Euan McColm: Back seat driver Salmond's project ego

SALMOND'S insistence that indyref 2 would be the inevitable consequence of a vote for Brexit does nothing to help Remain or his former deputy, writes Euan McColm

Salmonds successor might prefer him to pipe down, but his platform at Westminster ensures his opinions always make the news. Original photograph: Jane Barlow/PA
Salmonds successor might prefer him to pipe down, but his platform at Westminster ensures his opinions always make the news. Original photograph: Jane Barlow/PA

You’ll be familiar, I’m sure, with the dramatic cliché of the weary middle-aged man who gets made redundant but doesn’t tell his family.

This character, who appears in countless films and TV shows, continues with his routine, getting up for work each day and catching the train. But instead of spending the next eight hours being a top lawyer or a sensitive architect, he sits in the park, watching the world going past and providing the story’s pathos quotient.

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This hackneyed old storyline tells us all about the fragility of ego and the willingness of the wounded to comfort themselves with delusion. Eventually, after running up thousands of pounds in credit card debts or having an affair with an inappropriately young art historian who understands and – improbably – finds him completely captivating, our “hero” is forced to confront reality: he’s a 52-year-old man, wearing jeans from Marks and Spencer’s Blue Harbour range.

In some ways, former First Minister Alex Salmond reminds me of that tired character. He may no longer hold high office but he continues to behave as if he does. It’s as if Nicola Sturgeon’s first ministership isn’t quite the real deal as far as Salmond is concerned.

And so, every morning when Salmond rises, he doesn’t get on with the business of being a backbench MP, he pushes himself to the front, trying still to direct debate, to stamp his influence on SNP decision-making.

It is testament to the good nature of Sturgeon that she hasn’t – yet – slapped him down, but one wonders for how much longer she can afford to indulge Salmond’s apparent delusion that he’s still running the show.

During a televised debate on the European Union referendum on Thursday, the former first minister (that means you’re not still in the job, Alex) gave a convincing impression of a man who thinks he’s in charge.

Should the result of the EU referendum be that the UK votes to leave while a majority of Scots wish to remain, there would be a second independence referendum, explained Salmond.

This line is not a new one. In fact, Sturgeon used it for many months before, earlier this year, she ditched it on the grounds that she doesn’t actually want a second independence referendum while no majority exists.

But not only did Salmond revive the threat of indyref 2, he fleshed it out with details.

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According to Salmond, this second independence referendum – which, of course, would be won by the Yes campaign – would take place within two years of the EU vote.

What’s more, said the former first minister, the SNP’s successes in the Westminster and Holyrood elections meant the party had a mandate to hold a second independence referendum if Scotland voted in favour of EU membership but the UK as a whole voted to leave.

Let’s take that point first. The SNP does not have a majority at either Westminster or Holyrood and neither of its manifestos promised an independence referendum. That doesn’t add up to a mandate. This was classic Salmond bluff and bluster.

As for his talk of a second independence referendum, well, where does one begin?

There is a very good reason why Sturgeon went cold on the notion that the EU referendum result might trigger a second vote on Scottish independence. And the reason is she knows that it’s nonsense.

There is not now, nor has there been at any point since September 2014, majority support for Scottish independence. All the SNP’s talk of No voters wishing to be persuaded is rather contradicted by opinion polls and election results that have shown there is a solid unionist vote. Splits along party lines may mean unionist voters cannot stop the SNP in elections but that majority backing for the Union would win the day in another independence referendum.

Sturgeon’s line was fine as something to keep the troops happy when the EU vote was a long way off but she doesn’t want to see it through should the scenario painted by Salmond become reality.

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The First Minister (the actual one, not you, Alex) is acutely aware that the major stumbling block for those No voters who might just be persuaded 
to change their minds (and we truly don’t know how many of those people exist) was uncertainty over the economy. The SNP’s failure to offer compelling answers on currency and public spending has not yet been addressed by the party and it’s difficult to see how the EU result – whatever it may be – would make those problems go away.

And what of this two-year timescale? Does Salmond really think that a second independence referendum could be organised and run in just two years at the same time as the UK was negotiating its exit from the EU?

My suspicion is that Salmond simply hasn’t thought through his position. Nor – and this should be of huge importance to those who do believe in Scottish independence – has he thought through the implications for Sturgeon of his intervention.

The First Minister deserves from all of her colleagues, including her predecessor, support in achieving her aims. Sturgeon cannot be expected to jump when Salmond demands it. He may be sore about defeat in 2014 but that doesn’t justify any attempt to bounce his successor into a second referendum that she’d lose.

Salmond’s intervention in the EU debate was typically bullish. It was also unhelpful both to the Remain campaign, which he purports to support, and the leader of his party.

Senior SNP figures – or the ones not fuelled by ego – concede in private that it looks like they’ve little choice but to uphold their promise that the last independence referendum was a once in a generation opportunity.

Salmond’s apparent inability to accept he’s no longer running the show won’t change that reality.