Forget Professor Stephen Hawking. Alex Salmond expanded our universe.
A national poet is always welcome, a composer too, a great philosopher a constant need, but a dynamic, fiercely committed and honest politician is a once in a lifetime blessing.
I stopped admiring Scotland’s Labour party when I saw how they kissed each other on the cheeks but took a body swerve to avoid poor in the street, and refused to live among their voters. To their Tammany Hall stertorous superficiality there was no known cure.
I looked for better and saw the SNP was not as accused, the Tory party in Highland dress, but a semi-socialist party able to balance that doctrine with a dash of benign capitalism. Moreover, it was the only party to devote itself to the well-being of Scotland, and the dispersal of power to people. Horror of horrors, it respected democracy and practised it!
But it didn’t take on that mantle until led by Alex Salmond.
Like his successor as First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, I had the good fortune to talk to Salmond once but in his case for ten minutes of a private chat, Nicola merely to shake her hand to thank her for all she was doing for Scotland. Wits about you, not over-awed by the moment, you can glean a lot about somebody in ten minutes.
Talking to the man
Years earlier I had been invited by the SNP to shoot their party political broadcast. (PPB.)It was so well received I was given two others to devise and direct before I began working many months a year in the City of Angels movie industry. I aimed for a higher standard of PPB than hitherto, as innovative as possible.
One PPB involved a teenager talking to camera against a blue screen that allowed the introduction of a cartoon backdrop illustrating his opinions; the second shot in widescreen like a cinema movie, an aerial travelling sequence over Castle Campbell, the independence message narrated by Sean Connery. The PPBs were supervised by an Edinburgh advertising agency. Their place in the story will become obvious later.
(Incidentally, the sound recordist’s inexpert junior assistant on the Castle Campbell shoot became head of BBC drama a year later – a signpost BBC was demoting Scottish fiction. The department demoted, withered in double-quick time, and unexpectedly she moved on to more fertile pastures.)
Westminster has only loathing for Scottish politics
I was canvassing when the opportunity arose to meet Salmond. He was on the move, bustling in and out of his associates-packed limousine, yet gave me some of his time. I began by expressing praise for his stand in calling our Parliament a parliament and not as Westminster had defined it, with a diminutive sobriquet, as an ‘executive.’
Here was an example of Salmond in full spate kicking over generations of the Scottish ‘cringe,’ the inbred feeling we ‘cannae be as gid as them yins doon there. Should we no be jist a hen hoose?’ In response Salmond thanked me for establishing one of our national arts institutions that exists to this day.
His generosity gave me courage to explain I had returned to my homeland to help regain our independence. I asked if there was there a way I could help other than wafting leaflets up and down stairs to closed doors and finger snapping letter boxes. By that I meant, use my skills to better effect, for example, writing satire for public consumption, propaganda material stating actual facts, helping with more PPBs, or perhaps a back-up speaker at selected talks and meetings, that sort of thing. Sadly, though motivated to achieve Scotland’s destiny I proved an abject failure at organising my own.
Exposing truth doesn’t win you friends
I refrained from suggesting I could help him lose his fricative ‘th’ – when he says, “We will succeed wif integrity, notwifstanding the rightness of our cause,” a result of childhood laziness uncorrected that fails to slide air between the tip of the tongue and upper front teeth to pronounce ‘th’.
A man never short of snapping at stupid questions, I was surprised he took time to talk about ideas, but what came last baffled me. “We need a man in that advertising agency in Leith,” he said with a heavy nod of his head, as he clambered back inside his chauffeured car to reach the next venue and wave goodbye.
That he missed the fact I had no need to seek employment, or wanted that kind of change, left me wondering for days what he meant by ‘our man in that agency.’ Was the agency imperfect, lacking in imagination, or ever since it supervised my PPBs had become a ferret’s den of right-wing ideology? Or did he see in me something I did not? Ambiguity. The mystery of his implied enigmatic instruction remains unsolved.
Disappointed I couldn’t offer a more constructive contribution to the party’s march toward our democracy I resigned myself to open discussion at SNP meetings, tormenting idiots and fools on the Guardian newspaper’s website columns, and writing a personal blog as a method of refining my political outlook, and maybe influencing opinion.
A memorable remark
Before we had a chance to sit down and talk he caught me unawares. “I can see you’re a man who won’t take no for an answer,” he said, a remark delivered with, (or is it ‘wif’?) a cutting edge, one I saw as a way of keeping strangers and newcomers at bay until he accepted their company. And it reminded me of what a number of women say to me when I ask why they don’t like Salmond, “He’s cocky,” the invariable reply.
A mission to democratise
The main qualities I got from the meeting were boundless energy, an ability to coin an unexpected quip, and a dynamic person who had a plan no one could divert. And boy, did he know his political history, especially that of his foes. I also spotted a shortcoming, a man in a hurry, burdened with the pressures of state and more, not too keen to read small print, or to explain what he sees as obvious but others don’t.
His farewell speech to his party’s annual conference was one of the best I have heard him make. As the failed journalist, (they become television presenters) Andrew Neil, duly impressed, said, “Salmond’s victory speech: What would he have sounded like if he’d actually won?!”
He lifted our awareness of ourselves as a nation. He placed a searchlight on Unionist claims of Scotland as freeloader, and our own belief we are mendicants – he proved we give what we earn to London and they give as an allowance in return. And Whitehall admitted it. He showed us how small-minded and petty his political adversaries can be and still are compared to his statesmanship.
From the constant gibe supporters of independence are a lunatic fringe, never greater than 30% of the population, he took us to the brink and the possibility we can win back our country from the grip of brutal neo-conservative ideology and the worst of globalisation.
The right to try again
He taught me a second or even third referendum is a constitutional right. When Labour loses an election do they wail they cannot enter another to achieve power because they lost the last? Do they hell. They aver they will win next time – it’s a democratic certainty.
Salmond drew out the enemies of democracy, identified the bastards, the politicians and business leaders who detest the democratic process – strong words but absolutely apposite – who will do their best to block it for reasons of self-interest and greed and power.
Above all he taught us empowerment can be achieved for the masses even in these times of immense, unaccountable power and wealth held in fewer and fewer hands, in crooked banks, politicians in hock to corporations, and a press and media unable to throw off the straight-jacket of nineteenth century ‘Britishness.’ He proved we can create a better society from a clean sheet.
What an exciting prospect. That ideal never existed before this day.
Alex Salmond gave Scotland a renewed faith in itself, a wonderful confidence, and the chance of shaping our own destiny free of the taint of corrupt capitalism. By careful and verifiable argument he demonstrated the Union’ is a busted flush, a Victorian toilet cistern barely working, slop and effluent stubbornly refusing to flush away.
Salmond gave us a plebiscite denied by other politicians for over 300 years.
He taught us to punch out the lights of irrational fear.
Is it any wonder I am a Number One fan? I will happily ‘hold Westminster’s feet to the fire’ over their promise to provide great constitutional powers to Scotland, but only for so long for its feet are made of clay.
As far as Scotland’s future is concerned, I trust his departure from our Parliament is not adieu, only au revoir jusqu’á la prochaine fois – goodbye … until next time.
Post Script. Together with 56 of SNP colleagues, Salmond was elected to the Westminster parliament, becoming spokesperson on Foreign Affairs, in a landslide victory at the General Election.