Interview with Alex Salmond

Published

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Fraser McGowan & Alastair Thomas
Deputy News Editors

After delivering his lecture in the Bute Hall to an assembled audience of staff, students and alumni, Mr Salmond spoke to student media about the upcoming general election, independence and the European Union.

Glasgow Guardian: Why does the SNP want to help facilitate stable government, by supporting a minority Labour government, within a country that it doesn’t think should exist?

Alex Salmond: Well, the SNP’s quite interesting; we’ve always been a very constitutional party, and that’s been one of the marks of our politics, and therefore always a very positive party. So when, for example, in 2007 when we achieved a plurality, one seat more than the Labour Party, people said, “Oh, they won’t go into government; they’ll sit on the opposition benches and cat call”, but we didn’t. We went into government and made the best fist of it we could, and which people judged in the next election to be pretty good. So we always tend to be positive about what can be done.

But there is an opportunity. It’s not just a question of establishing that bloc of SNP MPs and the benefits that’ll bring to Scotland. I mean, John Major, at one point in the Telegraph today, said, “Oh no, how dreadful! There’ll be benefits to Scotland.” How does he think that’s going to go down in the Scottish constituencies? “There’ll be benefits, oh dear. How dreadful!” But it’s not just about the benefits to Scotland; it’s about the idea that there’s going to be the opportunity in these islands to move the agenda towards progressive politics, and I think Nicola has outlined this brilliantly in the debates.

Now, sometimes in politics it’s quite useful to think of the extent of the amazing thing that’s happened. After the two debates, in the YouGov polls, Nicola Sturgeon was accorded to be the person people would most like to support across the UK. In Scotland, she dominated – something like 65% to 12% – but across the UK she was adjudged to be the person that people would most like to vote for, and that’s an extraordinary achievement. But it’s also about the core of the message, that it is distinctive from offerings of the three established parties at Westminster. All three of them are offering austerity-concentrated, austerity-lite, or austerity-diluted. All three are offering austerity, and Nicola has outlined a case, backed by the Financial Times, about how we can move away from an austerity agenda. That’s what’s capturing the imagination. There’ll be other individual policies too: there are lots of people in England who don’t want to spend £100bn on nuclear weapons, so there’s a reservoir of support that Nicola’s tapping into. There are a lot of people who are watching her on the telly and thinking “I wish we could vote for that lady.”

Guardian: That being the case, the SNP might end up making the rest of the UK more like Scotland, so isn’t there a risk that there might actually be a decline in support for independence if the SNP can be seen to have a positive influence on Westminster politics?

Salmond: I think people will always know the difference between trying to edge things in the right direction and move away from austerity, and the importance of having control of your own resources and your own destiny. I think there’s a particular opportunity at the present moment because politics in Britain is a) very finely balanced and b) very desultory. They’re like First World War generals; they’re fighting a trench warfare campaign, both Tories and Labour. They’re fighting for a no-score draw, basically; they’re either First World War generals or the Italian football team.

So there is a particular opportunity at this election, but it’s not always like that, this is a position that hasn’t really occurred since the 1970s, so it depends on the stars coming into a certain alignment. There are two things that have to happen: one is that there has to be a huge SNP surge forward in Scotland, but secondly you’ve got to have a balanced position elsewhere. These stars are in alignment at the present moment and it looks like a fantastic, exciting opportunity, but I think people are able to distinguish that from the position that, as Nicola had put it, one of the things about independence is that people in Scotland would get the government they vote for at every election, and that would seem to be a pretty strong argument for independence.

Guardian: Regardless of the consequences, can independence always be right for Scotland? Is the principle what’s important to you?

Salmond: I think there’s an argument for self-determination being the best state for any nation, and the reason for that is one of the aspects of independence is that a country, a society, a people express their identity through a political process. But people have to be able to rectify their mistakes in politics. If you make a mistake, you have to claim responsibility and strive to do better, just like you claim advantage from things you do well, so I think independence is the right state, the natural state for a nation and therefore I argue for it on that basis, as well as the wellbeing of the Scottish people.

