Andrew Wilson: Alex Salmond speech delivers

'Salmond delivered what, for me, was the speech of his life'. Picture: Jane Barlow
'Salmond delivered what, for me, was the speech of his life'. Picture: Jane Barlow
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QUEBEC hosted a pivotal battle in the Seven Years War between Britain and France in 1759.

The victorious British general, James Wolfe, had made his name suppressing the 1745 Jacobite Rebellion. So with some bitter flippancy he famously sent the Scots soldiers into battle with the immortal line: “They are hardy, intrepid, accustomed to a rough country, and no great mischief if they fall.”

Those last six words have resonated for many in the story of the treatment of the bravest of the brave by leaders willing to gamble with other people’s futures.

One of my many frustrations at the stewardship of the Scottish economy over the decades is the ease with which defeat was accepted. Too many major industries that fell on to their knees and became uncompetitive in the face of global markets were allowed to die. Instead short-term intervention and strategic reform could have seen them attain a new sustainable future.

It would have taken vision, unrelenting perseverance, remarkable arbitration between trade unions and owners, and the self-belief to know that we could compete on new terms with anyone in trades we had invented, developed and taken to the world. There is absolutely nothing written into the rules of economics that suggests it is only “elsewhere” that ships and cars should be built, steel forged and products manufactured.

Companies are eminently better positioned to compete in markets than governments of course. But our leaders have a role to play in taking the long view on economic policy and doing everything in their power to exhaust the possibilities before letting whole sectors die. Because when the heart beats for the last time it won’t start again and we will have ceded opportunity to “elsewhere”.

But it is only extraordinary leadership and human guile that can pull such feats off. This is all too rare and should be celebrated when we find it. From the outside it appeared to me that we came perilously close to the needless loss of yet another plant and industry from Scotland’s economic heartland last week.

Grangemouth’s petrochemical plant has dominated the skyline and foreshore of the River Forth all of my life and beyond to 1924 when it commenced operations. It is clear it needs co-operation and help to transform its viability in the face of investment need and competitive pressure. But it is also clear that a positive future is possible. To have let that fall would have been economic mischief of the highest order.

I see very little benefit in handing out plaudits and condemnations when what is needed is unrelenting focus and effort to make the rescue plan work. However, one of the most impressive lessons of the week is the power of humility, minds changing and political opponents working together for the greater good. Well done all.

But I make no apology for observing that, whatever your view of the man or his politics, once again Alex Salmond has demonstrated why he carries among the best approval ratings of any leader anywhere, and we should be thankful he occupies the job he does.

I should express an interest here because I have long owed him much. He encouraged and helped me greatly as a young man in good times and adversity and to this day takes time to consider my well-being and that of my family.

I watched him last week in Perth at the first SNP conference I have attended properly for a decade. I bumped into him a few times early morning, late night and through the day. Each time his focus was solely and exclusively on this crisis. So much so that his aides were frantic on Friday night that he had not fully engaged his mind on what was easily the most important conference speech of his career. But it was only a conference speech.

He managed to identify the core unifying truth that all sides agreed the plant could work. He had no formal locus or carrot or stick but used strength of character and purpose to cajole, mediate and persuade.

In the end he stood up on the Saturday and delivered what, for me, was the speech of his life. Don’t tell him I said this, but I have never much rated his conference performances. This one was profound and poetic. He is back to the top of his game and when he is there are few politicians anywhere who can match him.

This is very good news for all in a country that needs leadership more than ever before. It is also precisely what progressives need to see in the historic debate, and then choice, that faces this country in the next year.

If one of the questions at the back of people’s minds is “have we got leaders who are up to the task of leading this country to a better, more independent future”? Then we have a positive answer, not just in Alex Salmond, Nicola Sturgeon, John Swinney and their colleagues for Yes, but also in the current opponents of progress who will be seeking new jobs when it is won.

I for one have real faith in the quality of Team Scotland from across the parties. We need that team to think about working together in the way they did this week because it is only in that victory we can finally put the memory of the contempt of people like General Wolfe to rest. «

Twitter: @AndrewWilsonAJW