David Torrance: Will Salmond be kept under control?

Alex Salmond’s return to the UK parliament strengthens the SNP’s ranks but he will need encouragement not to stray from his new brief in foreign affairs, writes David Torrance

Alex Salmond’s return to the UK parliament strengthens the SNP’s ranks but he will need encouragement not to stray from his new brief in foreign affairs, writes David Torrance

THERE’S an image from early last week that captures something of the new political landscape now that “the 56” have arrived at the House of Commons. As most of them gathered outside St Stephen’s Entrance, one photographer snapped Alex Salmond peering from behind two newly-elected SNP MPs to see what was going on at the front of the scrum.

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He must have been able to see his successor, Nicola Sturgeon, posing, smiling and waving for the benefit of the press pack, but his location vis-à-vis that of the First Minister emphasised how much has changed in a relatively short space of time. Ten years ago Salmond was leader of half a dozen MPs at Westminster, now he’s very much not leader of 50 more.

All party leaders and Prime or First Ministers find it difficult to adapt to their loss of status, what the former newspaper editor Max Hastings once called “the intoxication of access”. Of course, as the SNP’s elder statesman, Salmond will still have the inside track on what’s happening within the party and wider independence movement, but it won’t be the same – the buck no longer stops with him.

Salmond still hasn’t really received much credit for handling the transition back in September so brilliantly. He knew instinctively that he had to resign sooner rather than later, and by doing so he allowed Nicola Sturgeon to emerge as the clear favourite as his successor while retaining valuable political momentum that she then skilfully channelled into the subsequent general election campaign.

“Sturgeon-mania” was the result, and it isn’t an exaggeration to say that the million-plus SNP votes secured just over a week ago were in large part down to the new First Minister’s considerable appeal. Sure, Salmond was himself hugely popular and the Nationalist “surge” would have happened anyway, but Sturgeon took things to an altogether different level. Her popularity might be a bit galling for the former First Minister, but at the same time friends say he should take considerable “pride” in having helped make it happen.

The relationship between Sturgeon and Salmond has long been professional rather than one of close personal friendship; for a long period she was as material to his success as he was to hers, but it became clear as soon as Salmond announced his intention to stand in the general election that his post-referendum role would require careful attention. “Does he need managed?” asked an SNP insider rhetorically. “Of course he does.”

In this respect Salmond resembles the late Margo MacDonald, who like him was enormously popular with voters but difficult to manage in party political terms. As a senior SNP source puts it, Salmond is “a big, incorrigible, egotistical, energetic, multi-talented figure” but with those (largely) positive attributes goes significant scope for going off-piste, straying from the carefully-worded Nationalist script. For ironically, having made the SNP such a disciplined machine under his leadership, Salmond often lacks discipline himself.

A case in point was the publication of his referendum diary The Dream Shall Never Die, which Salmond energetically promoted around Scotland and in London. Naturally this led to media interviews in which journalists asked the author about the general election. Thus for a sustained period it looked very much like the SNP’s former leader remained in control of tactics and strategy rather than its current chief. Then he went quiet, and indeed little was heard from Salmond during the campaign proper. Evidently, as one insider puts it, “Nicola stepped in”.

Election night provided another example of the difference in style between Sturgeon and Salmond. While the First Minister showed impressive restraint as hitherto safe Labour seats fell all over Scotland, Salmond took to his podium in Gordon to declare that “the Scottish lion had roared”. And when, two days later, Sturgeon posed with her party’s new MPs in South Queensferry, her predecessor again stole the show by telling assembled journalists that the election result brought indyref2 closer than ever before.

Significantly, Sturgeon made sure she was in London the following Monday to front up “the 56”, while the SNP’s Westminster Group also moved to close down speculation surrounding Salmond’s role: not only was the Moray MP, Angus Robertson, re-elected group leader, but the Member for Gordon was appointed Foreign Affairs spokesperson. Salmond had held this brief before (during John Swinney’s ill-fated leadership), but in transitioning from party leader to an international portfolio, he was following in the footsteps of other prominent Scottish politicians such as Sir Alec Douglas-Home and David Steel.

Party insiders say that Salmond’s experience as First Minister means he now has a better grasp of foreign affairs than he did as SNP leader between 1990-2000, when there were a few high-profile gaffes, not least his denunciation of Allied action in Kosovo as “unpardonable folly”. At the same time he is now the highest profile Scottish politician globally with the possible exception of Gordon Brown; that will open doors, enabling Salmond to network and lobby on behalf of Scotland and the SNP. If ­another independence referendum is going to happen – eventually – then Salmond, always a great political salesman, needs to get around the world and make the case now.

At least that’s the plan. Party insiders acknowledge that Salmond’s new role isn’t without risk, especially given his form for shooting from the hip in ­interviews and getting the wider party into trouble. Since taking over as First Minister, for example, Sturgeon has repeatedly been asked if she agrees with something her predecessor has said, which isn’t an ideal position for a new leader to be in. The hope is that with Salmond concentrating on the international scene rather than the home front, incidents such as this can be kept to a minimum.