Let me give you an example. One of the successes the Scottish government has had, in very difficult circumstances, is that in Scotland we now have the third highest number of women in the workplace. That’s 74% of working-age women working in Scotland at the moment, which is third, I think, to Iceland and Denmark, and we’ve shot up in the league table and we’re now four or five per cent ahead of the rest of the UK and certainly ahead of England on this. Now, some of that is due to the expansion of nursery education, some it is due to a range of other policies incidentally. Nicola wants to expand that nursery education policy much further and move to school hours for nursery-age children, a big expansion of a policy.

Now, the connection with your question is this. The success thus far, and all of these women getting back into the workplace, not just women incidentally, but it is a policy that affects women’s ability to be in the workplace, is the benefits from that – their income tax, their VAT, their national insurance – has fallen to George Osborne. All of that has gone to George Osborne. If the nursery education policy hadn’t been pursued and expansion of employment hadn’t been as high and the revenues had been lower, he’s had the benefit of that expansion. And I have to tell you, the very last thing that George Osborne has thought of doing over the last few years, as he’s had hundreds of pounds flowing into his Exchequer from that policy, is to say “my goodness me, I’ll send that back up to Scotland in order to invest further in nursery education”. It’s an example of if you have a successful policy, you should take the benefits from that successful policy, because the success of that policy is necessary to finance the next leap forward that Nicola is planning. So I think whether it’s a policy which fails that you have to rectify or whether it’s a policy that’s successful where you should get the benefits from. I suppose it’s an argument for moral hazard.

Guardian: Say, in a hypothetical situation, Scotland were financially worse off under independence, would you still think it’s the right thing for Scotland?

Salmond: Well, I think Scotland will be better off as an independent country…

Guardian: Even if it were poorer?

Salmond: Well, (pause) er, let me answer this in two ways. There is no observable evidence that Scotland would be poorer. If Scotland becomes independent, there would be no country on this earth who has ever gone to independence in a more favourable circumstance. And this is an argument that is dying a death in Scotland, saying “oh my goodness, this country, that country can be independent but not Scotland…” People who believe, incidentally, that the United Kingdom as it currently exists, exists in a framework where the south-east of England subsidises, through its benevolence, the rest of the country, misunderstand totally the reality of the economics behind these islands.

The economics, that have been one of the most attractive things about the SNP manifesto, I thought, was the fast-rail between Edinburgh, Glasgow and Newcastle, in the sense that it’s a great example of how currently the economics of the UK favour one part of the country. And fast-rail, never mind that it’s the slowest fast-rail in history, is a great illustration of how that expenditure is paid for by everyone. But clearly, not even its greatest proponents would argue a line between London and Birmingham was going to be an enormous use to Newcastle or Carlisle. So that’s a prime example of how the economics of the UK are set in one direction. I think Scotland will be better off, but I think in particular we’ll be able to charge our politics in a positive direction. For politics to become positive, to get the energy, the excitement, which we’ve seen in Scotland since the referendum, you’ve got to be able to direct policy, otherwise politics becomes negative.

When I got expelled from the House of Commons for the poll tax, and I was right to make the point, I’m absolutely certain of that, but when you think about the nature of the politics, Scotland was being done down because of the poll tax and the energy of the politics was to stop the poll tax, and that was a great campaign, but it was a negative campaign, to try and stop something happening to Scotland, as opposed to the sort of politics which has opened by self-determination and people’s energy. They’re saying, “how do we make things better? what can we do constructively to make the country better? what can we do to create the sort of society that most people want to have?” People have become engaged in politics since the referendum, and yes, of course we don’t want the bedroom tax and we don’t want £100bn on nuclear weapons, it’s actually people saying that this is a political process that can actually be effective and can be changed, you know, “here’s my idea, here’s my contribution, how does this fit in?” and that can only happen when you have the power to do so. Some dramatic stats… 32% of of 16-25 year olds are certain to vote in this election, and 67% of the same age group in Scotland. That is because people are energised by the idea they can make a difference.

Qmunicate: How do you think this election differs from the last in terms of social media, especially considering the social media response to the TV debates, candidates making unwise comments on websites like Twitter and Facebook? What do you think the impact of that will be?

