James Forsyth

Interview: Alex Salmond’s game plan for the Commons

Scotland’s former first minister on the allure of the Queen and Prince Charles – and the defects of Cameron and Miliband

Interview: Alex Salmond’s game plan for the Commons
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Alex Salmond is losing his voice but that’s not going to stop him from talking — I doubt that anything would, or could. I meet him in the Savoy, after The Spectator’s Parliamentarian of the Year Awards (he won top gong) and he orders a hot toddy — setting out the ingredients just in case the Savoy Hotel is too English to know how to make one.

No one talking to Scotland’s former first minister today would have any idea that his political dream was clearly rejected by Scottish voters just three months ago. He is relishing the SNP surge and the likelihood of his party holding the balance of power at Westminster next year, which he gleefully describes as ‘the favourite’s bet just now’. This prospect has persuaded him to stand for the House of Commons again.

Salmond is in fact more confident and relaxed than almost any politician I have ever interviewed. This is not demob happiness, either — one gets the clear impression that there are several more acts to come in this Scottish play; tellingly, the only opponents he praises are the former Labour MSP Wendy Alexander, who has retired, and Gordon Brown, who is about to.

Three things perhaps explain why Salmond is such a ray of sunshine. First, he’s determined not to give his enemies the satisfaction of seeing him suffer. He describes the famous picture of him sitting glum-faced in the back of a car on referendum night as ‘that ridiculous photo that keeps getting used’. He protests, rather too much, that ‘I was looking at my laptop, the reflection is the laptop, that’s what it is. I was not in the depths of despair, I was trying to read the results on my laptop at Aberdeen airport.’

Second, and more important, is that Salmond believes that while he may have lost the referendum battle, he will still win the war. When I ask him if he expects another vote on independence in his lifetime, he replies, ‘Oh yes.’ He is also confident that there are many who voted ‘no’ who will vote ‘yes’ next time. He claims that upwards of 10 per cent or more of the Scottish electorate were swayed by ‘the vow’, the declaration from the three UK party leaders on the front page of the Daily Record that there would be more powers transferred to Holyrood. He says that many of these voters now think it a ‘great pity that they were brought to that position’.

This explains why Salmond is so determined to claim that ‘the vow’ has been broken — this betrayal narrative is key to the nationalists winning any second referendum. He is adamant that the Smith Commission’s prospectus for further devolution ‘is not home rule, it’s not neo-federalism, it’s not what the vow or what Gordon Brown’s articulation of the vow was’.

The SNP surge has delighted many Tories, because it could cost Labour as many as 30 seats. Given SNP MPs’ self-denying ordinance about voting on devolved matters (such as health, education and policing), the more seats they win, the easier it should be for Cameron to govern in a hung parliament.

But Salmond has some bad news for the Prime Minister: not voting on devolved matters, he said, is ‘my choice. But of course in that position we would, obviously, be prepared to listen to other counsel.’ In other words, the SNP would, for a price, be prepared to vote with Labour on English legislation. He is also quick to list examples (health reform and tuition fees) where the SNP has already defied its own rule.

Salmond says that his SNP colleagues ‘wouldn’t wish me to say what their negotiating position would be’. But like his successor as First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, he is clear that only a deal with Labour would be considered. He is also explicit that Miliband’s poor ratings in Scotland would be no bar to such a deal. He sets out three aims for the SNP in a hung parliament: ‘pursuing the redemption of the vow in full terms, sticking up for Scottish causes, and pursuing progressive politics with allies on things like the living wage or international issues when we have got a lot to say’.

Salmond, who spent so much of the referendum campaign running down Westminster, is keen not to sound like a creature of the place he now seeks to return to. Nevertheless, he makes clear that he ‘always had a great regard for the chamber of the House of Commons because I think frankly if you can’t speak in the chamber of the House of Commons, you can’t speak’. Combine that regard with a clear political opportunity — the prospect of a hung parliament and the chance it offers to advance the nationalists’ agenda — and it becomes easy to see why Salmond wants a second bite at the Westminster cherry.