Salmond got off to a promising start. On Wednesday he attacked the UK Government for refusing to take its share of the refugees cast adrift in the Mediterranean by people smugglers, said Home Secretary Theresa May had “hopelessly misjudged” the unfolding crisis, and indicated Scotland would be more than happy to take in its share. It was an easy hit against the new Tory government, played to the SNP’s liberal immigration stance and, importantly, avoided treading on Sturgeon’s toes. On Channel 4 News Salmond was pitch perfect, while his comments dominated several front pages the following day.

However, this textbook performance was followed by an incident that illustrated the risks associated with Salmond’s very presence at Westminster. Reports soon surfaced that the former SNP leader had been holding court with journalists on the House of Commons terrace, and then on Friday morning – just as the First Minister was preparing to meet Prime Minister David Cameron in Edinburgh – several newspapers carried stories based on, as one respected Westminster journalist put it, the “musings on the terrace of a certain senior SNP figure”. Cameron himself also pointed th efinger at Salmond, stating on Friday: “I tend to take at face value what Alex Salmond says on the record, rather than off the record.”

Salmond has denied that he was the source of the briefing, but the assertion that “precedence was everything” when it came to holding another, perhaps informal, referendum was consistent with statements he had made in the weeks following his resignation. If such a poll were held tomorrow, predicted the source, “we would get between 50 and 60 per cent” of the vote. Sturgeon’s spokesman simply said “there are no such plans”, but the headlines undermined the First Minister’s attempt to appear “constructive” in dealings with the Prime Minister.

Perhaps Sturgeon will have to step in once more, but at the same time – and as she’s often said herself – the SNP would be mad not to utilise a figure equipped with Salmond’s talents. His recent appointment, says an insider, “channels his energy where it needs to go”. Over the next few months, for example, the former First Minister, a high-profile opponent of the Iraq War, can “vent his spleen” over the Chilcot Inquiry while railing against what he calls “military adventurism”.

From his seven years as First Minister Salmond has a particularly impressive diplomatic and business contact book covering the United States, the Gulf and Asia, and the all-important China, although surprisingly, Salmond hasn’t actually travelled that extensively. Nor, indeed, has Sturgeon.

Salmond might also spend time developing more detailed policy on the international front, for as a former SNP candidate once joked, the party doesn’t really have a foreign policy “beyond being nice to everyone”. Indeed, initial pronouncements did not counter that cynical assessment. A vague press release committed the SNP to being “pro-Europe” and “pro-developing world”, although on the latter point, Humza Yousaf, once Salmond’s constituency assistant and now Minister for External Affairs, should be able to give his old boss a few pointers.

Another key aspect of Salmond’s role will be the Prime Minister’s promised referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union. On this, the former SNP leader also has unhelpful form, not least his widely questioned claim to have possessed “legal advice” indicating an independent Scotland would “automatically” become an EU member if last year’s referendum had voted Yes.

There’s also a danger that instead of appearing “constructive” (Sturgeon’s preferred approach), Salmond will end up sounding negative on an issue that ironically finds the UK and Scottish governments on the same page: both want the Britain to remain in the Brussels club, and both (although the SNP doesn’t shout about it) accept the EU as it stands is not perfect. If, for example, Sturgeon led on the European issue, it would probably pile up votes in favour of continuing membership.

Whatever the future holds, Salmond is likely to dominate the media on a number of fronts, for to journalists he has always made, as they say, “good copy”. It helps that he loves the House of Commons, which he only left at the 2010 general election (having ditched the Scottish Parliament in 2001). And given the relative inexperience of the rest of the new SNP intake, Salmond could also act as a father figure to the expanded MP group. There are, for example, an awful lot of maiden speeches to be written.

There has been speculation, fuelled by Salmond’s own colourful statements about holding Westminster’s “feet to the fire”, that he will revive his wrecking tactics of the late 1980s, when as a young MP he disrupted the Chancellor’s Budget statement and staged sit-ins during committee meetings in protest at the presence of English Tory MPs. But so much has changed since then, and while in 1988 Salmond needed to punch above his weight in order to get noticed, in 2015 the presence of 56 SNP MPs speaks for itself.

None the less, it won’t be the former First Minister interrogating Cameron at the weekly Prime Minister’s Questions but Angus Robertson, who has been the SNP’s Westminster leader for quite some time. It’s therefore likely that Salmond’s profile will be higher outside the Palace of Westminster than it is inside.

Whatever its tensions, the Salmond/Sturgeon dual leadership has worked tremendously well for the past decade and it seems there is every intention of keeping it going, albeit with the principal roles reversed. While the First Minister leads the fight against Tory austerity, her predecessor will be schmoozing in boardrooms and consuming Ferrero Rocher, raising Scotland’s status in the international community.

But it seems unlikely Salmond will abandon his love of political theatrics. Early last week, as dozens of new SNP MPs filed out of Westminster to face the media, “the Boss” – as aides past and present often refer to him – made sure he appeared slightly later, piquing press interest and provoking a modest round of applause. Old habits, as they say, die hard. «

A new edition of David Torrance’s unauthorised biography, Salmond: Against The Odds, will be published by Birlinn this summer