Salmond: Well, my view is that social media is overwhelmingly positive. I don’t have much time for these people who tut-tut social media. “Oh, look what somebody said about such-and-such” – of course some candidates, some people, say unwise things, cruel things, and I think people on social media should be responsible just as everybody else is, and indeed, it can be illegal to do that. But, that is a flip side of something which has an enormous positive side. People who sort of dwell on the negative, as of course the deadwood press do, it’s in their interest to dwell on the negatives of social media, of course it is. Ultimately, for most of them, it’s a huge challenge, so clearly they’re going to dwell on the negative, but the overwhelming aspect of it is positive. My view is that if we had fought the referendum campaign 10 years ago, we’d have got pretty soundly beat, because we controlled none of the great established organs of information, whereas [social media] made it an even contest; a much, much more even contest, a much more level playing field, because social media is fundamentally democratic. It has its disadvantages, it has its imperfections, it has its silliness, or worse, of course it has, but it’s fundamentally democratic. Things like social media, in terms of the impact, tend to be judged on good quality. The things that are trending are good things. Angry Salmond, my parody site, has more followers than Jim Murphy’s real site. That is true, but that’s because there is more quality in my parody site.

Qmunicate: Nicola Sturgeon was deemed the “Most Dangerous Woman in Britain” a couple of weeks ago, and this morning John Major said that a Labour-SNP deal would cause mayhem. What kind of effect do you think this heavily-loaded language will have, so close to the election, on the British public?

Salmond: Three weeks ago, I was demonised as having Ed Miliband in my top pocket. […] Incidentally, I think it’s a foolish campaign for the Tories to fight for a whole range of reasons. One really foolish thing is that you should never put your opponents on your literature. I found that out many, many years ago. Michael Forsyth, who came into the news again today, was a very, very unfortunate Conservative minister in Scotland in 1997, now Lord Forsyth of Brig o’Doon, or whatever he’s called, something like that, and he was quoted as saying that if Scotland became independent he’d leave the country, and because he was so unpopular I thought “Oh, that’s great. We’ll have a poster saying ‘Michael for South’.” I thought, that’s really witty, and what we found was, after printing 100,000 of these things, we couldn’t give them away, because people looked at it and thought it was a Michael Forsyth leaflet. It was just about the stupidest thing I’ve ever done – well, I’ve done other stupid things, but it was one of the stupidest things I’ve ever done in politics. I learned an essential lesson – never put your opponent on your literature.

One of the other times an opponent has been on literature was the Tories’ “demonise” campaign against Blair in 1997. You won’t remember, but anybody who studies politics, the Tories thought it would be a fantastic idea in 1997, […] this was before we found out there was an element of truth in it, after Iraq and all the rest of it, but they thought they would portray Tony Blair as Demonaz; Blair won a landslide majority. I think they got an award for the cleverest poster of the campaign, and got thumped in the election. Never put your opponents on your posters – that would be my first advice.

My second advice is this: demonising Nicola Sturgeon [is not an effective strategy.] The problem with trying to demonise Nicola is that she’s just done these debates. Everybody has had an opportunity to see her; she’s just been in everybody’s living room, and through the social media and that. You can’t demonise somebody like that – it’s impossible. So it’s really foolish and, sort of disinterring John Major, I mean, what age were you when John Major was Prime Minister? John Major went out of office in 1997, so he’s going to speak with real authority to you in this campaign. But if you don’t remember John Major, and there are people like me who do, you will remember that he is the Prime Minister who lost every single Conservative seat in the whole of Scotland. So it does seem to me to follow that if the Tory Party’s salvation is to disinter John Major, if the cavalry riding over the hill to the rescue is the guy who lost every seat, you’re in a pretty pass I would have thought. I don’t think demonising Nicola Sturgeon is effective, I don’t think putting your opponents on your literature is effective, and I think Tory and Labour are fighting desultory campaigns, and they’ll get a desultory result.

GUST: This has been a very domestic campaign, even with major international issues such as Russia and Ukraine, and so on. Do you think that there is a major trend in Britain only to think in terms of domestic politics, and not politics within the wider EU or a global context?

