From Peak Nat to Pique Nat: Is Alex Salmond becoming a problem for Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP?

Gerry Hassan

The Guardian Comment, August 15th 2017

Alex Salmond is one of the big beasts not just of Scottish, but British politics and the defining figure of modern Scottish nationalism and the SNP.

He has been leader of the SNP for a total of twenty years (1990-2000; 2004-2014), First Minister of Scotland for seven years, and in 2014 took the SNP closer than any of its opponents thought possible to the party’s ultimate goal of independence.

Yet he now finds himself bereft of a major public role, after losing the referendum and standing down as First Minister, and subsequently losing his Westminster Gordon seat to Tory Colin Clark.

He has now taken to the stage and is performing a sold-out show at Edinburgh’s Festival Fringe – ‘Alex Salmond Unleashed: A Festival of Fun, Friends and Freedom’ – to ecstatic audiences. It is mostly what anyone would expect of Salmond the performer: the usual mixture of charm, wit, cheeky chappie persona, digs at opponents, with a slight yearning for approval and applause.

This brings up the big question: what is a prominent former leader or politician meant to do with his time and talents? Think of Blair and his millions, Brown and his hurt, Cameron and his shepherd’s hut, or Ted Heath and his thirty-year huff with Thatcher.

There is no template for an ex-SNP leader. His options are limited. He cannot go to the House of Lords as the Nationalists’ don’t recommend peerages. Doing a TV or radio show won’t take up enough of his time, and offers for corporate boards or international roles are likely to be scarce.

There are examples of senior Nationalists who have become thorns in the party leadership: Gordon Wilson who was leader for eleven years until 1990 and deputy leader Jim Sillars. Not exactly role models for the modern ex-Nationalist leader.

Salmond has contributed enormously to the SNP’s rise and many successes, but since 2014 hasn’t exactly kept to script. He has railed against the BBC, Nick Robinson, and ‘the Vow’ for supposedly denying victory in the independence referendum. He wrote a best-selling memoir, ‘The Dream Shall Never Die,’ continuing this theme which was mostly short on self-reflection.

Increasingly he has become a problem for his successor, Nicola Sturgeon, who was his deputy leader for ten years and Deputy First Minister for seven years. This weekend he prophesised that Scotland would become independent within four years by 2021.

This would involve an independence referendum being agreed, vote held and won, negotiations undertaken and concluded: all within the lifetime of the current Scottish Parliament and Westminster – if the latter lasts its whole term. That seems particularly improbable since Nicola Sturgeon has all but ruled out a vote in this Holyrood term. Scotland most likely won’t be free by 2021; instead, it is the earliest possible date another independence referendum could be held by.

This weekend he criticised his party’s treatment of former SNP MP Michelle Thomson, first elected in 2015, who had the party whip withdrawn months after becoming a MP. Her fate, according to Salmond, was down to a media witch-hunt that ‘had her carted off, signed, sealed and convicted’. This ignores that the moment allegations became public the SNP leadership acted and withdrew the whip.

His interventions carry added weight because of the current nervous, unsure state of the SNP and independence movement in light of the 2017 election result. The party’s sense of itself in recent years – of the forward march of history, momentum and continual advance towards independence – has been brought into question.

The SNP’s ten years in office means it has a record that it has to answer for. Increasingly it seems lost for an explanation of what the purpose of a SNP Government is – other than to mitigate the worst excesses of Tory policies and cuts. That’s not a very edifying, uplifting message, but a defensive one.

There is little awareness that the SNP have been captured by insider Scotland and become part of it and an advocate for its practices and continued existence. Nowhere can be found convincing, passionate SNP ideas on education, health, law and order or the economy. Nor does there seem to be any detailed work or drive on independence. It is in this climate that the numerous disagreements of the independence movement over the summer have to be seen – a political vacuum and environment in which for all the SNP’s claims is absent of political leadership or strategy.

Politics is part psychology, momentum and perception and the age of the invincible SNP and inevitability of independence is over. The SNP and the independence movement may still achieve their ultimate goal. These are rocky, unpredictable times with British politics fraught with confusion and crisis, and Brexit posing an existential challenge to the very idea of Britain. But it will require a major reappraisal and rethinking from the SNP and others and a very different independence offer: none which seems on the immediate horizon.

We may have passed Peak Nat, but surely there has to be a better, nobler expression of politics than Alex Salmond embracing the outlook of Pique Nat? And aren’t there better uses of the talents of this undoubted political giant for the SNP, independence and for public life?