The former First Minister may now be a festival turn but his impact on Scotland is hard to overstate, writes Scott Macnab
Barely a month after Alex Salmond had taken office as First Minister following the SNP’s historic election victory in May 2007, it became clear that Scottish politics had changed irrevocably. An emergency statement was called at Holyrood one Thursday afternoon on UK relations with Libya – and Holyrood went into meltdown. The newly rebranded Scottish Government (it had been the Executive before Salmond immediately ordered this changed) simply didn’t do this kind of thing.
The significance of the event hit home as I was filing speculative copy about the looming statement in my then office with a national news agency, when a senior Scotland Office figure called. “Do you know what he [Salmond] is doing?” he asked.
As it happened, he was about to lift the lid on the so-called “Deal in the Desert” which could have allowed the Lockerbie bomber Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed Al Megrahi to be transferred to prison in Libya, in exchange for UK firms securing lucrative oil rights. The new Nationalist administration at Holyrood was laying down a marker that things were going to be different. Any quaint notions of cap-doffing to the UK government before going public with such incendiary statements were history.
A decade on, Salmond is preparing to kick off an Edinburgh festival run this weekend following his ignominious election defeat in June, which saw him turfed out of elected office for the first time in 30 years. And while enemies have enjoyed branding him little more than a glorified “cabaret act” these days, it’s worth reflecting on the impact Salmond has had on Scottish life over the past decade.
Before the SNP came to power, with Labour in office at Holyrood and Westminster, it was an altogether cosier approach. Scotland did do some things differently, such as the Fresh Talent Initiative to help overseas graduates stay in the country. There were even disputes over issues such as the removal of asylum seekers, with the then Executive unsuccessfully seeking a different approach in Scotland. But disputes were generally not made public, certainly not compared with the gunboat diplomacy that Salmond was to employ.
For journalists in the Holyrood lobby, the transformation under the SNP was a dream. Politics in Scotland had switched from black and white to Technicolor. Hitherto minor regulatory issues over farming, fishing and renewables suddenly became the focus of furious cross-border rows between Holyrood and Westminster, which more often than not (journalists were gravely informed) could threaten to undermine the very foundations of devolution. In retrospect, it’s easy to wonder what we were all getting ourselves in such a state about, but the SNP was able to foster a narrative that they were ready to fight Scotland’s corner. It changed things fundamentally.
Whether it be a future Labour or Conservative regime that eventually replaces the SNP in St Andrew’s House, there can be no going back to the cosy set-up that once existed between Holyrood and Westminster.
Much of it was grounded in Salmond’s own sense of grandeur about just what the office should entail. As well as ditching the “Executive” monicker, his senior ministers became Cabinet Secretaries and demanded equal billing with their counterparts south of the Border. There were annual rows about why the Scottish fisheries secretary couldn’t represent the UK at EU quota talks. Major events like the Oil and Gas UK conference, and other “setpiece” industry and civic gatherings, would invariably result in bunfights between Scottish and UK ministers over who could secure the headlines. It often reached staggering proportions, particularly during the build-up to the independence referendum. Few thought it a coincidence that the UK government chose to stage Armed Forces Day in Stirling in 2014 on the same weekend as the 700th anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn celebrations were being held in the city.
Maybe it was squabbling that Scotland didn’t always need. It is also questionable whether Salmond would have been any more successful in navigating the problems facing Nicola Sturgeon and the wider Yes movement which saw the SNP lose more than 20 seats in the recent Westminster election.
Salmond was pushing for a quickfire second referendum after the Brexit vote, an approach which was to prove counterproductive as many Scots decided they’d had enough of the independence debate and left the SNP in their droves. But Salmond’s seven years in office certainly saw Holyrood become the centre of political debate in Scotland. Even Labour acknowledged this as it brought about more autonomy from London to reflect this. More powers continued to be devolved through the Calman Commission then the Smith Commission. It meant the prospect of Holyrood replacing Westminster as Scotland’s Parliament seemed entirely plausible, as the independence debate raged.
Throughout his time in Bute House, Salmond was a peerless political operator. Scottish Government aides used to despair about taking him to official events as he was “impossible to control”, often going off for impromptu meetings with luminaries he came across and happy stop to chat with punters.
And journalists knew they could turn up at any event where he was in attendance and get a comment on events of the day, regardless of what his handlers might have to say.
It remains to be seen if Salmond’s time as a festival turn indicates his political career is over or merely interrupted. But his influence on Scottish politics is hard to overstate. He transformed the prospect of independence from a nebulous idea on the fringes to a dynamic force at the heart of Scottish politics.