Natalie McGarry: Sticks, stones and loads of moans

Picture: Jane Barlow
Picture: Jane Barlow
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Vitriolic attacks on the First Minister seem to reveal more about his rivals’ insecurities than his own failings, writes Natalie McGarry

A popular fictional wizard said, “If you’re holding out for universal popularity, I’m afraid you will be in this cabin for a very long time”. Given the most recent series of attacks on the person, the figure and the motivations of Alex Salmond, Scotland’s fourth First Minister will recognise an inherent truth in those words. He isn’t staying in his cabin though. There is too much at stake and Mr Salmond is no conformist.

Whilst politics by its very nature is divisive, the discourse almost wholly reserved (in Scotland at least) for evaluating the pros and cons of Alex Salmond is characterised online, and in the House of Commons, with the kind of language that a perusal of Twitter to find it should not be attempted by those of a sensitive disposition.

The attacks on Mr Salmond are not the sole domain of the nameless and faceless online. He is subjected to barrages of abuse; and a commentary almost bordering on obsessional by political strategists and opposition elected members. Senior Labour Party MPs figures like George Foulkes, Ian Davidson and Scottish deputy leader Anas Sarwar are so intimidated by the success of the SNP in recent years that they have taken refuge in dispensing disgusting and incomprehensible comparators.

Their choice of rhetoric flies in the face of acceptable political skirmishing. “Il Duce”, “neofascism”, and “dictatorship” should not be the first terms used to describe a democratically elected leader or his/her government, at least by those of a serious political disposition. In their desire to smear Mr Salmond they make a mockery of the experiences of those who genuinely lived under such regimes or continue to do so.

Only a fortnight ago, Johann Lamont’s aide-de-camp, Paul Sinclair, thought it appropriate to ask on Twitter whether the First Minister was “an arse”. That Mr Sinclair’s timeline also displays a disturbing fascination with Mr Salmond should speak volumes about the vacuum and lack of depth and confidence in the Labour Party. You cannot distinguish between private and public behaviours of political strategists who choose to personalise a criticism of a political opponent in public no matter what they say.

Meanwhile, the official No campaign group Better Together appear to have learned how to ply their trade at the feet of New Labour spin doctors. Personalised campaigning against the First Minister forms a large part of their “positive campaign” for the union. Given their, and the UK coalition’s, reported satisfaction with the polling information and trends in recent months, what is it with their obsession with Mr Salmond and their fevered need to take him down?

Mr Salmond conformed to no traditional political route to the top. He is neither political fish nor fowl; not characterised by a rise smoothed by privilege or by earning his stripes in the Labour movement. In any other circumstances he would be in Labour given his background, but his rejection of the party as the inevitable home of those of a left-wing disposition must continue to rankle. He and his government are the first proper evidence that the Labour Party is not the only game in town. There are those in the Labour Party who are still alternatively stunned and outraged at the audacity of the SNP to “steal” their natural constituency without recognising that New Labour rejected the constituency and not vice versa.

Devolution was meant to kill the independence movement, and by dint of that the SNP, “stone dead”. In the first two Holyrood terms it looked like this would be more than a hypothetical presumption. The SNP found little foothold in the first election to the Scottish Parliament in 1999 and their representation declined in 2003. It looked like an electoral slump was to be Salmond’s only political legacy as he skulked off back to Westminster with his tail firmly between his legs.

However, devolution and a more proportional voting system afforded the SNP much greater representation and a period of relatively effective opposition showed them to be a credible force. Cue a Salmond return, a fantastically strategised campaign in 2007 and the SNP were in minority government.

Mr Salmond is a political chameleon; the master strategist. He is also a big beast in a small pond. There is no contemporary Labour figure who can compete with him, even at Westminster. That makes it imperative for his opponents to discredit him in the public eyes.

In any other circumstance, the sight of a first minister or prime minister representing their country at a sporting event would barely warrant a mention or merely form an addendum to a story of sporting triumph. Instead, Mr Salmond’s every move is scrutinised to ensure that he gains no political advantage from his status as a democratically elected first minister.

Despite the background of the independence referendum, the constant scrutiny of their key policies and their being a second term of government, the SNP fail to adhere to the usual political norm of mid-term slump and retain an almost undented popularity. Mr Salmond’s personal popularity continues to outstrip that of any other political leader in Scotland. Indeed, most of them barely have the recognisability factor. No matter how large the mallet used to beat him down, Mr Salmond is like a political Whack-a-Mole. No matter how hard you hit him, he pops up somewhere else.

It is a matter of political legend that the SNP successfully overturned an almost 15 per cent Labour Party poll lead in the later stages of 2010 to win an historic victory in May 2011. Whilst current appetites for independence require a slightly larger swing to secure a Yes vote, No strategists will be taking no chance that the Salmond-effect impacts. They haven’t learned much though; the Labour Party used the same strategy against Salmond and the SNP in 2011.

Regardless, it is a good thing Salmond has a rhino hide and an ego to match. I’d advise him to avoid searching his name online as a precaution though.