Will the real Alex Salmond please stand up?

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Salmond, Against the Odds
David Torrance
Birlinn, £20
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“Will the real Alex Salmond please stand up?” is the query that heads the final chapter of this search into what lies behind the enigmatic man with the cheeky, self-confident grin who, in Matthew Parris’ words, “combines an open countenance with an instinct for the low blow”. The book exudes a mixture of frustration and exasperation that after 295 pages of exhaustive enquiry we have still to discover what really makes this essential figure in contemporary Scottish politics tick. We need to know since, following his capturing a remarkable majority of seats in the Scottish Parliament in the May 2011 election, he is now leading his new government towards a referendum on Scottish independence some time within the next five years.

First Minister Alex Salmond is a self-made man, in human terms a work of art. He was born into an unremarkable lower middle class background in the historic West Lothian town of Linlithgow, to the north of Edinburgh. His Labour leaning father served in the navy, and trained as an electrician before becoming an executive officer in the Ministry of Pensions. His mother, a Conservative who worshipped Winston Churchill, worked as a clerical officer at the local National Insurance office. Their gift to their son, born in 1954, was a stable, happy childhood which partly explains the supreme self-confidence, even serenity, that has characterised his life.

He imbibed a love of Scottish history from his grandfather Sandy – “the strongest influence in my life in determining my attitude to nationality and identity” – and took this with him to university at St Andrews in the early 1970s where he studied economics and medieval history. There he also discovered the SNP and the rest, you might say, is history.

But what made him into the implacable driving force that first impressed its will on a fractious, almost instinctively divided party, and then led him to emerge as the towering figure in today’s Scottish political life?

To understand Alex Salmond you need first to understand the SNP. Although operating in a similar British context, it is a far cry from Plaid Cymru. The SNP’s lodestar is independence and any deviation is to this day viewed with profound suspicion by many in the party. For instance, until the creation of the Scottish Parliament devolution was widely regarded at best as a distraction and at worst a unionist trap.

Salmond’s great achievement, over nearly 20 years up to the 1997 referendum in Scotland, was to lead his party into a pragmatic accommodation with devolution as offering a gradualist route to independence. In this he was assisted by Donald Dewar, the Labour Secretary of State for Scotland, who responded to him in the House of Commons at the time, “I should be the last to challenge the sovereignty of the people or deny them the right to opt for any solution to the constitutional question which they wished. For example, if they want to go for independence, I see no reason why they should not do so. In fact, if they want to, they should.”

The subtitle of David Torrance’s book is Against the Odds and that is because Salmond is a chancer, a betting man – in 1998 he took over from Robin Cook as the Glasgow Herald’s racing tipster. At key moments he has led from the front and taken a punt, none more so than in the 2007 Scottish Parliament election when he put his career on the line by standing in the marginal seat of Gordon in north-east Scotland. He captured it triumphantly from the Liberal Democrats, in the process edging the SNP just one seat ahead of Labour to propel the party into (minority) government with himself installed as First Minister.

It was a crowning moment which provides the opening chapter for this biography. Even so the book remains very much a work in progress, not least because at the end we are still far from discovering “the real Alex Salmond”. We are given a clue, however, in a reference to his lifelong passion for the work of R.S. Thomas. At school he undertook a project on the poet’s work and wrote to him – “displaying typical self-confidence” – and was rewarded with two letters in reply, both of which duly appeared as appendices to his A-graded essay.

Later Salmond told a university friend how much he identified with Thomas’ character, the hill farmer Iago Prytherch. The poet presents him as a symbol of Wales, and an enigma. “What is he thinking about?” Thomas once asked. “What is going on in his skull?” Torrance suggests Prytherch could be an allegory for Salmond himself. As with Scotland’s leading politician, “He is like bark / Weathering on the tree of his kind. / He will go on; that much is certain.”

John Osmond is Director of the Institute of Welsh Affairs. Salmond – Against the Odds by David Torrance is published by Birlinn, at £20.

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