During his recent debut at Edinburgh’s Fringe Festival, Alex Salmond looked like a man who has lost a job but has yet to find a role. What, asks Euan McColm, lies in store for a man who, love him or hate him – and few are ambivalent – is undeniably one of
Alex Salmond's transformation from politician to comedian has received mixed reviews
If things had gone to plan, he’d have earned his place in the history books as the father of an independent Scotland. His achievement would have marked him out as one of the most successful statesmen of his time. In due course, there would have been statues. Perhaps a poem would be written.
But things didn’t go to plan. Alex Salmond was rebuffed in 2014’s independence referendum and now, almost three years later, the 62-year-old is not only an ex-First Minister, he’s an ex-politician, carving out a new career in showbusiness.
On a dreich Sunday afternoon in mid-August, the former leader of the SNP began the sell-out run of his hastily-conceived Edinburgh Fringe show, ‘Alex Salmond Unleashed’, a production for the existence of which we may thank (or, if you are one of the theatre critics dispatched to see the show, blame) the voters of Gordon who, in June, brought to an end his political career.
Rejection by the electorate will have stung Salmond who, for all his bullishness, is deeply sensitive to criticism. That he lost his seat to a member of the Conservative Party, those great bogeymen of Scottish nationalist rhetoric, will have made the experience doubly painful.
Salmond will, however, have been much comforted by the fact his show was the runaway success of the Fringe. Initial dates sold out within hours, necessitating the addition of extra performances. Salmond was predictably cock-a-hoop about this fact. ‘It is incredible that we have had to extend the show not once, but twice even before the first performance,’ he crowed.
Reviews were mixed: a rather boorish double entendre
Light fantastic Alex Salmond is back in his favourite position – in the limelight. Illustration: Alexander Jackson
‘To anyone who knows this complicated man, this new phase of his career makes perfect sense’
about Salmond’s inability to satisfy various female politicians led, a day later, to First Minister Nicola Sturgeon having, rather wearily, to defend her former boss against allegations of sexism. Her predecessor’s feminist credentials couldn’t be questioned, she said – it was just that sometimes he wasn’t as funny as he thought he was.
Salmond’s adoring public, on the other hand, pronounced it a hit. Unsurprisingly, they lapped up his mix of bar-room banter and political insight; though he is no longer an elected politician, Salmond remains one of the most influential figures in the pro-independence movement and there is a large constituency ready to hang on his every word and to pay for the privilege of doing so.
To the casual observer of Scottish politics, this new phase of Salmond’s career might seem somewhat surprising but to anyone who knows this complicated man, it makes perfect sense. Salmond, says one former colleague, ‘requires attention to an almost pathological degree’.
The truth is that Salmond has always been the consummate performer. His political successes were built upon his ability to play, perfectly, the different roles required of him. As a young man with political ambitions, Salmond was staunchly leftwing. A member of the ‘79 Group’, named after the year of its foundation, he campaigned for the SNP to shake off its ‘Tartan Tory’ reputation by focusing on a socialist agenda. For their troubles, Salmond and his fellow group members were expelled by the party in 1982. At the age of just 27, his political career could have been over.
Instead, Salmond succeeded in rejoining the SNP and, this time, he would not only play by the rules, he would make them. After a brief spell as the nationalists’ vice convener for publicity – a period during which he honed his skills as a political spinner – he was selected to fight the Conservative seat of Banff and Buchan.
If his opponents doubted that Salmond, then an economist with the Royal Bank of Scotland, could take the seat, his confidence never wavered. His Conservative opponent, Albert McQuarrie, was easily defeated.
A former colleague of Salmond’s remembers: ‘Alex had been a proper leftie firebrand, the full republican deal, but when he came to fight Banff and Buchan, he was completely different. He didn’t fight it as a leftie, he fought it by winning the support Hands up if you think I’m great ‘Unleashed’ was watched predominantly by fervent nationalists and die-hard Salmond supporters.
of Tory voters. It was Tory voters he needed so he gave them a version of himself that ticked the right boxes. He went from being a guy who operated on the fringes to being someone in the mainstream.’
Confident to the point of cockiness, with an ear for a good one-liner and an unfailing willingness to make himself available to any broadcaster who requested his presence, Salmond soon became one of the most recognisable faces in Scottish politics. Within a few months, he had been elected depute leader of the SNP and was being talked about as the next leader of the SNP.
