Euan McColm: Salmond both a formidable asset and the greatest challenge to Yes cause
AS CALLS from political spin doctors go, it was unique. Where usually these whispering messengers tell stories of the brilliance of their owners, this was an entirely different conversation.
Here was a practitioner of the dark political arts, enthusiastically selling a candidate whilst employing the most relentlessly negative language. The politician in question was arrogant, cocky, sometimes careless, and frequently given to ignoring the advice of others, admitted the spinner. Yes, he had a temper too. A bad one. But he’d changed. And, not only but also, he was going to be the next First Minister of Scotland.
It was July 2004 and Alex Salmond had – despite a recent and unequivocal denial of any interest in returning to the post he’d departed four years before – announced his candidacy to replace John Swinney as leader of the SNP. A crucial part of this process was for his advisers to address a welter of negative connotations around the man. In those days, Salmond was not father of the nation material. He was a failure. In political circles, his flaws – especially that short temper and tendency to rely on swagger rather than detail – were widely discussed.
If he was to successfully return to frontline Scottish politics, it was important for a fresh narrative to begin: the often difficult Salmond was a man renewed, strengthened by recognising and conquering his weaknesses.
I remembered those briefings last week as the First Minister flailed about, attempting to defend his conduct over the issue of legal advice on an independent Scotland’s membership of the European Union. After telling Andrew Neil during a BBC interview that he had sought advice from Scottish Government law officers on the matter, and then presiding over a costly attempt to keep any details of this secret, Salmond – through a statement to parliament by his deputy Nicola Sturgeon – admitted no such legal advice existed.
Last week the First Minister may have faced questions about the technicalities of EU membership. Now he faces legitimate questions about competence and standards. Yes, Salmond has referred himself for investigation under the ministerial code. But as that rulebook says nothing about ministers having to tell Andrew Neil the truth on the telly, his exoneration of wrongdoing is fairly predictable. That investigation is a big, distracting, shiny thing and nothing more. Why is Salmond – and by association the entire YesScotland campaign – in this mess? That arrogance and swagger – identified and suppressed by those closest to him for years – is at the root.
Alex Salmond cannot admit to personal flaws. The First Minister could have made clear months ago that his interview with Neil gave a misleading impression. Instead, he brazened it out until Nicola Sturgeon – loyally, though I suspect unhappily – had no choice but to appear in the Holyrood chamber and then the TV studios to explain the truth.
Salmond’s arrogance is the problematic flip-side to his flashes of rhetorical brilliance and sharp political instincts. Did Alex Salmond lie about whether legal advice had been obtained when asked by Andrew Neil? No, I doubt it. Did he bluster through, unsure of detail and presenting guesswork and supposition as fact? I’m certain of it. And the danger for the “yes” campaign is that he’ll do it again.
The SNP may not be the sole players in YesScotland, but they are by far the largest and – by default – Salmond is the figurehead of the campaign. The First Minister must show us a blueprint for how honest, open and energetic government would operate in an independent Scotland. Instead, we’ve witnessed an unpalatable mix of ineptitude, sophistry and now – with the pointless “ministerial probe” – club-circuit magician diversion.
Salmond has exuded confidence since becoming First Minister by, yes, being a confident man, but also because he’s carefully absented himself from tricky political debate. When issues such as gay marriage or the Lockerbie bomber brought controversy to his door, underlings would answer. This allowed him to tell a broader pro-independence story, singing to Scots a song of our shared compassion. The referendum campaign means Salmond must necessarily engage on complex and detailed matters, up close.
He may have glided through political life without touching the edges for five years, but now he’s back in the game. And look what’s happened...
Friends of the First Minister quite rightly point to his many positives. They recognise the flaws, but his record of recent years is testament to his political gifts. But I keep thinking back to those odd phone calls in 2004. Spin doctors do not, as a rule, go out of their way to point out problems, unless the problem affects someone else or is so visible that ignoring it would be dangerous.
Salmond is a great politician – made greater, perhaps, in perception, by the fact he’s the last high-profile member of a peer group that included Donald Dewar, John Smith, and Robin Cook – but he’s not perfect. He’s human, with flaws.
For pro-UK campaigners, the uneasy relationship between Salmond, an attack politician, and the touchy-feely all-in-it-together YesScotland campaign would appear to present a fault-line. Rows that bring out the confrontational best in Salmond the fighter are a turn-off to a campaign that wants to sell the message “we’re better than politicians”.
As for the First Minister, those same people who saw his flaws clearly in 2004 have work to do. He needs to be better briefed, clearer on detail and – yes – willing to concede at times that some answers might only emerge post-independence.
Last week, we saw the SNP leader at his bluff and blustering worst. It was a reminder of one of the greatest threats to the “yes” campaign: Alex Salmond, the statesman, being fatally undermined by Alex Salmond, the man. «
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