Thursday, January 12, 2012

Some notes on 'canny' Salmond

Canny is a word often used to describe Salmond by journalists who seek to impress on an audience who have hitherto not paid too much attention to our First Minister or the the political threat he represents. The description is not entirely without foundation. Salmond is an impressive political operator who has consistently wrong-footed his opponents on the political scene in Scotland. One of his advantages is that he has simply been at it longer than the leaders of any political party in the UK. To borrow a Bushism he has been 'misunderestimated' and it has now become customary for hacks to declare that they would decline to bet against Salmond, who is now seen as the consummate political gambler.

But his talents have also been greatly exaggerated. This is partly big fish, small pond syndrome: Scotland is a small country which is bound to have a narrower pool of talent than the UK as a whole - and it is made smaller still by the fact that the ambitious in the unionist parties have historically sought to build their careers in Westminster. It is also partly on account of hagiography within the nationalist movement. If anyone troubles themselves to become acquainted with their history, they have moved from being an eccentric minority to commanding a majority in a legislature which adopted a voting system that was supposed to prevent such an event from happening. For the believers, Salmond is the political colossus who made all of this possible.

It might be worth reminding people - or informing for the first time in some cases - about the other side of Salmond, the political leader who also has an impressive record of calling it wrong, and doing so on some of the most significant political and economic issues of our time.

For example, he described the Kosovo campaign "an act of dubious legality, but above all one of unpardonable folly." The intention of reminding people of this is not to invite debate on the merits of the NATO intervention. I was in favour, I remain of the view that it was the right thing to do - and I have an emotional interest in the case, having taught students who had come to seek shelter in Scotland from Milosevic's army. But I appreciate that good people opposed this intervention in good faith. Rather it is that Salmond's predictions of the outcome that were completely wrong, as was his belief that he would gain political capital from this at the ballot box. And his comparison to the bombing of Clydebank by the Luftwaffe was too absurd to dignify with an argument.

Then there was the whole 'arc of prosperity' thing that Scotland was invited to join. As this doesn't distinguish him from the UK political mainstream, I would be disinclined to make too much of Salmond calling the Euro wrong - were it not for two factors. One was that he is an economist and should therefore have been more alert to the possibility of failure than most. The other is that his attitude to this is frustratingly like that of the Tories to education in that both seem to pick exemplar countries that have absolutely nothing in common except one bare point that politicians wish to identify themselves with. So we get Tories citing Sweden and China (!) as models of educational excellence to follow - and nationalists offering Ireland, Iceland and Norway as case-studies in successful small-country nationalism, happily ignoring the fact that membership of the Euro is central to the argument one day but not the next. And not today, for obvious reasons.

What do that Nationalists envisage for us now with the present Euro-troubles? Membership of a currency with putative fiscal rules that would give rightwing Republicans in the US wet-dreams, or do they want the 'government by fax', which we are led to believe is the fate of Norway, a country outside the EU but which has to conform to its practices anyway? Questions that will be asked and will be more difficult to answer than the foot-soldiers of nationalism have led us to believe.

Finally, there is the Salmond tendency to pick on firms in the way he seems to choose countries. Forget the details, they are examples that can bolster the nationalist case. A significant howler in this regard is the attitude of this former economist with the Royal Bank of Scotland to his erstwhile employers. "Good luck with the bid", he wrote to the now disgraced Sir Fred Goodwin in relation to his intention to acquire the Dutch banking enterprise ABN.

Despite all this, Salmond is seen as some kind of invulnerable political demi-god. Might it not be the case that at least some of this could be attributed to the palsied state of the political opposition in Scotland and also to a media that simply isn't doing its job properly? If Salmond is some kind of hero of mythic proportions, the one I'd chose is Achilles. There's always the hope that someone with a straight bow will hit the target, which is why - while gambling is the one of the few vices I don't understand - I won't be placing a bet on Alex Salmond in the next couple of years.

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