A contemporary says: ‘You have to remember that the SNP in the late 1980s wasn’t the SNP of 2017. It was still, mostly, men with beards and carrier bags full of pamphlets. We had senior figures that looked like Open University lecturers so Alex stood out a mile, anyway. He wasn’t perfect. He still isn’t perfect. But he was young and energetic and looked something like a modern politician.’
Salmond’s defeat of Maggie Ewing in the SNP’s 1990 leadership election was emphatic and he began, slowly, to modernise his party. The SNP signed up to the devolution deal offered in the 1997 referendum on whether there should be a Scottish Parliament and Salmond set about planning victory in the first Holyrood election, which was to be held in May 1999.
The nationalists’ campaign was a catastrophe. The SNP took the courageous decision of asking people to vote for them in order that they could raise taxes and people responded predictably.
Frustrated in opposition and convinced that he had been personally to blame for the SNP’s poor showing in the election, Salmond announced his resignation as party leader in 2000. In 2001, he departed Holyrood for the House of Commons. Once again, Salmond’s political career could have been over.
And it would have been if only Nicola Sturgeon hadn’t once been so unpopular among SNP members. In 2004, Salmond’s successor as SNP leader, John Swinney, resigned following mounting pressure from opponents within a party then hopelessly divided. Sturgeon was the preferred candidate of modernisers such as Salmond but party members quickly swung behind Roseanna Cunningham, a republican of uncompromising views who he considered absolutely the wrong person for the job.
Thus, four years after resigning under the apprehension he had damaged the SNP, Salmond returned to the role of leader. Not, as the spin went at the time, because he had been seized by a new enthusiasm for the job but because he thought Cunningham would damage the party irreparably.
Two years later, it was time for yet another version of Alex Salmond; 2006 was the year the SNP decided to ditch its negative messaging and go with something more positive. Overnight, Salmond transformed from a whinging grievancehunter into a none-more-optimistic champion of a
‘Confident to the point of cockiness, he has an ear for a good one-liner’
dynamic Scotland. He seduced unionists – well, enough of them to swing the 2007 Holyrood election – with the promise that a vote for the SNP was not necessarily a vote for independence. If one wanted honest, competent government bundled up with meaningless platitudes about ambition for Scotland, the nationalists were the party for you.
As First Minister, Salmond developed a reputation for being a demanding, even occasionally unreasonably so, boss, but also a fiercely loyal one. As a former colleague says: ‘He can be an absolute monster to work for. If you screw up he will tear you to pieces but if one of your opponents goes after you, he will defend you completely. And he’ll enjoy doing it.’ Many of Salmond’s opponents have learned the painful way that he likes his meat bloody.
Defeat in 2014’s referendum made Salmond’s departure from Government inevitable. Not all of his colleagues were completely heartbroken by his decision to return, once more, to Westminster.
One nationalist politician says: ‘Nicola couldn’t have had Alex cluttering up the backbenches behind her for too long. She wanted him out so it was clear she was in charge.’
Salmond had not always paid much attention to this fact, regularly intervening on the issue of the timing of a second independence referendum, regardless of whatever position the First Minister might have adopted.
The Alex Salmond defeated in June was not the great optimist who turned the SNP from a party of perpetual losers into a winning machine. Simmering resentment over defeat in the independence referendum has seen him indulge in prolonged and unseemly attacks on anyone – be they civil servant or BBC journalist – whom he considers to have behaved dishonourably during the referendum campaign. At times, he’s been in danger of looking a little obsessive. Perhaps, then, defeat was just what he needed.
One former colleague doubts it, but adds: ‘It’s what the SNP needed. Alex used to be our greatest asset but he was becoming a liability. For every voter who loved him, one and a bit voters hated him. There’s no appetite to get him back into either the Commons or Holyrood.’
Alex Salmond has recently learned how swiftly politicians – even big beasts like him – can fall from favour with both the public and colleagues. If nothing else, he should be well prepared for a life in showbiz.
‘Alex used to be our greatest asset but he was becoming a liability’
Double act The former First Minister with a Donald Trump impersonator and Tory Minister David Davis, who was a guest on his show.
Headscratcher: What next for a man who has lost his job but has yet to find a role?