Matt Qvortrup: Alex Salmond reveals true heart

The First Minister’s speech has shown that the last few months have transformed him into a man with courage and vision rarely seen in UK politics, says Matt Qvortrup

Alex Salmond talking to the party faithful about his vision for idependence in Perth last week. Picture: Jane Barlow
Alex Salmond talking to the party faithful about his vision for idependence in Perth last week. Picture: Jane Barlow

There was an almost Biblical eloquence to the speech delivered by First Minister Alex Salmond at the SNP conference in Perth at the weekend.

“And when the pages of books yet unwritten speak to generations yet unborn of this time and this place, of our Scotland today, what is the story they will tell?”

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The First Minister answered his rhetorical question with an equally articulate poetic declaration;

“Those yet unborn . . . can say that we who lived at this special time recognised a priceless moment for what it was, that those who saw this chance did not baulk at it, that those who were given this moment did not let it pass by, and that we, Scotland’s independence generation, reached out and grasped the opportunity of a lifetime when it came our way.”

It was as if the First Minister came back to his true self, back to the young man who joined the SNP as a student at St Andrews with a dual hope of an independent Scotland and a more fair, just and equal society.

History is made by those who seize the day. By those who instinctively and intuitively know when to act. And even for a neutral and sceptical observer such as this columnist, it was difficult not to be swept away by the rhetoric.

Bliss will it be in that dawn to be alive, one is tempted to paraphrase William Wordsworth’s lines in the aftermath of the French Revolution. Not even Blair at the height of his powers could speak with greater pathos and passion than the First Minister spoke on Saturday.

Great speeches make history because they appeal to the long unbroken chain of great ideas; because they connect our historical past with the new dawn of the future. Salmond’s belief that the referendum in September next year is “about [a] fundamental democratic choice for Scotland – the peoples’ right to choose a Government of our own”, echoed philosopher John Stuart Mill – a former Rector at St Andrews – who famously observed that the “where the sentiment of nationality exists in any force, there is a case for uniting all the members of the nationality under the same government … The question of government ought to be decided by the governed”.

But the question is, of course, if “the sentiment of nationality exists” to a degree that will result in a Yes vote next year?

Referendums have historically been won by those who take bold decisions; by those who had the courage to stand up for what they believe in, and, above all, by those who could inspire hope and dreams. It is no accident that some of the most accomplished political leaders such as French President Charles de Gaulle and the Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson earned their greatest triumphs when the risked their political futures on referendums that they could easily have lost.

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But successful political rhetoric is not only about pathos, it is also about connecting to the people and about winning the swing votes.

One of the most effective strategies for winning a referendum is to associate the other side with an unpopular individual who happens to support this cause.

For example, those opposing the introduction of the Alternative Vote in 2011 cleverly turned the referendum into a vote of confidence in Nick Clegg. Given the Liberal Democrat leader’s catalogue of broken promises this was an effective strategy.

By identifying the ‘Better Together’ campaign with David Cameron and George Osborne and by challenging the former to a debate that he does not dare to engage in, Salmond has prudently followed the same strategy. It will be difficult for Cameron to respond. If he refuses to debate he will be branded a chicken, or as someone who doesn’t care about Scotland. But risking a debate with Salmond – an acknowledged political pugilist – is likely to inflict considerable political damage on the Prime Minister that he can ill afford. Either way, Salmond is the likely winner.

But referendums are also about winning the centre-ground and about showing that your position coincides with that of the swing-voters. Back in the 1970s Harold Wilson – one of Salmond’s political idols – successfully followed this strategy in the referendum on EEC (now the EU) membership. By making the referendum a vote on the welfare state and other policies that resonated with the mass of the electorate, Wilson famously turned a threatening 20 per cent polling deficit into spectacular 30 per cent victory.

Nicola Sturgeon’s (left) promise to lower fuel prices, and Salmond’s promise that an independent Scotland would be a “country where we make work pay not by humiliating those with disabilities but by strengthening the minimum wage . . . a country where key public services remain in public hands”, are attempts to reach out to Labour and Liberal Democrat voters by basically equating independence with the social liberal utopia. It is not unlike what Wilson did in 1975. Seen in a historical perspective, Salmond may have chosen exactly the right strategy – if only a bit too late.

Gone are the days of the lukewarm and uninspired reassurances that Scotland can still keep the Pound, have the Queen as Head of State and be a member of Nato.

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The Salmond who spoke to his supporters on Saturday is a man who wants to make changes and who invites his compatriots to come with him.

One does not – to use another quote from Salmond – need focus groups to conclude that the vast majority of Scots “seek a country which judges its contribution on how useful it can be to the rest of humanity not on how many warheads in can balance on a Trident submarine”.

By painting himself and the Yes Scotland as the standard bearers of the aspirations and hopes of the Scottish people, and by contrasting his position with English politicians who want to keep Trident, the Bedroom-Tax and higher gas prices, the SNP have set the agenda for a battle. It will be difficult for David Cameron, Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg to respond to these challenges.

The polls still show that it will be an uphill struggle. Not everybody will be enamoured by the First Minister’s polished and poetic words.

When listening to Salmond’s speech I was reminded of a definition of the statesman drawn up by the Former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who said: “The task of the statesman is to take the people from where they are to where they have never been. This requires vision, as well as courage. Vision, because every leader is grounded in the present moment and courage because no-one knows the consequences of new ideas.”

The Salmond who – a few months ago – spoke about the Pound, the Queen and Nato did not show the vision and the courage. The man who stepped down from the lectern to rapturous applause on Saturday evening showed vision and courage rarely seen in these isles. His speech was one that has the potential to “to take the people from where they are to where they have never been”.

• Dr Matt Qvortrup teaches politics at Cranfield University