Sexy Socialism and Progressive Politics: an Interview with Alex Salmond

On the 21st of April the University of Glasgow presented Alex Salmond with an Honorary Degree, who then proceeded to deliver an inspiring speech. Here’s what he had to say when Qmunicate, The Glasgow Guardian and GUST grabbed a few minutes with him.

Guardian: Why does the SNP want to help facilitate stable government, by supporting a minority Labour government, within a country that it doesn’t think should exist?

Salmond: Well, the SNP’s quite interesting, we’ve always been a very constitutional party, that’s one of the marks of our politics, and therefore always a very positive party. So when, for example, in 2007 we achieved a plurality, one seat more than the Labour party, people said “Oh well, they won’t go into government, they’ll just sit on the opposition benches and catcall”. But we didn’t, we went into government and made the best fist of it that we could, which people judged in the next election to be pretty good. We always tend to be positive about what can be done.

But there is an opportunity, and it’s not just a question of establishing that block of SNP MPs, the benefits that that would bring to Scotland… I mean, John Major, at one point in the Telegraph today he said, how dreadful, there’ll be benefits to Scotland! [laughs] How does he think that’s going to go down in the Scottish constituencies? “There’ll be benefits, oh dear, how dreadful!” But it’s not just about the benefits to Scotland, it’s about the opportunity to move the political agenda in these islands towards progressive politics. And Nicola, I think, has outlined this brilliantly in the debates. Sometimes it’s quite useful just to think about the extent of the amazing thing that’s happened: in the YouGov polls for two debates across the UK – one the general debate and one the challengers’ debate – Nicola Sturgeon was accorded to be the person most people would like to support across the UK. In Scotland she dominated, I think it was 65% to 12% or something, but across the UK she was judged to be the person that people would like to vote for after these debates. Now, that’s an extraordinary achievement… that’s to do with Nicola’s style, presentation, how well she did and all the rest of it, but it’s also about the core of the message.

The core of the message is distinctive from the offerings of the three established parties at Westminster. All three of them are offering austerity – austerity concentrated, austerity light, or austerity diluted. And Nicola has outlined a case, as I was pointing out backed by the Financial Times for goodness’ sake, of how we could move away from the austerity agenda. And that’s what’s capturing the imagination. There’ll be other individual policies, I mean, there’s lots of folk in England who don’t want to spend £100 billion on nuclear weapons. There’s a lot more in Scotland, proportionally quite a bit more, but there are lots of people in England, so there’s a reservoir of support there that Nicola is tapping into. A lot of them are watching the television and saying “God, I wish we could vote for that lady.”

Guardian: That being the case, that the SNP might end up making the rest of the UK more like Scotland, isn’t there a risk that there might actually be a decline in support for independence, if the SNP can be seen to have a positive influence on Westminster politics?

Salmond: I think overall there’s no difference between trying to edge things in the right direction and move away from austerity, and the importance of having control over your own resources and your own destiny. I mean, I think there’s a particular opportunity at the present moment because politics in England is A) finely balanced, and B) very desultory. They’re like First World War generals, you know, they’re fighting a trench warfare campaign. They’re either First World War generals or Italian football teams, fighting for a no score draw, and a no score draw is what they’ll get. So there is a particular opportunity at this election.

This is a position that hasn’t really occurred since 1997, it depends on the stars coming into a certain alignment. Now, two things have to happen: one is the huge SNP surge forward in Scotland, but secondly, you’ve got to have a balanced position elsewhere. These stars are in alignment at the present moment. We’re still two weeks from the election, things could change, but right now it looks like a fantastic, exciting opportunity. But I think people are well able to distinguish that from the position that as Nicola said, the thing about independence is that the people of Scotland get the government they vote for at every election, not just when the stars are in alignment. So that would seem to be a strong argument for independence.

Guardian: Regardless of the consequences, can independence always be right for Scotland? Is the principle most important to you?

