Monday, January 9, 2012

The smartest politician in the UK? Alex Salmond

The English just don't get the Scots. Probably, they never really have.

Scotland joined with England way back in 1707 (because they were bankrupt). Nationalism and independence only became a serious political issue again in the 1970s, when the then Labour government held referenda in Scotland and Wales for devolution; this flunked because not enough people bothered voting to make the vote binding.
After eighteen years in opposition, Labour made devolution one of their main ambitions when they regained power in 1997. Part of this was ideological, part of it was expedient: on one hand, Labour was in favour of regionalism and giving more powers to Scotland anyway; but on the other hand, Labour hoped that devolution would make Scotland effectively a Labour mini-state (like Wales, where they were the dominant party), and also, would silence the likes of the Scottish National Party from any talk of outright independence.

Alex Salmond became leader of the SNP twenty years ago; before that he was an economist for RBS.
Part of the problem that English politicians have with Alex Salmond is one of misperception from the very start. Salmond seems a very easy target for Westminster to poke fun at; at times arrogant and pontificating, self-serving and with an immature temperament, English parliamentarians are at a loss to explain his popularity north of the border - a sort of tartan George Galloway.
But the Scots see him differently. What might be seen as "arrogance" to the English, the Scots would as likely see as Celtic exuberance; what might be seen as "pontificating" to the English, the Scots would as likely see as being precise with the facts. After being treated by previous governents as one big oil rig, Scotland saw in Salmond a politician who was prepared to go against the grain of politics. And there was another point to this English misperception; his seemingly larger-than-life (and easily mocked) persona hid a very canny political operator.

Devolution for Scotland after 1997 was meant to be the dream solution for Labour; giving them more power locally while appearing as the champion of decentralised democracy. And they got Alex Salmond to support it.
But after a few years, something odd started to happen in Scotland: the SNP gradually gained more and more support. At the first two elections (1999 and 2003), Labour were so comfortably ahead that they were not concerned, but then in the 2007 election the unthinkable happened: the SNP actually won one more seat than Labour. This was Salmond's ironic parting gift to Tony Blair, who was due to step down as PM only weeks later: "thanks for the devolution, now goodbye and let me get on with it".

Without a majority, with the other parties in a pact to make sure that Salmond would be unable to govern without them, he did exactly what they hadn't expected: his party governed alone, as a minority administration. By standing against him, they had only made Salmond even stronger. And when in power, he consistently failed to act as the maverick lunatic they had painted him as - he sought co-operation and compromise on every issue where possible, putting the idea of independence on the back-burner, while encouraging a progressive approach to the environment. In other words, by Salmond encouraging cross-party co-operation, the other parties had tarred themselves with the same brush as Salmond. He had effectively encouraged the parties to discredit themselves by agreeing with his policies.
That was certainly how many Scots saw it. This approach proved so successful that come 2011, his party won an outright majority of its own.

And this is where the plot really starts to thicken. By now, with the UK government a Tory-led coalition, this makes Salmond's job even easier. Although the SNP's ultimate aim is independence, Salmond is as pragmatic to understand that not all Scots want independence - at least, not yet. This is why the straight "in-out" referendum he once supported has been modified to a referendum with most likely three choices: the status quo (partial powers), independence, or something called "devo-max".
The term "devo-max" needs a little explanation. This is where Scotland would have powers over all decisions except for defence and foreign policy - to be within the UK, but not infact governed by it. In other words, Scotland controls all their own important stuff at home, while London supplies the army and the boring diplomatic stuff about what happens abroad. There's another word for this arrangement: a protectorate, or dependency. On one hand, it would make Scotland a semi-detached part of the UK; on the other hand, it would allow the Scots to have their cake and eat it.
You could well imagine that Westminster MPs and the UK government would be keen to do without this kind of arrangment: like having the responsibility of baby-sitting a rebellious child but without the power to chastise it. But after having four years of popular and effective Scottish government under his belt, the credibility lies with Salmond rather than the parties of Westminster; having a UK government led by a party that has barely any representation or credibility in Scotland also does no harm.

Salmond is playing a long game. He has said that his party promised to have a referendum before the next Scottish elections; most likely in 2014. But again, the UK government is playing into his hands. Now the Tory-led government have said that the referendum should be sooner, and only an "in-out" referendum, without the "devo-max" option, the one which many Scots happen to prefer. In that way, London are acting exactly according to type, committing all the errors and clunky insensitivity that Salmond has been accusing them of all these years.
Salmond is not bothered by "devo-max"; anything that gives him/Scotland more powers is better than the status quo, and anyway the slice-by-slice taking of powers from London to Edinburgh fits in perfectly to a gradualist approach to independence.

So far, Salmond has out-witted successive UK governments; he was SNP leader until he stood down from the leadership, only to step into the role of Scotland's First Minister; effectively Prime Minister of a semi-independent Scotland. English politicians are clueless how to handle him and his approach to independence; their varied tactics continue to backfire spectacularly.

All in all, due to Salmond, Scots look set to vote for a further repatriation of powers in the next couple of years, leaving Scotland's status in the UK hanging on a virtual thread. I'm no huge believer in the Union, but if I were Scottish then I would see great sense in supporting "devo-max" - it's like independence, but without the hassle.

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