Salmond: Yeah, and I think there is an aspect of that, which is extremely disappointing. For example, the refugee crisis in the Mediterranean is a huge issue for people. It’s also a huge issue which, actually, as the question asked to me today, reflects on the European issue. I did a speech a year or so back in Bruges. I was trying to reflect, a long time ago, Margaret Thatcher made an anti-European speech in Bruges, and I was trying to make a pro-European speech, because when in Bruges you make a pro-European speech in my opinion. So I made it, and that speech was about how Europe should be reclaiming the social agenda. People who are pro-European, as I am, who wanted to see a pro-European aspect to politics, then Europe would have to give people an agenda that they could see to support. I was saying that there is this social Europe agenda which was hugely successful in the 1990s in changing people’s impression of Europe. This is it, this is where it lies; people are sick and tired of inequality, austerity, the extent of things, and if Europe could seize that agenda, [for example] in terms of the living wage. I was pointing out, the stipulation which stops national governments from enforcing a living wage, not just a minimum wage, but a living wage in terms of public contractors, is a European competition law. It’s a classic example of where Europe should be turning that round on its head.

Now, equally, you could apply that to the refugee crisis in the Mediterranean; it’s a classic example of where you’d want Europe to be leading the way, to be making an issue. Now, of course, the Commissioner will say “Well, it wasn’t us, it was national governments… the UK wouldn’t do this, they wouldn’t pay that…” and all the rest of them, but it’s a classic example of where people who are interested in collective action at a European level would want to see Europe seize the agenda, [so that it is not] in the position as it has been this week of being under condemnation from the United Nations.

So, incidentally, apart from immigration, Europe has hardly been mentioned in this campaign. They all said that Europe would be a dominating issue because of UKIP, but UKIP’s message has [gone from] Europe to immigration because they think that is the issue they’ll get purchase on, when they can’t get purchase on the European issue as a whole, and that would have been, still is perhaps, an issue where pro-Europeans, as the questioner asked, should be articulating a different vision and saying “this is exactly what we want”, not just what Europe hasn’t been doing, but what Europe should be doing […] So I think it’s a matter of great regret, it’s the nature of politics, but I do think that people have more vision, more empathy, more understanding, more compassion, than certainly Westminster politicians allow for. There is a whole army of people waiting to be led on these issues, and waiting to contribute on these issues.

GUST: Do you agree that the same kind of opportunity is opening up for progressive politics as Thatcher seized for Neoliberal politics?

Salmond: Yeah. I think in politics there tends to be cycles of impression and people’s wishes. Obviously, in Scotland some of that optimism conveyed during the referendum campaign, there’s a real thirst, but further afield as well, I think there is a huge market out there for progressive politics, properly articulated, properly understood, properly reflected. I think Labour missed an enormous opportunity in this campaign. I mean, […] to allow themselves to get boxed in. In 1997, when Labour won the election by a landslide, they fought what was known as a triangulated campaign. They didn’t even have to do anything to beat Major; they just had to stand there. You stay upright, you beat Major, right. But this isn’t that time. […] They fought this triangulated campaign because they are scared stiff of the Daily Mail, the Daily Telegraph, the Tory press. […]

The first time that Cameron said to Miliband “You’re relying on the SNP, or Alex Salmond, or Nicola Sturgeon, isn’t that dreadful” – Miliband’s response on that very first occasion at Prime Minister’s Questions should have been “You’ve just conceded the election: you’ve just said I’m going to be Prime Minister. Now we can argue about how I’m going to be Prime Minister, we can debate that if you want, but let’s just get established the fact that you think I’m going to be Prime Minister, you’ve just conceded the election.” As soon as you do that, you take the whole situation differently. The fundamental underlying mistake of Labour’s campaign is to get themselves boxed into an austerity agenda. You can’t excite a campaign on the basis of “Listen, see our austerity, it’s slightly nicer than their austerity.” It just doesn’t work, and for the Liberals to say “Well listen, they’ve got big austerity, they’ve got wee austerity, we’ve got kind of medium-sized austerity somewhere safely in between,” that’s not going to work either.

This is an election, as Nicola has done, where a position had to be carved out for a responsible, certainly, for coherent, definitely, for sustainable, absolutely, move away from an austerity agenda. Now we’ve reached a situation, which you can argue we have, where the Financial Times editorial is to the left of the Conservative, Liberal and Labour parties, then we’ve reached a pretty pass in politics, and it opens up the full extent of the economic, political and social opportunity [for] progressive politics.