Salmond: I think there’s an argument for self-determination being the best state for any nation, and the reason for that, one of the aspects of independence is that a country, a society could express their identity through their political process. People have to be able to rectify their mistakes in politics. If  you make a mistake you take the consequences and try and do better. Equally, you’ve got to claim the advantages of the things that you do well. So I think independence is the natural state, the right state for any nation, and therefore I argue for it on that basis. I also think it’s important for the wellbeing of the Scottish people.

I’ll give you an example. One of the successes that the Scottish Government have had in a very difficult circumstance is that we now have in Scotland the third highest number of women in the workplace. 74%, I think it is, of working age women are working in Scotland, presently. Which is third to, I think, Iceland and Denmark. We’ve shot up the international league table, and we’re now 4 or 5% ahead of the rest of the UK. Now, some of that is due to the expansion of nursery education, some of it’s due to other policies. Nicola wants to expand that nursery education policy much further, to effectively school hours for nursery age children. A big expansion, a transformation of policy.

The connection to your question is this: the success thus far in all of these women getting back into the workplace – not just women but it’s a policy that mainly affects women ‘s ability to be in the workplace – the benefits from that: their income tax, their VAT, their expenditure, their National Insurance, their employers’ National Insurance, all of that has gone to George Osborne. He’s had the benefit of that expansion. And I have to tell you, the very last thing that George Osborne has thought in these last few years, when he’s had probably hundreds of millions flowing through the exchequer, is “I shall send it back to Scotland to further invest in nursery education.” It’s an example of, if you have a successful policy, you should take the benefits from that successful policy. Because the success of that policy is necessary to finance the next leap forward that Nicola is planning.

Guardian: So say in a hypothetical situation, Scotland was financially worse off under independence, would you still think it’s the right thing for Scotland?

Salmond: Well, I think Scotland would be better off as an independent country, so you know…

Guardian: Even if it was poorer?

Salmond: Let me answer you in two ways. If Scotland becomes independent there would be no country on this earth that has ever gone to independence in a more favourable circumstance. People who argue and believe that the United Kingdom as it currently exists, exists in a framework where the South East of England subsidises through its benevolence the North West, the North East of England, the South West of England and everywhere else, misunderstand totally the reality of the economics behind these arguments. One of the most attractive things in the SNP manifesto, I thought, was the fast route from Glasgow and Edinburgh to Newcastle, in the sense that here’s a great example of how currently, the economics of the UK favour one part of the UK… Never mind the fact that this is the slowest fast route, it’ll take sixty years to get to northern England, and never mind all the opposition there is to it… it’s a great illustration of how that expenditure on that fast route is paid for by everyone. But clearly not even its great proponents would argue that a line between London and Birmingham is going to be of enormous use to Newcastle or Carlisle. It’s an example of how the economics of the UK are set in one direction.

I think Scotland would be better off, but I think in particular we’ll be better off because we’ll be able to channel our politics in a positive direction. For politics to become positive, to get the energy and the excitement like what we’ve seen in Scotland since the referendum, then you have to be able to direct policy. Otherwise politics becomes negative. I got expelled from the House of Commons for the Poll Tax protest. If you think about the nature of the politics of that, you know, Scotland was being done down because of the Poll Tax, because of this thing and the next thing, the energy of the politics was “stop the Poll Tax!” And that was a great campaign, but it was a negative campaign, trying to stop something happening to Scotland, as opposed to the sort of politics that is opened up by self determination, which is people’s energy, saying “How do we make things better, what can we do constructively to make the country better, what do we have to do to create the sort of society which people want to have?” And the people who have become engaged in politics in my estimation since the referendum were the people who, yes of course we don’t want a bedroom tax, we don’t want this that and the next thing, don’t want a hundred billion on nuclear weapons… it’s actually the people who say look, this is a political process that can actually be effective and change.

Now, here’s my idea, here’s my contribution, how does this fit in: that can only happen if we’ve got the power to do so. One of the big stats I’ve seen in this election is 32% of 16-25 year olds in England are certain to vote, and 67% of the same age group in Scotland. That is because people are energised by the idea they can make a difference.

Qmunicate: How do you think this election differs from the last in terms of social media, especially considering the importance placed on the response on Twitter to the TV debates, as well as candidates making unwise comments on platforms like Twitter and Facebook? What do you think the impact of that will be?

