This piece was published in The Big Issue in May 2011.
Alex Salmond has been fighting election campaigns for almost a quarter of a century. He enjoys it, more than most politicians. Over the years he has found few opponents to match his rhetorical skill and relaxed self-assurance. He likes to argue, likes to persuade, likes the attention a Scottish election brings to his party, so often deemed irrelevant when the time comes to decide who rules at Westminster.
The 2011 campaign is going well. Endorsements, television performances and the timing of the manifesto launch could not have gone much more smoothly.
Conducting interviews the day an Ipsos-MORI poll shows a double-digit SNP lead, the First Minister is in jubilant mood. Even an early breakfast conference with business leaders has not sapped his high spirits, nor his appetite. Entering the hotel suite, he picks up a plate of sweeties and moves them to the other end of the table. “Take them away, take them away. I yield too easily to temptation…”
Confidence has never been a problem for Salmond, and he sees no reason for caution in the final days before voters take to the polling stations. “What I sense is, we’re winning,” he beams. “It ain’t over till the fat lady sings, till the final whistle blows – whatever analogy you want to use, but if the election was held tomorrow, we’d win.
“So I’m very confident. We fight an incredibly positive campaign, we always have. Our manifesto is all about what we want to do. I don’t know how you’d express it about Labour…” he trails off, only half-coy about setting up a sound bite. “A two-dimensional party for a 3D age? They’re out of date.”
Salmond’s staff affectionately refer to “The Boss”. His garrulous nature can play havoc with schedules, but they know they need not keep tight rein on their beloved chieftain. Much has been made of Salmond’s brassy decision to put his own name on the ballot paper, and the presidential nature of the SNP campaign. Huge donations from Stagecoach’s Brian Souter allow the First Minister to travel by helicopter – Saltire One – to marginal constituencies.
His ease when journeying off-script, rare for a politician, helped land recent appearances and larger audiences on Question Time and Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs. He was delighted to receive emails from the American South, asking about his country and western song choices, but mourns the producers cut a long story about Johnny Cash’s search for ancestral graves in Fife.
If there is a touch of truth in David Cameron’s description of the SNP leader as a Latin American populist – “El Presidente Salmondo” – no doubt this is part of his appeal.
Many seem to like the idea of a Scottish performer looking for as large a stage as possible. He scoffs at the idea he has wasted too much time on international initiatives such as the ‘Year of Homecoming’.
If re-elected, the incumbent will continue to use his office to promote Scotland around the world. “If you regard yourself as having nothing to say, if you regard yourself as part of a provincial outpost of a greater London empire, which I’m afraid my rivals tend to do, then nobody will be interested in you,” he says (before telling a long story about China’s Vice Premier Li Keqiang ending a British Council banquet speech in London with the Gaelic toast ‘slange var’).
“I’d have more time for Labour criticisms if they had more ambition for the country,” he continues. “I think it’s particularly true of the current set of Labour politicians. I don’t think it was true of Henry McLeish. Henry had ambition. In certain regards, Jack McConnell had ambition, though it was too limited.
“I think their sole aim at the moment is to get back in charge in what they regard as their birthright. They hope they can get the habitual Labour vote – people who have always voted Labour and have never thought about it. I just don’t think that’s there in the numbers required for them anymore.”
Labour’s back-to-basics “doorstep election” suggests they have conceded the presentation war to their charismatic rival. Iain Gray dubs Salmond a “showman”. Is the showman flattered by so much talk about his personal charm? “I have difficulty recognising that in myself, obviously,” he grins.
“The SNP are offering a team in this election. We’re not a one-man band, we’re an orchestra. If I was to go out there and get knocked over by a bus, people would ask, ‘Why was the bus going in the wrong direction?’ Another question would be the political affiliations of the bus driver. The question that wouldn’t have to be asked is: would there be someone or some people capable of stepping in to my role? It’s fairly obvious there would be.”
If his party’s ambition has proved attractive with electorate, its flag now planted firmly in Labour’s left-of-centre territory, popularity could prove difficult to sustain after May 5. If the SNP claim a second win, straitened finances will make it tough to deliver so many bold pledges: a five-year council tax freeze; an £11.5bn capital investment programme and £250m ‘Scottish Futures Fund’; protecting the public sector from compulsory redundancies; pushing university tuition fees off the table.
What does Salmond expect traditionally sceptical Scots to make of his party’s plan to meet 100 per cent of energy production through renewables by 2020 (one the chief executives of Scottish Engineering calls “cloud cuckoo land”)? Should we consider it a leap-of-faith target, like John F Kennedy’s aspiration to put a man on the moon by the end of the decade?
“Well, Kennedy did put a man of the moon by the end of the decade – just in at 1969, but they managed it,” he chuckles. “Yes, of course it’s ambitious, but where are we going to be in Scotland if we’re not ambitious? You think these companies would commit if they didn’t believe Scotland is in the world lead in these technologies?”
Salmond remains a glass half-full kind of guy. He talks about the battle between “an imbued pessimism in certain Scots” and the “flights of optimism” he wants to inspire. If he has doubts about whether enough of his countrymen will take up the cause of independence, he keeps them to himself. We Scots have “resilience”, he says, a quality that can harden into hope of better times ahead.
There is another very Scottish tendency to suspect anyone too full of themselves. But Salmond has tapped into something very powerful. He has come to personify confidence in a country where people have long struggled for it.
Such optimism does not last indefinitely. For the meantime, however, El Presidente plays to the crowd, and – for the meantime – the crowd is happy to play right along.