From protest to power: the evolution of Alex Salmond


Photo: Ruby Wight

James Maxwell

In the early 1980s, Alex Salmond was expelled from the SNP. It was judged, by the aging nationalist establishment, that the faction of which he was a leading member — the 79 Group — was too subversive and oppositionist ever to be reconciled to the centrist agenda that had formed the core of party policy for over a decade. A motion was proposed at conference, a vote was taken, and the expulsion notice duly issued.

Indeed the SNP old guard had good reason to be suspicious of this fringe element; the radicalism of the 79 Group ran deep. Its press releases and campaign pamphlets came tagged with the slogan, ‘For a socialist and republican Scotland’. It wanted to ramp up income tax on the richest, nationalise the North Sea oil reserves, abolish the Windsor monarchy, and scrap Britain’s nuclear weapons facility. Ultimately, the aim was to dislodge the traditionalists and secure the party’s credentials as genuinely redistributive, left-of-centre organisation.

Following the prohibition of the 79 Group, the SNP spent what was left of the Thatcher era wandering aimlessly across an electoral no mans land. But Salmond was, of course, eventually re-admitted to the party and now, more than twenty-five years on, he leads it in government. So what, if anything, remains of the radical energy that drove him in his days as a youthful agitator? Does he now, as Scotland’s most powerful politician, still hold to the ideals of socialism and republicanism?

I put these questions to the First Minster during a mid-afternoon meeting in the Scottish Government’s complex at Atlantic Quay, on the north banks of the Clyde.
From behind a glossy oak desk, in his bright, immaculate office, he says almost reflexively, “Well, I never was too keen on the republican aspect” – as if to eradicate in an instant any lingering ambiguity there might be with regards to his view of the British crown.

“I mean, I’ve always thought it was at best a distraction”, he continues, in a typically self-assured and polished address. “I suspect most people, most people would say that if you were starting from scratch then you wouldn’t design a monarchical system. But we’re not starting from scratch, we’re starting from a history, and you have to decide what your priorities are. And democracy is perfectly compatible with constitutional monarchy. That’s my opinion”.

What of socialism, then? Does that word have the same resonance for him today as it did thirty years ago? “Well in terms of socialism, I mean, I’m a social democrat. I have pursed social democracy throughout my political career. I suspect I’ll continue to pursue it even if I’m the last person standing to pursue it. I think social democracy is a grand way to reconcile the public purpose with economic priority, with economic realism. Most societies who pursue that model are successful, wealthy and have a value system that most of us would recognise as the sort of countries we’d like to stay in”.

Mr. Salmond has deftly navigated his way around my question. So deftly, in fact, that at first I barely notice his neat switch of phrase: ‘social democracy’ for ‘socialism’. The man lives up to his reputation for rhetorical dexterity. But he does seems to be quietly admitting that his politics have softened since his youth — that he has come to limit his political ambitions to the boundaries set by the liberal, market-orientated status quo.

If social democracy, as opposed to socialism, is his settled doctrine of choice — reform, not revolution, his preferred method of change — what kind of social democracy does he subscribe to? It is a concept that has been many times diluted, revised, and repackaged, and is now conveniently vague enough for any number of disparate political tendencies to claim it as their own.

I suggest that the SNP is engaged in a project not completely dissimilar to that undertaken by the Labour Party in the mid-1990s under Tony Blair’s leadership. On the one hand, it seeks to implement redistributive policies drawn from the European social democratic tradition, and on the other, it pursues economic growth by liberalising the market and making Scottish businesses commercially competitive by lowering corporate tax rates.

Salmond is quick to respond to this charge: “I’ve never been an economic liberaliser. I’ve certainly [supported] competitive advantage. But I’ve never looked for competitive advantage from liberalisation, from taxation certainly. I mean I have long advocated that competitive advantage from corporate tax is a good idea. Why is it a good idea? Because it attracts research and development, company head-quarters, financial divisions. So I’m in favour of competitive corporate taxation, but I’ve never been a liberaliser in terms of regulation, environmental standards, or anything else”.

Really? The First Minister has personally championed billionaire finance capitalist Donald Trump’s bid to construct a luxury golf resort in Aberdeenshire which will tear up miles of pristine coastal land regarded by many environmentalists to be of acute ecological importance. Neither has he hesitated to accept, when offered, substantial donations from reactionary bus tycoon Brian Soutar: a living embodiment of Scottish free-enterprise.

There is also the issue of his well-publicised admiration for the Irish economic model, which imposes few regulatory burdens on the market and provides little in the way of welfare services for the poorest. Salmond counters: “There are certain aspects of the Irish economic leap forward that I admire. You know, people say that the Irish economy is in deep trouble, yeah it‘s in deep trouble. But it is still thirty percent more prosperous than Scotland … I like the low corporate tax, I like the investment in education, which are the two key ingredients of what Ireland has been offering. Now, there are other aspects of the Irish model that I wouldn’t follow, but these are other aspects.” What these are exactly he doesn’t explain.

