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George Kerevan: Is Alex Salmond’s heir apparent?

Alistair Darling and Alex Salmond debated independence again on Monday. Picture: PA

Alistair Darling and Alex Salmond debated independence again on Monday. Picture: PA

  • by George Kerevan
 

If No triumphs next month, the SNP is likely to get a new leader – but who will it be? wonders George Kerevan

ALEX Salmond returned to ebullient form on Monday night, “winning” the second televised debate with Alistair Darling hands down. That would not be news had the First Minister performed better during the earlier round, when Darling’s steady (if monotonously repetitious) fire seemed to non-plus the First Minister. It was like the captain of a great battleship being perplexed by the return fire from some pesky enemy frigate.

Politically, the outcome of Monday’s debate will only prove significant if it stirs the Yes campaign troops for the final few weeks of door-knocking in what has been a staggeringly long campaign. The period between now and the actual referendum on 18 September is the same length as any normal Westminster general election. And you thought they were interminable.

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If Salmond’s Monday night performance both energises Yes activists and convinces the partisan UK media he is still in the game (which seems to be happening), then the outcome on 18 September will be wide open, despite the long stasis in the opinion polls. The No case hinges on making voters believe the risks involved with independence are too great, especially regarding currency. There is no doubt this negative line has denied the Yes side all-important momentum. But when push comes to shove, Salmond is the one politician in Britain with the tactical astuteness and sense of timing to pull political rabbits out of hats.

His decision to shift the emphasis of the Yes campaign on to the future of the NHS could prove decisive. Neither Labour nor the Conservatives can balance the UK books in the future unless they scrap their commitment to protecting the NHS from cuts. That automatically reduces the Scottish Government’s Treasury grant. Not that the Tories care as they are already putting large swathes of the English NHS out to private tender, which will eventually leave the Scottish health service at the financial mercy of new medical monopolies.

I’ve known Salmond and Darling personally for more than 30 years. Darling is the quintessential company chief financial officer: cautious, pragmatic, thorough and very dry. It is not that Darling lacks imagination, it is rather that he is one of nature’s conservatives (which explains his allegiance to Scottish Labour). What is more fascinating is that other Labour stalwarts from Darling’s time as an Edinburgh councillor have switched to the Yes camp, citing the party’s failure to fight for social justice. John Mulvey, the able Labour leader of Lothian Regional Council in Darling’s day, is now a Yes supporter.

Salmond, on the other hand, is a born chief executive: entrepreneurial; a calculated risk-taker (which is surely what business is all about if you want to grow market share and make profits); a good delegator; above all, a man who has vision and the charisma to get others to follow. That doesn’t mean he is necessarily likeable, but politicians who worry about being liked rarely get things done.

Alex Salmond will be 60 in December, which is still youngish for a politician provided they stay fit. If there is a Yes win, he will still be below retirement age when Scotland elects its first independent government circa 2016, and only 66 when it finishes its historic, inaugural first term. The only political shock would be if Salmond declined to lead the new nation’s first administration. More to the point, the need for continuity and decisive leadership at a critical time would virtually dictate that Salmond is Scotland’s first prime minister.

But what happens to Salmond if there is a No vote? No sensible person in either constitutional camp really expects the Scottish question to disappear. The Unionist parties are offering a menu of more powers to the Scottish Parliament.

However, the current best outcome of next year’s Westminster election is a hung parliament, which makes the realisation of any kind of devo-max highly uncertain. Even if Holyrood gets more powers over finance and the economy, the very act of granting them will likely cause a political backlash in England and precipitate a further constitutional crisis.

In this fraught situation, defending Scottish interests would require strong leadership, tactical and strategic. Salmond is made for such times. But I reckon he is much more likely to shoulder the responsibility for a No vote and hand over the reins of power to Nicola Sturgeon, whom he has groomed for the succession for a decade. There is a general consensus among friends and foes alike that Sturgeon has grown in stature and competence during the long independence campaign. Also, her stint in the difficult job as health secretary showed she is more than competent as an administrator.

Of course, politics is a game of thrones and there are other SNP politicians ambitious for the top job. If there is a Yes vote, you can expect a crowded field vying to replace Salmond as Nationalist leader circa 2020. By then, the ideological tensions between Left and Right in the party might result in the choice being made on policy as much as personality. Sturgeon is a staunch social democrat but her views on economic policy have still to be tested under fire. If we are still (half-way) inside the Union, Sturgeon would prove a very competent – and probably popular – First Minister. But what if we find ourselves in a constitutional and economic bear garden, as UK politics turn sour? The Tory government is using the Bank of England to print money to pay the public sector bills. Interest rates have been kept artificially low – that won’t last much beyond the referendum. Scotland could prove a handy financial scapegoat.

In which case, independence will not go away as an issue. But next time around the moderate SNP could face strong electoral competition on the nationalist hard left, as has happened in Catalonia. Salmond’s foremost skill has been his ability to turn the normally factious nationalist movement into a united and disciplined political machine. Sturgeon’s future could depend on her being able to replicate that ability.

 

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