Salmond: My view is that social media is overwhelmingly positive. I don’t have much time for these people who ‘tut’ about social media. Of course some candidates, some people, say unwise things, cruel things, and I think people on social media should be responsible just as everybody else is, and indeed, it can be illegal to do that. But, that is a flip side of something which has an enormous positive side. There are people who dwell on the negative, as of course the deadwood press do, as it’s in their interest to dwell on the negatives of social media. Ultimately, for most of them, it’s a huge challenge, so clearly they’re going to dwell on the negative, but the overwhelming aspect of it is positive. My view is that if we had fought the referendum campaign 10 years ago, we’d have got pretty soundly beat, because we controlled none of the great established organs of information, whereas [social media] made it an even contest; a much, much more even contest because social media is fundamentally democratic. It has its disadvantages, it has its imperfections, it has its silliness, or worse, of course it has, but it’s fundamentally democratic.

Things like social media, in terms of the impact, tend to be judged on good quality. The things that are trending are good things. Angry Salmond, my parody site, has more followers than Jim Murphy’s real site. That is true, but that’s because there is more quality in my parody site.

Qmunicate: Nicola Sturgeon was deemed the “Most Dangerous Woman in Britain” a couple of weeks ago, and this morning John Major said that a Labour-SNP deal would cause mayhem. What kind of effect do you think this heavily-loaded language will have, so close to the election, on the British public?

Salmond: Three weeks ago, I was demonised as having Ed Miliband in my top pocket. Incidentally, I think it’s a foolish campaign for the Tories to fight for a whole range of reasons. One really foolish thing is that you should never put your opponents on your literature. I found that out many, many years ago. Michael Forsyth, who came into the news again today, was a very, very unfortunate Conservative minister in Scotland in 1997, now Lord Forsyth of Brig o’Doon, or whatever he’s called, something like that, and he was quoted as saying that if Scotland became independent he’d leave the country, and because he was so unpopular I thought “Oh, that’s great. We’ll have a poster saying ‘Michael for South’.” I thought, that’s really witty, and what we found was, after printing 100,000 of these things, we couldn’t give them away, because people looked at it and thought it was a Michael Forsyth leaflet. It was just about the stupidest thing I’ve ever done – well, I’ve done other stupid things, but it was one of the stupidest things I’ve ever done in politics. So I learned an essential lesson – never put your opponent on your literature.

One of the other times an opponent has been on literature was the Tories’ “demon eyes” campaign against Blair in 1997. You won’t remember, but anybody who studies politics, the Tories thought it would be a fantastic idea in 1997 –  this was before we found out there was an element of truth in it, after Iraq and all the rest of it – but they thought they would portray Tony Blair as ‘demon eyes’. Blair won a landslide majority. I think they got an award for the cleverest poster of the campaign, and got thumped in the election. Never put your opponents on your posters – that would be my first advice.

My second advice is this: demonising Nicola Sturgeon is not an effective strategy in this election. The problem with trying to demonise Nicola is that she’s just done these debates. Everybody has had an opportunity to see her; she’s just been in everybody’s living room, and through the social media and that. You can’t demonise somebody like that – it’s impossible. So it’s really foolish and, sort of disinterring John Major, I mean, what age were you when John Major was Prime Minister? John Major went out of office in 1997, so he’s going to speak with real authority to you [young voters] in this campaign. But if you did remember John Major, and there are people like me who do, you will remember that he is the Prime Minister who lost every single Conservative seat in the whole of Scotland. So it does seem to me to follow that if the Tory Party’s salvation is to disinter John Major, if the cavalry riding over the hill to the rescue is the guy who lost every seat, you’re in a pretty pass I would have thought. I don’t think demonising Nicola Sturgeon is effective. I don’t think putting your opponents on your literature is effective. I think Tory and Labour are fighting desultory campaigns, and they’ll get a desultory result.

GUST: This has been a very domestic campaign, even with major international issues such as Russia and Ukraine, and so on. Do you think that there is a major trend in Britain only to think in terms of domestic politics, and not politics within the wider EU or a global context?

