THERE are few hard and fast rules for how former political leaders should behave. Once the pressures of power – or, in the case of those who never quite succeed, authority – have been lifted, there are myriad options.
Former prime minister Gordon Brown slipped away, devoting his energies to charity work and writing (with a brief comeback to “save the Union”), while John Major indulged his passion for cricket and slowly emerged as a thoughtful elder statesman.
But whatever an ex-leader chooses to do with his or her time, we expect them all to shove off for a while. A period of obscurity is in order.
Former SNP leader Alex Salmond, whose seven-year tenure as Scotland’s first minister ended the day after the Yes campaign lost the independence referendum last September, is not a man who finds zipping it at all easy. Take politics at its most brutal away from Salmond and he’s a little boy lost.
And, since defeat, the former FM has enjoyed being just as pugnacious as he ever was, seldom missing an opportunity to appear on TV to explain that he is heading back to Westminster in May so that he can hold unionist politicians’ feet to the fire. Look at the gleam in his eye and you might wonder if he’s speaking literally.
Nicola Sturgeon may be the boss these days, but nobody puts Alex in the corner. It’s a measure of Salmond’s effectiveness that both the SNP and his opponents see the merit of putting him up front as the general election bears down on us. To the disappointed Yes-voting masses, the former first minister is the politician who delivered the chance of breaking up the United Kingdom and damned-near led them to victory.
His manner may polarise opinion but he remains a heroic figure to a great many of those who believe Scotland would be better off going it alone, thank you very much.
Given that polls suggest the great majority of the 45 per cent of Scots who voted Yes to independence intend to vote SNP in May, it makes perfect sense to Salmond to be at the forefront of the nationalists’ campaign.
But just as the SNP sees value in the Salmond brand, so do his unionist opponents, specifically the English Tory ones.
Last week, we saw just how potent a weapon they believe him to be.
A Conservative Party campaign poster showed Salmond with a tiny Ed Miliband poking out of the breast pocket of his suit jacket. The Labour leader’s humming and hawing over whether his party might consider a coalition deal with the Scottish Nationalists was a gift to the Tories. Ed was, basically, in Eck’s pocket. Geddit?
To staunchly unionist Conservatives, Salmond is the perfect bogeyman. The very idea that this fellow, who’s spent his career trying to tear the UK apart, might have a whiff of influence on the direction of the UK Government is scary stuff, indeed.
To other English voters who support the continuation of the UK, the prospect of Scottish Nationalists in power at Westminster is no less troubling. Why wouldn’t a Union-minded floating voter reckon that the prospect of SNP decision-making having a real impact on England and Wales was a step too far?
During Prime Minister’s Question Time in the House of Commons on Wednesday, David Cameron accused Miliband of wanting to crawl into 10 Downing Street on the coat-tails of the SNP (which was pretty rich coming from a leader who had to strike his own deal with the Liberal Democrats in order to form a majority government in 2010).
Having been goaded, relentlessly, by Labour for his refusal to take part in a head-to-head debate, Cameron saw an opportunity to punch back. Miliband wanted a debate between two leaders, did he? In that case, said the prime minister, it should be between the two leaders who could “call the tune” – he and Salmond should have the debate. (Later, the prime minister’s spokesman said that Cameron did not actually want such a debate and was “just making a point”.)
When Tory defence minister Anna Soubry appeared on the BBC’s Question Time a day later, she, too, spoke about Salmond as if he were still in charge of the SNP.
Clearly, the Tories plan to continue to use the spectre of Salmond in power to persuade English voters that support for Miliband risks the stability of the UK. The facts that Salmond is neither SNP leader nor even, right now, an MP are mere details. He is a household name in England and that will do.
This short-termist tactic might well help fight off the immediate threat to the Conservatives – the emergence of Labour as the largest party in May – but will hardly do much to persuade a very great many Scots that they are valued members of the UK “family”.
Having spent the two years before the referendum reassuring Scots that we are as valued as any other UK citizens, Cameron’s message is aimed squarely at the English.
An infuriating tactic of the SNP’s is to accuse any opponent who dares criticise its policies of talking down Scotland. Cameron’s use of Salmond in this way can only fuel that narrative. To the army of Yessers-turned-SNP voters, Cameron’s apparent contempt for Salmond is contempt for their ideology.
Let’s say that Cameron’s tactic works and enough English voters are deterred from taking a punt on Miliband’s Labour. In these circumstances, the PM is not the only winner.
The SNP – which, despite all its coyness about whether it would work with Labour, has no intention of getting into government with any unionist party – would be tickled.
There would be no potentially damaging deal to strike with Miliband and no risk, if that failed, of being seen to let the Tories back into power.
Another Tory government at Westminster would do nothing but boost the SNP’s case among Scots voters.
And that’s why – unlike most leaders – First Minister Nicola Sturgeon should be delighted that her predecessor is still on the stage, still causing trouble. «