Alex Massie: The legacy of Alex Salmond

Alex Salmond in front of regalia belonging to the statue of George III. Picture: Jane Barlow
Alex Salmond in front of regalia belonging to the statue of George III. Picture: Jane Barlow
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ALEX SALMOND’S place in history is assured – for turning Scottish independence from an impossible dream into a legitimate aspiration, writes Alex Massie.

What a career. What a legacy. What a man. If, as Enoch Powell said, all political careers end in failure, there remain many different types of failure. Alex Salmond’s achievement was to make the impossible seem credible. He took a dream and made it real, and if, in the end, he fell short of his final goal he ensured that it would never again be dismissed lightly or reckoned impossible. For those reasons he is, and will be remembered as, one of the most significant politicians of our time. Not just in Scotland but in the whole of Britain.

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History runs forward but is viewed backwards and this tempts us to suppose that what has happened was in some sense inevitable. Real life, messy and complicated and endlessly unpredictable, doesn’t work like that. Even so, it is hard to imagine how or in what circumstances anyone else could have led the SNP to power, far less how anyone else might have led Scotland to the brink of independence. Alex Salmond did that.

As he leaves the political stage there is an inescapable feeling of an era ending. If we shall not see his like again that may, in part, be because we shall not need to see his like again. His race is run but the journey – to use a term much in vogue in Scotland these past few months – is not yet finished. As he said, quoting Edward Kennedy, the cause endures, the fight goes on. Someone else, most probably Nicola Sturgeon, will lead that struggle and be tasked with building on Alex Salmond’s legacy. What’s not in doubt, however, is that the legacy is a formidable one.

Salmond took a small, easily ignored, often mocked rabble and led them to within sight of their promised land. He transformed a movement and left it as, arguably, the natural party of government in Scotland. Forecasting political futures is necessarily an imprecise business but even if the SNP might lose seats at the next Holyrood election – if only because fewer voters will “lend” support to the party in 2016 – they are likely to remain the largest party in the Scottish parliament.

There are worse legacies and smaller monuments to a man’s political career than that.

There were many ages of Alex Salmond. There was the young revolutionary and the sharp-tailored statesman; the left-wing firebrand expelled from his party and the lost leader, self-exiled in Westminster. Above all, however, there was Alex Salmond, statesman. A big man in a small parliament; a man whom even his opponents could respect. A man who appeared big enough for a country beginning to imagine bigger things.

He seemed, in his later years, some kind of unsinkable battleship, armour-proofed against everything his opponents threw at him. That reflected a flexibility – his opponents would call it a slipperiness – that was as audacious as it was impressive.

He was a politician guided by a single star: independence. Facts which proved inconvenient or theories rendered obsolete by bitter experience could be ditched and, remarkably, Salmond never paid any great price for his failures. He always bounced back, undaunted and up for it.

No other Scottish politician of recent times was so hated or so respected. No-one ever described Donald Dewar, Henry McLeish or Jack McConnell as “evil”; it was never hard to find Scots who considered Salmond some kind of infernal opponent. That, in its way, was a measure of his stature. He was worth hating and many Scots took the opportunity to revile a First Minister who, though elected on a minority of the vote, cheerfully presented himself as the will of the Scottish people made flesh. Unlike any of his predecessors Salmond plainly revelled in being First Minister. He enjoyed the luxuries and trappings of power.

So what explains his success, where do we find the explanations for his rise to power? If he was lucky in his enemies Salmond still made his own good fortune. Not for nothing was his biography titled “Salmond: Against the Odds”, a reflection not just on its subject’s fondness for gambling – on the horses and in politics – but on the improbability of the cause to which he devoted his career. He took on Great Britain and came within a whisper of winning.

Above all, Salmond had style. A gallus swagger and a snook-cocking cheek that appealed to many Scots. He knew he was good and he didn’t mind that you knew that he knew it. A L’Oréal politician who knew he was worth it. His political style was rooted in a conviction that Scots should get over and rise above themselves. They should remember, always, that they come from nothing small. This Scotland, borrowing from Hugh MacDiarmid, was infinite and multiform. The swagger was real but so was a certain kind of couthy charm. He was recognisably, unavoidably, Scottish.

Most of all, if Salmond knew he was worth it he also reminded voters that their country was worth it too. Salmond’s political philosophy was simple and endlessly adaptable: he would present himself – and his party – as the voice of the Scottish people. Scotland’s party for Scotland’s people. There would be an emphasis on civic rather than ethnic nationalism even as his party swaddled itself in the saltire. The SNP would stand for the national interest, however that might be defined.

Conveniently, this allowed him to portray his opponents as in some vague sense anti-Scottish. Since the SNP was the expression of the will of the people it followed that their opponents must be animated by the basest kind of motive. “Team Scotland” could be contrasted with a “Westminster elite” whose interests rarely, if ever, coincided with Scotland’s. As civic nationalism goes this was pretty ethnic, but though it enraged opponents it also confounded them. It was, however, consistent with Salmond’s declaration that his opponents were a kind of Uncle Tom: “Scottish on the outside, British on the inside. Tartan ties – Union Jack underpants.”

