Euan McColm: Salmond’s ‘unstoppable’ juggernaut seems to have hit its f irst road block

Alex Salmond on the campaign trail - but his party stumbled in the council elections. Picture: Greg Macvean
Alex Salmond on the campaign trail - but his party stumbled in the council elections. Picture: Greg Macvean
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FOR people who have just won an election, my chums in the SNP might be a little happier. Of course, they’ve all been enthusiastically explaining to me that they got more councillors and a bigger share of the vote than Labour on Thursday.

And they’ve been quick to give me details of astonishing swings against the rotten Unionist foe the length and breadth of the country.

But move away from these well rehearsed lines and the tone is subdued. There is real surprise that the margin of victory – just over 1 per cent – was not greater, and confusion over why the party was seen off by Labour in a number of councils, not least the “glittering prize” local authority of Glasgow.

Not an hour before I started writing this column, one of the First Minister’s closest allies made me a compelling argument for this being another triumph for Alex Salmond. The figures back this up: most votes, most councillors. End of story surely?

Ten minutes later, an SNP strategist raised some doubts: “We were on such a high before that this result does two bad things as far as I can see. First, we’ve lost that sense among the wider public and the opposition that we’re unstoppable, and second, we’ve shaken the grassroots supporters who thought the pro-independence train was getting faster.”

I have sympathy with the First Minister’s supporter. For a government to be in power for five years nationally and win a majority in local elections is a remarkable thing. But then I look at the Nationalists’ share of the vote this week, down to 33 per cent from an obscenely healthy 45 last May. That’s entirely the wrong direction of travel for Salmond, just two years away from his referendum. Were you to describe the loss of a quarter of your vote as a plummet, I’d heartily agree.

These council election results tell us that the First Minister – by popular acclaim, to a tedious degree, the sole “statesman” in Scotland – is not the unstoppable force he appeared just days ago.

One insider said: “The problem for Alex today is that we’ve basically been working on the assumption that we got that massive win last year so things are on the up and instead we’re on an even playing field with Labour again. It’s the first time he has not taken us a leap forward.”

As is the norm for the disappointed in Scottish politics, the SNP publicly insists that the almost evenly balanced result is down to the sophistication of voters, who flit twixt parties dependent on the election in question. Behind the scenes, some are asking if that’s true, what does it mean for the independence referendum?

When the First Minister returns to Holyrood, expect a typically bullish performance as he taunts his opponents over their respective results. But watch out for weaknesses, too. Salmond is a long way from clear of questions over his relationships with tycoons Murdoch and Trump.

Some of the First Minister’s people are already asking whether a last-minute flurry of blows over links to News International was enough to stop another landslide to match last year’s.

A lack of empirical evidence aside, it’s a reasonable assumption to make that those who turned away from the Nationalists this week were unionists, previously happy to back Salmond’s candidacy for First Minister. I can see no reason to assume Nationalists switched.

The SNP has consistently adopted a softly-softly approach with those it got on board with the argument that a vote for them was not necessarily a vote for the break-up of the union. Those middle-Scotlanders were supposed to step inside the tent, think: “Ooh, look at all that free medicine and ministerial competence”, then see the error of their ways and join the independent panacea, like a remake of Avatar with a shorter, fatter cast.

What has happened to make these voters so skittish? How the hell does Salmond go about getting them back while the opposition paint him as the rich man’s political popsy of choice? And how does he persuade those voters that no, they’re not simply part of what the decent but politically naive leader of the SNP group on Glasgow City Council, Allison Hunter, described as a stepping stone to independence?

Salmond will have to figure out why, if these people don’t particularly want the SNP to run their council, they would dream of allowing them to run an independent nation.

An opposition, cowed by fear and confusion for five long years, should feel confident again. All is not lost, after all. Yes, Salmond’s still ahead, but maybe he’s getting a stitch.

Sections of the Scottish media – who have over-compensated for past indiscretions in some cases – should feel more confident about challenging him on detail, regardless of the ongoing “statesman” narrative.

The First Minister isn’t known for a lack of certainty, but he has not always been the exuberant figure who leads Team Scotland (or Team Bits of Scotland, as Thursday’s vote might more accurately have it).

Years after his 2000 resignation as SNP leader, Salmond revealed that he had begun to wonder whether he had become the party’s problem. He feared that focus on him was damaging to the organisation.

It was a remarkably unguarded moment for such a typical alpha male as our First Minister, but he said it, and in doing so, revealed a usually invisible chink of self doubt.

One who knows him well told me: “He’s not in despair, but, aye, he will be worried in case it’s all stalling. Of course he will – who wouldn’t be?”

It’s been fascinating watching the superhuman Salmond since 2007. But that’s all over. The local election results have made The First Minister politically mortal again.