One man who should be alarmed at the prospect of Salmond’s return to Westminster is David Cameron. Salmond is even more vituperative about the Prime Minister now than he was during the referendum campaign. He is keen to treat Cameron’s comments about English votes for English laws the morning after the referendum as an insult to the Scottish people. He says it shows that Cameron thinks the Scots have ‘our heads zipped up the back’ and that it was revealing of his ‘lack of understanding of the extent and the enormity of what’ the referendum meant for Scotland. But Salmond does accept that under the terms of his white paper, Cameron would be entitled to Scottish citizenship.

Where Salmond turns truly savage is when it comes to Cameron’s comments about the Queen’s reaction to the referendum result. The former first minister accuses Cameron of acting like a ‘schoolboy’ over the incident and that ‘anybody who has any knowledge whatsoever of Her Majesty the Queen would not envisage the words purring down the phone because she is a woman of enormous experience and understanding of the sentiments of her people’. He also hints that the Prime Minister has received a right royal telling off, saying ‘I doubt very much that he’ll ever do it again. I was in Balmoral the day after, incidentally, for an audience.’

Salmond’s oddly strident monarchism even extends to defending the heir to the throne. He says, ‘I don’t think I’ve met anyone with a greater love of Scotland than Prince Charles, or the Duke of Rothesay as we should call him. I know some newspapers get extremely upset and irritated by the messages he sends to ministers and I can confirm he does send messages to ministers. But I can also say I have never been upset about any of them. Most of them sound to me entirely sensible.’

If Salmond has contempt for Cameron, he has just pity for Miliband. He says it was ‘silly’ of the Labour leader to sack Emily Thornberry over her tweet of a house festooned with St George’s crosses. ‘If I’d responded like that to my ministers doing stupid things or to my party spokesmen when I was party leader doing silly things, I’d have nobody left. You just cannot conduct yourself like that. You can’t sacrifice your friends to save your office or your reputation. It’s ridiculous.’

Salmond admits that he did expect to win the referendum. He is also clear about what he blames for his defeat: ‘The YouGov poll and the reaction to it.’ Just 12 days before the referendum, it put ‘yes’ ahead, sending unionists into an overdue panic and Gordon Brown into overdrive. Salmond admits that he underrated ‘the fact that the one politician with any credibility would underwrite the commitment from three politicians with no credibility’.

And finally, he laments the fact that the three party leaders’ declaration appeared in the Daily Record — ‘a newspaper with credibility’ which christened it ‘the vow’. (In truth, ‘the vow’ was simply a restatement of existing policies dressed up in florid language and an ornate typeface.) ‘The impact it had was highly significant,’ he argues. ‘It gave people who were moving towards “yes” an easier option: for change to be delivered, guaranteed, vowed — without the uncertainty of a “yes” vote.’ He says the SNP’s mission will be to make sure ‘the vow’ is delivered. ‘The vow will be guaranteed by the votes of people in next year’s election which I expect will give resounding encouragement to the SNP.’

Many in the UK government thought that the SNP would struggle to survive Salmond’s departure. But instead it is flourishing under Nicola Sturgeon, a politician so popular she can sell out the Glasgow Hydro arena faster than Kylie Minogue. When I ask Salmond to explain the Sturgeon phenomenon, he is keen to stress that she spent her time learning her trade under him as deputy first minister: ‘I was looking at the longest apprenticeship we have got in Scotland and there is an engineering apprenticeship that is five years. Nicola has done seven-and-a-half years.’

But to everything there is a season, and before Salmond begins his march south to Westminster there is Christmas. Moira, his wife, is keen for them to go to Dubai, with the idea being that he can watch the golf while she shops. The question for Salmond now is whether he can get as good a deal in the Westminster bazaar of a hung parliament as his wife can in the malls.