ONE of Alex Salmond’s favourite quotes is Burns, “the mair they talk, I’m kent the better”. He long ago learned that if you are to have any strategic impact as a politician you need to be known and your message needs to be heard.
This is triply true of opposition politicians who need to shout creatively if they are to be noticed, especially in a minor party.
That is where Salmond grew up and was schooled as part of a tiny parliamentary group from a minor party struggling to gain acceptance even as a potential main opposition. He quickly mastered the detail of parliamentary procedure and has long advised any new MP to read and inwardly digest the classic Erskine May guide to the ways of Westminster. All politicians of impact end up upsetting some. And Salmond upsets more than most because he is better than most. That doesn’t fash him. As Churchill put it: “You have enemies? Good. That means you’ve stood up for something, sometime in your life.” So goes Alex Salmond.
There comes a point, I feel, when people in politics ought to learn the generosity of spirit to respect opponents for who they are.
Having been through all he has and reached his seventh decade most of us would have chosen a quieter life when we handed on the baton of leadership. Thinking, writing, resting, relaxing. Having some actual fun. By all means making the occasional entrée to the public debate as a wise old owl that had been through so much. We are very short of such voices.
But that’s just not the way Salmond is wired. Not for him the warm beer of the Lords or even the greens of Inverallochy. His purpose is in the cut and thrust of the political fray. He takes energy from that. He knows himself well enough to know his own purpose.
There is symmetry in him choosing to seek election back to Westminster where so much of the Scottish interest will remain determined.
His fiercest opponents seem mesmerised by their enmity towards him. They insist Salmond’s election would present a challenge to Angus Robertson as Westminster leader or Stewart Hosie as deputy leader, or even Nicola Sturgeon as First Minister. This projects the ways of their own party and people on to a group whose culture is light years different.
This view fundamentally fails to understand the nature of the modern SNP and the depth of relationship of all the characters involved.
Labour’s time in government was defined by the power struggle between Brown and Blair. The Tory leadership race is never far from the surface. The SNP, in contrast, retain a unity of purpose that the London parties can’t quite fathom.
Salmond’s tour of the media of London last week to launch his book had the effect of a blunderbuss with a megaphone attached. Politicians and commentators railed and rallied accusing him of undermining democracy by seeking to secure the Scottish view he represents. Risible. Utterly.
Just as Sturgeon had argued in an interview in February, the SNP preference in a world of minorities would be to align with Labour to secure a workable majority and stability.
The outcome of this week is the Labour Party’s one remaining electoral fox in Scotland is very much shot.
In 1992 I first witnessed the genre. A poster with John Major wearing an SNP rosette saying: “A vote for the SNP is a vote for me.” In the event Scotland voted Labour and got John Major. This time they are trying the same on the doorsteps of the constituencies they haven’t yet written off. It’s power is much diminished.
The SNP’s message on this has been clear for a long time. What Salmond’s inimitable approach ensured was that the counter message was very much heard. Loud and clear. Job pretty much done. The SNP will do all they can to sink the Tories and keep any Labour government on a progressive track.
This clears the way for Sturgeon’s more constructive style and tone to be heard by the rest of the UK as well as Scotland. Many would do well to listen more carefully. She is the most modern political leader in Europe right now.
As this column has observed more than once, Sturgeon is confident and comfortable in her leadership skin. She will be calm about other voices being heard especially as the underlying strategic purpose and impact is aligned to the position she herself has set out. This week most certainly was. Realise that and you begin to appreciate the SNP’s approach. Her authority in her party is stronger than any other leader of the moment and any SNP leader ever.
The UK establishment has been caricaturing and misrepresenting the SNP for ever. In doing so they now risk doing the SNP’s job for them. That they can’t or won’t see it points only to the institutional sclerosis they preside over.
In believing their own critique they run the biggest political risk of all, underestimating their opponents.
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