am. As with everything in life he calculated the odds in his head without apparent effort."
There were, of course, girlfriends. One was Marion Macdonald, the daughter of a local SNP activist called Dennis Macdonald (whom Salmond tried very hard to get elected to North East Fife District Council at a May 1976 by-election]. She was described invariably as "a complete doll" and "absolutely gorgeous".
A notable political contemporary was Michael Forsyth, later to be the Tories' Secretary of State for Scotland when Salmond was SNP leader. Following one of their clashes in the university debating chamber, Forsyth invited Salmond and Brunskill to his 21st birthday party. This, recalled Brunskill, was "an excellent evening". "He was drinking G&T which Alex questioned, getting the reply that he was learning to like it as it was politically a good thing for a Young Conservative to drink. Forsyth then asked what we were drinking; we had to admit it was Drambuie."
A contemporary remembered accompanying Salmond to an SNP meeting in 1977: "He was in his early 20s but he was already a leader. The meeting was full of wild ideas and unrealistic people. Alex stood out because he was realistic and he could speak. People twice his age loved him for what they thought he could do. He was capable of sounding like a firebrand, hell bent on immediate independence and nothing less, but his mind was already in control of his emotions."
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