There is a school of thought amongst many unionist activists, supporters and commentators that the leader of the SNP, Alex Salmond, is the Yes campaign’s greatest liability and that more should be done to take him on, slap him down and generally put the boot in. The idea seems to be that the Scottish public will cheer on this type of Punch and Judy behaviour, and seeing His Royal Eckness put in his place – humiliated, even – will encourage them to vote No.
I would like to use this column to warn against such an approach, for it would produce precisely the opposite outcome of that intended. It would only put peoples’ backs up against such bullying behaviour, it would turn Goliath into a David – and everyone in Britain loves an underdog. It would also allow the No campaign to portrayed in an (even) more negative light than it deserves – for thus far the No campaign has generally behaved in a dignified manner by choosing not to get down in the gutter and roll around with the political pugilist who loves to take people on.
It is indeed true that Salmond has become the Yes campaign’s largest liability, but the question must be how to exploit that to maximum advantage without costing the No camp any existing or future support.
When it comes to the major gaffes in the campaign, it has been Salmond that has performed beyond expectations. It was he who dug himself into a hole by saying, when interviewed on television by Andrew Neil, that he had legal opinion that Scotland would remain a member of the European Union. So eager to cover up this untruth was the SNP government that it spent taxpayers’ money fighting in court against Freedom of Information requests asking to see the document, only for his deputy, Nicola Sturgeon, to have to tell the Scottish parliament that no such advice actually existed.
Why more is not made of this by his interrogators in the media is beyond me – put very simply the First Minister has no integrity and cannot be trusted.
It was Alex Salmond who made throw-away claims about the low £250m cost of starting up a new government, when there is already leaked Scottish Cabinet papers suggesting the cost of the new Scottish Tax Service alone will be over £600m. Afterwards, it was established that no due diligence had in fact been done by the SNP government and it had not properly explored the costs. Even Salmond’s own favoured academic who looked at the issue has admitted that various, as yet unquantified, costs will take the total to approaching – and possibly beyond – £1 billion.
It was Alex Salmond who only last year made a commitment to re-nationalise the Royal Mail – a now private company domiciled in what would, if there were to be independence, become a foreign land. A Scottish government would have no jurisdiction to behave in such a way and any seizure of assets would simply end up in the courts – sending all the wrong messages to the European Union it would wish to deal with, and upsetting its neighbours that Salmond says Scotland will have the most friendly relations with. Aye, right.
It is Alex Salmond who continually evades questions put to him at First Minister’s Question Time and chooses instead to go off on tangents, deflecting from the real issue and attacking his opponents personally. Salmond likes nothing better than a head-to-head fight where he seeks to use his effective, but empty and evasive, cheekiness to rubbish his opponents.
His trick is to bring up some alleged mistake or misjudgement of theirs from the past – or if that will not suffice, to mention a political crime of their often dead predecessors. Be it the Highland Clearances (actually conducted by the Whig Duke of Sutherland), the Poll Tax (tried first in Scotland because Scottish Conservatives demanded that it be so, in opposition to Margaret Thatcher’s better judgment) or other Scottish historical myths, Salmond will find a way to win sympathy without answering the point.
The antidote to all of this is, first, for the media to press the First Minister on the simple points, repeatedly going back to them and not deviating from them onto other subjects of his choosing. Soon his irritation at being cornered shows and the jokes wear thin. This requires the questioner to know his or her subject, to have read the brief and then read it again and again – sadly, on too many occasions it is clear the interviewers are both intimidated by Salmond’s manner and experience, and worse still do not know their subject well enough. In the end they come out being patronised by Salmond who then laughs all the way back to Scotland.
Second, it requires smarter politics by his unionist opponents. Putting up the dry, almost acsetic Alistair Darling against Salmond was, I believe, the right thing to do for he is just the sort politician the First Minister has most difficulty with. The independence referendum is a serious affair, and the cheeky-chappy-ness of Alex Salmond can appear too flippant, too childish. Better to play him with a straight bat than by using a bruiser who may win the argument but will not be heard above the din.
Third, more must be done on the question of Salmond’s own record, for he has been poor at delivering his promises. This feeds into the biggest weakness of all: “Can the First Minister be trusted?” Given his previous escapades over dreamed-up legal advice and expensive policy commitments that to this day have still not been properly costed or added to his White Paper budgets, his promises of milk and honey after independence cannot be believed.
In truth, independence has become a project that can only be supported despite Alex Salmond, not because of him.
To therefore use the last two-and-a-half months of campaigning to mount a personal assault on the First Minister would be a huge mistake. It would distract voters from the real issues that will affect their livelihoods; it would play out the campaign on the ground that Salmond prefers – personal jousting; and it would look like the establishment doing down the little man, winning him public sympathy. For despite Salmond being First Minister, he is still seen as the Scottish underdog taking on the unionist establishment, hence his continued popularity.
Every politician has his own Kryptonite – with some it’s too much of the sauce at the Parliamentary bar, with others it’s sexual favours and sometimes it is money. Often it is sheer incompetence. With Salmond it is over-confidence. His Kryptonite is hubris – for he has a good conceit of himself – and in knowing that, the No campaign should tease him and ridicule him rather than slap him or name-call.
As Donald Dewar often showed in the early years of the Scottish Parliament, Salmond is not invincible. Indeed, the SNP leader became so discouraged he went back to Westminster in a sulk resigning his Holyrood seat.
Embarrass the First Minister with his broken promises, his stream of falsehoods, – but say it with a smile, and the Scottish people will see the man for the political chancer he is. A very skilful and adept politician, but a chancer all the same.