THE JOKER

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

Scottish Field - - CONTENTS -

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?

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