As Alex Salmond stepped out of the political limelight last weekend, I was reminded of a rare encounter with a middle class, conservative, yes voter during the referendum. Our conversation was inevitably stilted and largely consisted of an awkward and very Scottish search for common ground. This turned out to be sympathy for the then First Minister:
‘The things that man has had to endure,’ she remarked, I nodded with relief as our brief moment of unity was neatly sealed by the arrival of tea and biscuits.
For unionists too, Eck has become a kind of unifier. At the launch of David Torrance’s referendum diary, 100 Days of Hope and Fear, Salmond was by far the dominant talking point and Torrance’s encounters with him were the subject of every extract the audience was treated to. Save for one audience member who suggested the former First Minister ‘behaves like an African dictator’ the crowd engaged in gentle, fond mockery. It’s clear that for ally and enemy alike, Salmond is a figure of vast significance, whose flaws and eccentricities provoke an odd kind of fascination from across the political spectrum.
Both the repartee between biographer and subject and hysterical caricature tell us something about what recently happened to Scottish politics. Not since Scargill has the British establishment been offered so compelling a prefabricated enemy to rail against; loquacious, stubborn, alien. Darling’s Kim Jong-il, the cartoonist’s woad covered barbarian, the Scottish press corps’s ultimate bête noire: this Salmond is dangerous, atavistic, leftist, totalitarian: a monstrous threat to the British state. Democratic institutions were darkly inverted when clutched in his clammy paws, with the post 2011 Scottish Parliament described by Labour’s Anas Sarwar as ‘… not a democratic place in the conventional sense, it is a dictatorship of one man sitting in Bute House’.
It often seemed that, rather than a pro-Union campaign, Better Together was really intent on running an anti-Salmond one. Hardly an answer was given, hardly a point sallied forth in favour of union, without being prefaced by an obligatory, ‘Alex Salmond tells us…’. or ‘If Alex Salmond gets his way…’.
Any demons that Scottish nationalism may have harboured were either silent or too obscure to impact on the growth of yes, despite the best efforts of Labour to coax them out into the light. Remember, Better Together insiders were briefing journalists that they feared ‘carnage’ two weeks in advance of polling day. In retrospect there were no pro-independence elements that engaged in behaviour comparable to that of Britain First on September the 19th. In the face of that reality and in order to make independence ugly, dark and threatening: its most visible exponent had to be defamed, vilified, pilloried and his many fellow travellers reduced to mere followers.
One of the glaring ironies of post-referendum Scotland is this. Salmond, the walking, chuckling, wheezing embodiment of the British establishment’s worst nightmares, seems more energetic, on a personal level, than ever before. With his quick and calm resignation behind him, his avatar status is gone. In his place a movement can be clearly discerned: as can a host of different projects and a whole new style of leadership. In the SNP and beyond many of the most compelling political voices, both young and old, are women.
That Salmond’s time as leader has passed is a watershed. His character is writ large in the politics of contemporary Scotland and, though there is perhaps too much of the clubhouse and the boardroom for some in his politics, on many salient points his judgement and leadership aligned with the kind of society Scotland has imagined itself to be. That the seeds of the yes movement were sown by mass protests against Trident, the Poll Tax and the Iraq War is evident in its character. In that sense, though taking a stand on a given issues is fraught with short-term risks, dividends can reach forward in an entirely unforeseeable way. Whether these key decisions influencing the growth of the SNP were moral, ideological or opportunistic, it is hard to see equivalent examples in the records of any other party leader in Britain today.
It is here that we have, perhaps, the roots of both the Salmond demon and the often remarkable popularity he has enjoyed. In an age in which politics has become devoid of meaning, when leaders talk in Blairite newspeak and fight bitterly over the narrowest of constituencies, Salmond is a solid conviction politician. Skilful management of the Scottish Government over the past seven years is no doubt significant too, but competent administration alone cannot account for personal ratings that Westminster politicians can only glare at with envy. In that sense too he has long been an anathema.
For his enemies this does not add up: how could a megalomaniac snake oil salesman have based such success on principles? Such misreading explains the current crisis within Labour’s ranks far more than they would care to admit. Who can describe in a word what defines Ed Miliband’s politics? Some might say socialism, but Ed will most certainly not, as he campaigns to become Prime Minster. As a central policy independence is controversial, it is (like socialism) ‘divisive’. But whatever its flaws, as a conviction its presence as an ever-fixed mark for many means that in Scotland ideas and passions have come to the fore again.
Today, opponents and supporters alike remain keen to talk about Alex Salmond. At some point soon however, this will have to fade. The role of a very different SNP will have to take centre stage.
When that point is reached establishment Scotland will have a choice. Will Labour seek to smear the new First Minister with the same relentless, insidious, partisan zeal it traditionally reserves for the SNP? Will the ludicrously male Scottish press corps, with the Daily Mail leading the charge, seize on Sturgeon’s personality, reviving the caricature of a ‘nippy sweetie’ as Colin Mackay described her earlier this year?
The country that Alex Salmond has left behind him is still changing. Indeed, Salmond’s legacy is arguably his ability to recognise that with every incremental step, whether symbolic or tangible, Scotland moves closer to full self-government. Independence is not, perhaps never can be, a single moment of triumph. Rather, for all nations and for Scotland it is something that can happen in a way that is scarcely discernible until we look around and recognise a changed landscape.
As Scotland makes progress, a slow, perhaps inexorable pushing towards nationhood can be discerned. The conflict between gradualists and fundamentalists once suffocated the SNP, Salmond, by decisively embedding the former, allowed his party to breathe more freely. This approach recognises the complexities of Scotland’s history, but it could suggest that our path is unique, perhaps exemplary, as we continue the task of exploring what a country can and should be in the early years of a young century.
In ending Salmond’s tenure at Bute House the union seemed triumphant: Westminster’s nemesis was defeated. In retrospect it now seems entirely conceivable that, having played the man relentlessly, those who were marshalled to the defence of Britain forgot about the ball entirely.
Without Salmond and all the loving and loathing he gave rise to, the SNP has not only surged in numbers, but has moved on, seamlessly, to a new phase in its development. This tells us that certain gears are still in motion and the extent to which the victory that the union achieved was confused and compromised. Salmond the ebullient now glows with knowledge that to see resurgence in the face of utter defeat, really is politics played out with mythic proportions.
In post-Salmond Scotland however, there seems a desire for new kinds of leadership in this new context. The task of meeting this thirst for the new, with a necessary youthful energy, falls to a politician who is inevitably less flamboyant, but who is far more attuned to a politics rooted in social justice, in communities, in Glasgow.
Today it’s difficult to live in one of the few countries in the world in which a female is the head of government and not feel the pull of genuine collective pride. Such milestones are profound for any society. When they occur democracy seems to shine and quietly, cautiously, we assert that we are good at this by coming together to mark that moment of progress. It was tempting to see a glimpse of an already renewed politics in the Scottish Parliament chamber as Nicola Sturgeon was nominated as First Minister and at her inaugural First Minister’s Questions a day later. It is likely that it will be cast aside as the inevitably bitter struggle in the run up to the general election is joined. Either way, it is now impossible for any politically engaged Scot to deny that, whatever issues the party might face and for all its knots of contradiction, this new leader will come to define what Scotland will become just as decisively as her predecessor.