David Torrance: Salmond is still box office

Alex Salmond: a better advocate of the SNP as a party of government
Alex Salmond: a better advocate of the SNP as a party of government
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THE First Minister is as confident as ever, but he remains a better advocate of the SNP as a party of government rather than a party of independence, writes David Torrance.

Alex Salmond is, without doubt, the pre-eminent Scottish politician of the modern era, not just in terms of sheer longevity – he has led his party on and off since 1990 – but also in terms of framing the parameters of political debate, which he’s done now for longer than any other first minister of this devolved nation.

Few politicians can lay claim to such influence. On the UK stage Margaret Thatcher was one, Tony Blair another, but in Edinburgh it’s only really been possible since the creation of a Scottish Parliament in 1999. Then Scotland gained a stage all of its own; one intimately related to events in London, of course, but also distinct.

Like any actor, the SNP leader has turned in a variety of performances since 2007, some memorable, others below-par; most merely competent. But he does have star quality, even on his off days. As the SNP MSP Joan McAlpine recently put it, he’s the first politician of the devolutionary age who can safely be described as “box office”.

And, in electoral terms, he’s managed to keep bums on seats. Salmond has empathy in spades. Having spent years carefully positioning the SNP in what he always called the “mainstream” of Scottish public opinion, he’s been rewarded with two significant election victories and approval ratings that must make Liberal Democrats yellow with envy.

Salmond calls this a “social contract” between his government and the Scottish people, by which he means the preservation of existing benefits and the creation of others. In this respect, he’s built upon the record of his three Labour predecessors, who had, after all, delivered the free personal care, free eye and dental checks, and free(ish) tuition fees the First Minister now claims to protect.

In the field of domestic policy, Salmond has also emulated Messrs Dewar, McLeish and McConnell in governing cautiously, avoiding big-bang public sector reform, instead tinkering in the manner of a rather conservative middle-manager. Education, health and justice have all benefited from orthodox treatment, while the First Minister shows no inclination to do anything more adventurous.

No matter, for the majority of Scots appear to desire middle-management of their affairs, so that is what they’ve got in the name of “competent” government.

Salmond has, however, taken calculated risks in certain areas. He did not have to legislate for same-sex marriage, or introduce a minimum price for alcohol (a conscious emulation of Jack McConnell’s smoking ban success), but his government did both.

Salmond has also been good at big, symbolic displays of ostensibly Scottish “values”. The controversial release of Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed al-Megrahi, for example, was less about legal process than shouting to the world: “Here is Scotland; we do things differently.” The First Minister’s subsequent defence of his government’s actions and defiance of US Senators showed him at his best: combative, lucid and, well, box office.

But then, he was standing up for Scotland and that resonated with voters, even those who didn’t usually agree with him. This quality has been central to Salmond’s success as First Minister, for when a politician is popular, voters will forgive them certain misdemeanours and grant them the benefit of the doubt. In difficult times – and Salmond has had his share of those – popular politicians end up getting away with more than they should.

And Salmond, of course, has his faults. Even for a politician, his capacity for blatant opportunism and political bullying (publicly and privately) has been extensive; although the public appeared to forgive both, provided he didn’t overdo it. Often, however, he crossed a line, being quite shameless in fundamentally reinterpreting unhelpful statements under the guise of honest consistency.

As the journalist Matthew Parris memorably put it, Salmond combines “an open countenance with an instinct for the low blow”. Politics to him has always been first and foremost a game he enjoys playing. And he enjoys playing it because he’s good, sometimes very good, and certainly better than most of his opponents, past and present. And what’s more, voters like watching him at play. But while arguably a success in terms of leading a devolved government, Salmond must still be counted a relative failure as a Nationalist politician.

Although his supporters point to majority government and a referendum as proof independence is “closer than ever”, the more sensible admit the polls tell a different story, a story of stagnation – almost as if most Scots had made up their minds long ago.

Thus Salmond’s greatest achievements as First Minister have been electoral, rather than any tangible advancement of independence. Support for the SNP and support for a new Scottish state is not the same thing. Of course, they overlap, but since 2007 – despite having an ideal platform – Salmond has not really made his arguments for independence any more compelling than they were two decades ago.

Never much interested in detailed policymaking (except when it came to renewable energy, a passion since his student days), Salmond has always relied on day-to-day political combat, rather than a detailed examination of the pros and cons of independence. Now that it is within sight, scrutiny has increased and thus the SNP leader’s tendency to make up policy on the hoof appears vulnerable to the law of diminishing returns.

True, he’s always been quite good at squaring political circles, on Nato, the monarchy, economics and the “social union”, but coming up with a holding “line” is one thing, producing a coherent, water-tight case another. There’s also a sense that since his electoral high point in May last year, Salmond has been plucked out of his constitutional comfort zone, in which an independence referendum was a theoretical possibility rather than a serious prospect.

Not only does the arms-length Yes Scotland campaign appear half-hearted, but having said earlier this year that he wouldn’t accept a Section 30 Order, which transfers power from Westminster to Holyrood to hold a legal referendum, and certainly not one with caveats, last month Salmond did precisely that. Although the “Edinburgh Agreement” was a symbolic triumph (David Cameron, after all, didn’t want a referendum at all), it distracted from a general feeling that Salmond had lost full control of the constitutional agenda, not least his oft-stated desire for a second question.

Salmond, in short, remains a better advocate of the SNP as a party of government rather than a party of independence. While Scots are content with the First Minister as someone who stands up for Scotland, the trouble is they want him to do so within the United Kingdom. So he’s popular – incredibly so compared with his Westminster counterparts – but popular in a very particular way.

Scottish Labour seems determined to promote an image of Salmond as dishonest, someone determined to do whatever it takes to achieve independence. But that will only work if their attacks fits into the groove of public opinion, over which the Scottish Labour Party exercises minimal control. Besides, Scots like a bit of a chancer; someone who won’t take any sh*te (however well directed).

And confidence is another key aspect of Salmond’s success as First Minister. Without it he would be lost, just another transient here today, gone tomorrow politician. Faith – faith in independence and faith in himself – has got him through five and a half eventful years in Scotland’s top job. But faith only takes a leader so far, as events in two years’ time might amply demonstrate.