Perhaps the current economic crisis will provide an effective test of Salmond’s commitment to social democracy, forcing him to choose between slashing public investment and maintaining an even balance sheet, or sustaining it on the back of huge tax hikes. I ask him if he will follow the lead set by the Westminster parties and lay out plans to introduce a regime of ‘savage cuts’, or if, where possible, he will move to defend state expenditure?

“What we’ve done in the budget for next year, under the most trying circumstances that any administration has ever faced, is that we’ve prioritised front-line services and economic recovery … I made a speech in the budget debate in April I think it was, in the Commons … and set out what I would cut. And what I would cut is ID cards and Trident missiles … I think that the first cuts, the unkindness cuts, should be on weapons of mass destruction … and we will defend, as best we can, front line public services.”

This, to me at least, sounds less than convincing. After “the first cuts, the unkindness cuts” have been made, where else will the necessary second and third round of cuts (the “kindness cuts”, presumably) be made if not in the public sector?

Obviously, it would be absurd to conclude on this basis that the First Minster is some sort of covert Hayekian or closet Thatcherite. In fact, he is fairly explicit in his dismissal of neo-liberalism, and he speaks earnestly about the necessity of wealth redistribution. But I think the details of his, and his party’s, ideological convictions remain obscure. It is almost as if the SNP is still drifting somewhere in the 1970s, when no-one knew precisely what it wanted to do or where it wanted to go.

At this point — with the interests of ideological clarity in mind — it occurs to me to ask a simpler, more direct question. What, fundamentally, drives Salmond’s desire to break the United Kingdom into its constituent parts? Again, almost reflexively, he says, “I tend not to look upon it as that. I tend to look upon it as independence for Scotland. I don’t want to break anything apart, I want a different relationship. I have pursued for many years … the idea of a council of British isles, encompassing the countries, the nations, the islands [with] everybody working in harmony together, but self-governing … nations are better self-governing than not self-governing”.

He adds that having a single, definitive goal provides his administration with the bulk of its force and purpose, and hands it a vital advantage over its rivals.
“Having a principled objective is in short supply in politics. You know, the principle of independence for Scotland, whatever people think about it, designates the SNP as a principled party who have got a principled objective, which, in a sea of charlatans, is an advantage that the SNP has.”

That “principled objective” works against Salmond as well, though. Most Scots (seventy to seventy-five percent, at last count) seem unimpressed by his intention to tear up Britain’s 300 year-old constitutional settlement. They suspect that the process of extracting Scotland from the United Kingdom will be painful, messy and regressive. But given that a majority of Scottish voters stay consistently hostile to independence, why does Salmond’s administration remain as popular as it does?

“I think there is a general respect for the government’s ability to make decisions. And even when people occasionally don’t agree with us, there is respect for [an] administration that gets on with things. So I think that a sense of direction is the most important aspect. Competence in terms of what we are doing, but also a sense of direction in terms of where we are going to want to go.”

Is there no more to it than that? I think that the First Minister has discovered a method of disarming those hostile suspicions by relentlessly accentuating the positive case for self-rule. He has learned how to draw out that stream of aspiration in the modern Scottish psyche that other parties have overlooked or underestimated and, with the aid of ultra-slick publicity campaigns, made it a central feature of the SNP’s public identity.

Salmond contrasts this approach with that of his main challenger, Scottish Labour leader, Iain Gray: “I think [the Labour Party’s] negativity is what drives people away. I mean, you would have thought that after the 2007 election that the Labour Party would have realised that there wasn’t a premium on negativity in Scotland. You know, people have enough to moan about in their own lives without having a party moaning for the nation. Labour moans for the country at the present moment, you know … any issue, they’ll turn negative on it. Now, I think that particularly when times are tough, actually, when people are looking for a bit of hope and inspiration, the last thing they want is Iain Gray whining for Scotland”.

It is not just that Iain Gray has failed to recognise this new dimension to Scottish politics, I suggest. Labour in opposition have been shambolic. They appear incapable of organising a single effective attack on the SNP, of landing a single substantial blow — even in the middle of the worst recession in living memory; even after the Megrahi controversy. Has Salmond not been handed an electoral gift in the form of an almost comically incompetent opponent?

But I’m informed that our thirty minutes has come to an end. As I prepare to leave, the First Minister lifts a sheet of paper handed to him earlier by an aide. It is a quote from former deputy leader of the Labour Party, Roy Hattersley. He reads: “‘The popularity of the SNP is the consequence of its advance into the radical territory that Labour has abandoned.’ Sixteenth of September, this year.” He smiles like a man vindicated. More than a quarter of a century after he was kicked out of the party he now leads, more than a quarter of a century after the 79 Group, it still matters to Alex Salmond that he looks like a radical.


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