Yet Salmond also appreciated that Scotland was, and remains, a conservative society. Change can be exhilarating; it is also frightening. Salmond grasped that voters wanted to believe in their own power to change events but that they also craved constant reassurance. The march to independence would be made in baby steps.

It is easily forgotten now that Salmond had to fight and win a war within his own party before he could take on the mighty British state and establishment. It is a mark of his triumph that, today, the fierce battle between nationalist gradualists and fundamentalists seems to belong to a long-distant, quaint age. But it was a real rammy nonetheless. The SNP was for a long time suspicious of devolution. It feared that, as George Robertson later famously put it, a Scottish parliament might indeed kill nationalism “stone dead”, satisfying the people’s thirst for greater self-government. Given half a loaf, Scots might forget they should really want a whole loaf.

I fancy that many voters now think the SNP “delivered” the Scottish Parliament and it must infuriate Labour (and the Liberal Democrats) that their achievement is so often credited to an organisation that was a latecomer to the devolution party. Then again, the SNP has been a cuckoo in the nest for a long time now.

Titans are always divisive. Salmond was hated almost as much as he was respected. That hatred owed something to his ability to survive blunders that might have ruined politicians less confident in their own abilities.

Salmond possessed an uncanny ability to be all things to all men. Far from being ruined by his contradictions, Salmond rose above them. He led a movement not a party and was granted license by its membership to pursue anything and everything that advanced the cause of independence. Hence he could favour cutting corporation tax for large businesses while also presenting himself as the protector of the poor, railing against the social injustice of welfare reforms. He could be chums – at some risk – with tycoons such as Rupert Murdoch and Donald Trump and Fred Goodwin while also presenting himself as the working man’s champion. He was for ­social justice and prosperity and never admitted that there might be circumstances in which the pursuit of one might compromise the other. Policy problems were Gordian knots to be “solved” by a single stroke of a sword.

It seemed telling that Salmond said nothing about health or education in his resignation address. Nothing, that is, about the two most important domestic portfolios for which the Scottish government has entire responsibility. It was an oblique reminder that Salmond has never really been a politician interested in the nuts and bolts of policy. Or, rather, policy was useful chiefly to the extent to which it advanced the cause of independence.

He moved beyond embarrassments such as “Free by 93” or the misjudged “Penny for Scotland” campaign to raise taxes in the first Scottish Parliament. The first, the slogan of the 1992 general election, was absurd; the second, a reminder that the constituency for higher taxes in Scotland is smaller than many on the left imagine. Other tempests – declaring Britain’s Kosovo intervention an “unpardonable folly”, releasing the Lockerbie bomber Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi – proved storms that blew themselves out. Nevertheless, they remind us that Salmond’s touch was not as Midas-like as sometimes assumed.

The margin between success and failure is precious thin, however. The SNP won 16,000 votes and a single seat more than Labour in 2007 in an election in which half the SNP’s gains came at the expense of the Scottish Socialists and the Greens. It was a mandate for a minority administration but a thin one at that.

Still, Salmond’s first term was popular. Voters seemed to like the modesty imposed by minority government. You need not like Salmond to feel that, whatever else might be said about him, he was the kind of figure you weren’t embarrassed to see representing Scotland on the national and even international stage.

Even so, there was never any majority for giving the SNP a majority at Holyrood. The SNP’s landslide victory was an accident. It owed much to factors beyond Salmond’s control: the 2008 economic crisis, a parliamentary expenses scandal that damaged all the Westminster parties and, above all, to the fact David Cameron did not win a majority at the 2010 UK election. The Liberal Democrats’ association with the Conservatives in London damaged them in Scotland. If they had remained on the opposition benches in Westminster their vote would not have collapsed north of the Border and the SNP, most probably, would not have won a majority in 2011. And without an SNP majority at Holyrood there might not have been a referendum on independence at all.

It is worth recalling this if only because doing so reminds us how much blind fortune plays a part in politics. The trick is capitalising on unforeseen circumstances that prove favourable to your cause. No-one in modern Scottish politics did that better than Salmond.

If he fell short it was not for want of trying. He has left the country arguing about its future in ways hitherto unimaginable. In 1885, Ireland’s nationalist leader Charles Stewart Parnell famously declared that “No man has the right to fix the boundary to the march of a nation. No man has the right to say to his country ‘Thus far shalt thou go and no further’.” Parnell’s career ended in failure too, but his cause outlived him and his rallying cry suits the life and career of Alexander Elliot Anderson Salmond, who regarded Parnell as his hero. The First Minister has left the stage but the play goes on.«

Twitter: @alexmassie

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