Joyce McMillan: Alex Salmond takes prize for originality

The SNP leader stands out because he has not been crushed by a party machine or the media

IT’S A LOW blow, as New Year gifts go: but something tells me the First Minister will survive it. For as every Scot not on a festive media-break knows, on Tuesday of this week the Times newspaper declared Alex Salmond its Briton Of The Year, in one of those acts of wily flattery and co-option at which the British establishment once used to excel. Internet commentators of all stripes were not slow to complain, protesting that the First Minister did not even believe in Britain, so could hardly be a Brit of any sort, never mind a prize-winning one.

The SNP, though, took the smarter line, holding true to the notion that Britain will remain a “social union” regardless of constitutional change; and declared itself “delighted” by this latest honour bestowed on its remarkable leader, who has lately been flavour of the moment on the London media, sauntering from The One Show sofa to World At One studio with his usual aplomb.

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In making the award, the Times described Alex Salmond as perhaps the most formidable incumbent politician in Britain, one who had defied the odds to win a stunning electoral victory, largely by offering an optimistic world-view that no other party could match.

And as he rests on his laurels this weekend, it is worth reflecting on just why the leader of the SNP is now able to display so many positive political qualities that seem beyond the reach of other party leaders, both in Scotland and elsewhere.

For as the detail gradually emerging from the Leveson Inquiry makes ever more clear, the overarching truth about Alex Salmond and the SNP is that they are the significant UK political party who got away; the ones who have largely escaped unscathed from the long, steady campaign of bullying, intrusion, subversion, deracination and disempowerment, by powerful media and economic elites, that has gradually reduced the main London-based parties to such a bland and timid series of smooth-faced political ciphers. The reason for the SNP’s escape is simple, and lies in the monumental self-absorption of Britain’s metropolitian elites.

Over the last three decades, the Murdoch press and the other arbiters of power in London simply have not cared enough about the SNP to try very hard to bully it into conformity, to bribe and subdue it with massive party donations, or to hack into the phones of all its leading members, in the hope of being able to tear apart their private lives over several pages of newsprint.

And as a result, Scotland now has a governing party that possesses much more political weight and character than its carefully de-natured political opponents. Unlike the Labour Party, the SNP has not been style-advised to the point where all its leading members look as if they are wearing the same designer suit, or sporting the same regulation fortysomething family life. On the contrary, the First Minister is unfashionably mature at 58, clearly continues to eat more than his share of pies, stays resolutely married to a woman more than a decade his senior, has no children, and discusses his private life with no-one; in all these respects, he is his own man.

Then, much more importantly, the SNP has not been browbeaten into detaching itself from its own roots. The Labour Party is a party founded by trade unions, to provide parliamentary representation for working people; yet over the past three decades, it has become so intimidated by the right-wing terms of debate set up by hostile elites that it has increasingly sought to distance itself from the very movement that is its fundamental source of political knowledge and strength. The SNP has not been asked to make any such mistake; and as a result, it still has a grassroots strength-in-depth, and a living connection with the lives of communities in many parts of Scotland, that the Labour Party now struggles to match.

The SNP, in other words, remains a party rather than a brand, and – to some extent at least – a voice of the people, rather than a mere mouthpiece for reconciling the people to existing power. The consequence is that it has, in its tone of voice, a strength, a resilience, a down-to-earth humour, an optimism, and a lack of deference, now largely absent from the discourse of other UK political parties; and as even the Times has noticed, this makes the SNP much more interesting and persuasive, as a political presence, than almost all of its competitors.

If the great British establishment is increasingly struck, though, by the lack of such positive qualities in other parties and politicians, then it should perhaps – before it grows any older – spend some time musing on its own role in destroying the spirit of diversity in British politics, which once boasted such a rich range of regional and working-class voices, and such a wide spectrum of ideological difference. They should ask themselves just who it was who mocked men like Neil Kinnock out of UK politics, and insisted that no politician of a more radical cast should be taken seriously at Westminster.

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They should remind themselves exactly whose interests have been best served, until now, by the growing sameness, rootlessness and timidity of the whole UK political class; and they should ask themselves whether, in pursuit of their obsessive anti-state ideology, they did not deliberately seek that end.

And then they should hang their heads in shame, for the damage they have done to the reality of democracy in this country. One result – among others – is the grotesquely unrepresentative cabinet of millionaires under whose rule we in the UK live today. And provided Salmond can slip through the net again, and avoid the hostile or insidious elite attention his growing prominence is likely to attract, it is also increasingly likely to result in the break-up of Britain; not least because, in their effort to destroy the politics of the left, those shady powers and principalities in London have fatally weakened the centre-left UK parties who should now be making the arguments against Scottish independence – but who no longer have the organisational strength, the ideological coherence, or the positive vision, to be able to do anything of the sort.