Salmond: Yeah, I think there is an aspect of that, which is extremely disappointing. For example, the refugee crisis in the Mediterranean. It’s also a huge issue which reflects on the European issue. I did a speech a year or so back in Bruges. I was trying to reflect about how, a long time ago, Margaret Thatcher made an anti-European speech in Bruges.  I was trying to make a pro-European speech, because when in Bruges you make a pro-European speech, in my opinion. So I made it, and that speech was about how Europe should be reclaiming the social agenda. People who are pro-European, as I am, who wanted to see a pro-European aspect to politics, then Europe would have to give people an agenda that they could see to support. I was saying that there is this social Europe agenda which was hugely successful in the 1990s in changing people’s impression of Europe. This is it, this is where it lies; people are sick and tired of inequality, austerity, the extent of things, and Europe could seize that agenda, [for example] in terms of the living wage. I was pointing out that the stipulation which stops national governments from enforcing a living wage, not just a minimum wage, but a living wage in terms of public contractors, is a European competition law. It’s a classic example of where Europe should be turning that round on its head.

Now, equally, you could apply that to the refugee crisis in the Mediterranean; it’s a classic example of where you’d want Europe to be leading the way, to be making an issue. Now, of course, the Commissioner will say “Well, it wasn’t us, it was national governments… it was the UK wouldn’t do this, they wouldn’t pay that…” and all the rest of them, but it’s an example of where people who are interested in collective action at a European level would want to see Europe seize the agenda, and not to be in the position as it has been this week of being under condemnation from the United Nations.

Incidentally, apart from immigration, Europe has hardly been mentioned in this campaign. They all said that Europe would be a dominating issue because of UKIP, but UKIP’s message has turned from Europe to immigration because they think that is the issue they’ll get purchase on. I think it’s a matter of great regret, it’s the nature of politics, but I do think that people have more vision, more empathy, more understanding, more compassion, than  Westminster politicians allow for.

GUST: Do you agree that the same kind of opportunity is opening up for same kind of progressive politics as Thatcher seized for Neoliberal politics?

Salmond: Yeah. I think in politics there tends to be cycles of impression and people’s wishes. Obviously, in Scotland some of that optimism conveyed during the referendum campaign. There’s a real thirst I think, out there for progressive politics, properly articulated, properly understood, properly reflected. I think Labour missed an enormous opportunity in this campaign. In 1997, when Labour won the election by a landslide, they fought what was known as a triangulated campaign. They didn’t even have to do anything to beat [John] Major; they just had to stand there. You stay upright, you beat Major, right? But this isn’t that time. They fought this triangulated campaign because they are scared stiff of the Daily Mail, the Daily Telegraph, the Tory press.

The first time that Cameron said to Miliband “You’re relying on the SNP, or Alex Salmond, or Nicola Sturgeon, isn’t that dreadful” – Miliband’s response on that very first occasion at Prime Minister’s Questions should have been “You’ve just conceded the election. You’ve just said I’m going to be Prime Minister. Now we can argue about how I’m going to be Prime Minister, we can debate that if you want, but let’s just get established the fact that you think I’m going to be Prime Minister, you’ve just conceded the election.” As soon as you do that, you take the whole situation differently. The fundamental underlying mistake of Labour’s campaign is to get themselves boxed into an austerity agenda. You can’t excite a campaign on the basis of “Listen, our austerity is slightly nicer than their austerity.” It just doesn’t work, and for the Liberals to say “Well listen, they’ve got big austerity, they’ve got wee austerity, we’ve got medium-sized austerity somewhere safely in between,” that’s not going to work either.

This is an election, as Nicola has done, where a position had to be carved out for a responsible, coherent, sustainable, absolute, move away from an austerity agenda. Now we’ve reached a situation, which you can argue we have, where the Financial Times editorial is to the left of the Conservative, Liberal and Labour parties, then we’ve reached a pretty pass in politics, and it opens up the full extent of the economic, political and social opportunity [for] progressive politics.

[Chiara Bullen- @bullieob] [Lauren Cummings- @__laurenC]

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