Salmond: a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma

Excerpts of  David Torrance’s much anticipated biography of Alex Salmond, Scotland’s First Minister and SNP leader, are published today in Scotland on Sunday and it’s fascinating stuff. 
 
There is no doubt that Alex Salmond is one of the great political figures of our age.  He has dominated the Scottish political stage since the 1990s, which is why so many of us want to understand what makes him tick.  Torrance’s study gives us hints and clues but I’m not sure it drills right down to his essence.  And that is probably how Salmond likes and indeed, wants it.  He is the archetypal riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma. 
 
Two observations from the excerpt stand out.  One hints at one of Salmond’s fundamental flaws, though the accusation that he doesn’t do policy is probably a bit harsh.   Under Salmond’s leadership, the SNP has remained weak on fashioning policy, evident in the lack of think tanks or policy forums working within and alongside the party.  He gets the big economics – no one gets it better – as well as the constitutional and patriotic rationale behind self-determination.  What is missing is a credible platform setting out what independence would deliver for Scotland.  
 
Partly this is tactical – why show your hand until you need to – but also it is pragmatic:  there are certain steps in the Salmond, and indeed SNP, philosophy for independence that have to be fulfilled.  His approach has always been to tackle these, one at a time, focussing time and energy where it needs to be.  But the lack of a policy hinterland to draw on has caught Salmond and the SNP short at crucial times.  The response to Kosovo, is a prime example:  instinctively, Salmond took up a position that he believed, and his party believed.  The consequences, though, had not been fully thought through.  Similarly, while some of the party’s promises on education provided great electoral traction in 2007, the homework in terms of what would be required to make them happen was missing. 
 
Immediacy is a key Salmond strength:  he is the master tactician, which is why he was such an effective “guerilla leader” during his Westminster years.  The fact that the SNP Government has got somewhat bogged down – more critical commentators might suggest run out of steam – in the last eighteen months of its administration epitomises the flaw in his armoury:  he doesn’t really do longterm.  He had a plan – a great one – for the first couple of years but no plan B to deal with contingenices and events, nor strategies to tackle the logjam, the beartraps and the obstacles set in place by vested and established interests that would attempt to thwart transformational change.  He lives for the fizz and crackle of the immediate hit, of launching a great idea but recoils from the grind needed to see it through to fruition.  In short, he bores easily. 
 
The second observation is really mine.  The range of named and unnamed contributors in this excerpt alone is astonishing and sets out why Salmond is, and has been, a a great political leader.  Salmond’s success in putting independence and the SNP at the heart of mainstream Scottish politics has made it a respectable cause to follow, and ensured that the SNP has been able to attract some of the best and brightest people to its service.  The SNP has a much wider pool of talent to draw on to provide candidates at all electoral levels than the other parties.  It never has any shortage of people wanting to work as assistants, researchers and interns and its membership is thriving. 
 
Since the 1980s, people have wanted to be part of the SNP and work for the party, voluntarily and paid, because of Salmond.  Yes, the party still attracts the patriots, or those whose belief in independence is part of their DNA.  And people also join because of wider or alternative issues.  But Salmond’s leadership has brought many to believe in independence and importantly, to want to contribute to achieving that.  As the excerpt makes clear, many have put up with long hours, rubbish pay (or no pay at all) as well as the rage, the slights and the sometimes withering criticism – and still come back for more.  Because they believe he can deliver.  And because he inspires loyalty.  And simply because he inspires.  Many of these people move on, and back out into the wider political and economic sphere but in that too, Salmond has done Scotland a service.  There are SNP high achievers who are now high achievers in many walks of life. 
 
But therein also lies a problem.  When Salmond’s reign is over and he has departed the political stage, as all leaders must eventually, who will follow him and will they have the same sort of appeal?  His potential successors might want to ponder this, because no one will want to go down in Scottish political history as leading the SNP into a vacuum or worse, decline.  Salmond, as is his way, won’t be giving it a moment’s thought.  Too much like the long term.  And anyway, there’s an election to be fought and won to ensure he stays as leader for a while yet.