Scott Macnab: Salmond must pick fights carefully

Alex Salmond. Picture: Jane Barlow
Alex Salmond. Picture: Jane Barlow
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ALEX Salmond has never been a politician who ducks confrontation. When the bell rings, he gets off his stool.

In many ways, it’s been his greatest strength, stretching back to his early days in the rogue 79 Group of the SNP, which led to his brief expulsion from the party. But the group proved a catalyst for the party’s shift to the left, or even centre ground of Scottish politics, which paved the way for its success now.

As the party flirted with relative obscurity in the 1980s, Salmond would often employ near guerrilla tactics to fight his corner, including his memorable ejection from the Commons when he disrupted one of Chancellor Nigel Lawson’s budgets.

It is the public perception of the SNP leader as someone who is ready to stand up and fight for Scotland, compared with the more nuanced position of Scottish leaders of UK parties at Holyrood, which has driven his historic electoral triumphs in recent years.

But you sometimes wonder if this confrontational approach is also his Achilles heel. It was brought home again this week with the intemperate tone of a letter he dispatched to Aberdeen City Council amid concerns about his visit to a closure-threatened school during a by-election earlier this year.

The Nationalists won the election in the city and that should have been it for the First Minister. He really ought to have risen above a row with local Labour politicians and let his own councillors on the ground deal with any fall-out.

To become embroiled in a spat with Scotland’s third biggest city, the oil capital of Europe, with claims it is being “brought into disrepute” seems a strange brawl to wade into. It may be unsurprising given the nature of the man, but it is something which should be above the office of First Minister.

It’s not the first time that Salmond’s tendency to go on the offensive has backfired. The extraordinary broadside which he and justice secretary Kenny MacAskill launched against UK Supreme Court judges brought widespread criticism when the country’s most senior legal figures were accused of having a knowledge of Scottish law gathered during a “trip to the Edinburgh Festival.”

Nor did the First Minister do himself any favours when he accused BBC staff of being “Gauleiters” – a term used to describe Nazi officials in occupied France – when he was stopped from appearing on its coverage of a Scotland-England rugby match on the grounds of impartiality.It does indicate that for all his successes, Salmond’s nature can get the better of him, and in the crucial year ahead, there will be more enemies than ever lining up with the kingpin of the nationalist movement in their cross hairs.

Salmond has no shortage of advisers, but you wonder how ready he is to listen – or whether someone like Nicola Sturgeon, who has stepped in before to temper Salmond’s more combative approach, needs to become more involved. He certainly needs to pick his fights more carefully – the coming year will present far more formidable opponents than local councils.