Alex Salmond is well known for enjoying a flutter, but he did not bet on the outcome of last year’s referendum on Scottish independence because, in his words: “I was too close to it. I don’t think you should bet on something if you’re too close to it.”
In the end, it was probably just as well that he didn’t. When the polls closed, he was convinced that Scotland was about to declare its independence from the UK; a few hours later he found himself in his office drafting his resignation speech. The dream, it seemed, was dead.
Since then, the former SNP leader turned MP has been enjoying an extraordinary run of good luck. Sitting in his Westminster office, Mr Salmond can reflect on a year in which support for independence has surged, the SNP has won 56 seats in the House of Commons – including his own – and his party’s membership has swelled dramatically.
“Everything has its time, and I had a great time as First Minister. But I have not regretted my decision to resign,” he says. “The decision was absolutely right, and I think political events have vindicated that. I’ve never been in politics to become First Minister of Scotland, much as I loved being it. I’m in politics to achieve independence for Scotland, and to do whatever’s necessary to push things in that direction.”
Mr Salmond took the tactical decision to leave, he says, when he heard David Cameron’s speech on the steps of Downing Street the morning of the referendum result. To everyone’s surprise, rather than strike a conciliatory tone the Prime Minister instead used the platform to talk about the divisive issue of English votes for English laws.
“That performance, that arrogance, set up the political situation which was redolent with opportunity,” he says. “But in order to maximise that opportunity, you had to clear the decks. If I’d stayed on to fight the election, yeah, I think we’d have done well – probably very well – but there would still have been the nagging question, ‘What are you here for? You lost the referendum.’ Once we’d cleared the decks, all the pressure was on the unionist parties.”
Mr Salmond believes that in terms of political own goals Mr Cameron’s speech was “right up there with that hapless goalie who threw the ball into his own net”. In his view, it immediately opened the door to another independence referendum. “I thought to myself: you stupid man,” he recalls with a knowing smile.
With several polls indicating that a majority of Scots now back independence, he is convinced that the pendulum has already swung far enough in the SNP’s favour. Asked what would happen if the country voted again today, he replies: “I think we’d win. With a campaign of course – the reason I’d do that is that we started at 28 per cent during the [last] campaign and finished at 45 per cent. I think if you start at 50 per cent, you’re likely to end up substantially better than that.”
Independence is now inevitable, he believes. “Even if nothing changed in terms of people’s perceptions, the matter is an underlying generational one now,” he says. “The people that formed their political attitudes in recent times – and that’s not just young people, incidentally, that’s people through the age groups – their political attitudes are now set; they have been forged in the fire of the referendum campaign and they are not going back into their box, whatever Mr Cameron would wish.”
Mr Salmond’s set of “triggers” that he feels would justify another vote include the UK Government’s failure to keep its “vow” on maximum devolution for Scotland; George Osborne’s refusal to slow the pace of austerity; Britain voting to leave Europe against Scotland’s wishes in 2017; the renewal of Trident against the will of the Scottish people; and the Labour Party failing to make itself electable before 2020.
Reflecting on last year’s vote, Mr Salmond reserves his strongest criticism for the BBC, which he claims played a “significant” role in keeping Scotland part of the Union through biased reporting. “I think what decided the referendum was the renewed scaremongering campaign, and the BBC was one of the chosen instruments of that scaremongering,” he says.
“The Daily Telegraph, the Daily Mail and the Daily Express scaremongering I expected and discounted. They’re entitled to be prejudicial, short-sighted, right-wing lunatics. But the BBC is a different matter; it’s a public service broadcaster and it was doing it from a position of credibility.”
Asked if he regrets his public spat with the BBC journalist Nick Robinson, he replies: “My biggest regret of the campaign is I didn’t anticipate that the BBC would be as biased as they were. I took the view that the broadcasters would be fair and square, certainly when you got into the campaign period, because that had been my experience at every general election.
“A failure to understand – and perhaps the clue is in the name – that the British Broadcasting Corporation would not behave like that was my weakness. I should have realised much earlier and taken whatever action we could to do something about it.”
When the time for another referendum comes, he says, voters will be wary about trusting the BBC. “They’ve managed to wreck the greatest broadcasting reputation in the world. Either the BBC will have to change if it wants to retain credibility, or people will discount what [it] says.”
No longer being First Minister means he can say “exactly” what he thinks about the Scottish press, he adds. And then, without further prompting, he does. “If it’s possible for you to imagine a sort of Daily Mail and Daily Telegraph which are distilled into their mad essence – that is the tartanised version of the Daily Mail and Daily Telegraph,” he says.
“A lot of the stuff that’s written is mad. It’s not just right-wing nonsense, which happens down here, it’s mad right-wing nonsense. It bears as much resemblance to reality as a Daily Express weather report. It doesn’t really matter, in the sense that nobody believes this nonsense – nobody with any sense – but it does infect the social media. There’s a slant on every story.”
He may not have bet on the outcome of the referendum, but Mr Salmond could not resist a flutter at the general election. He placed five wagers on certain seats falling to the SNP and won them all – and then bet on Jeremy Corbyn to become Labour leader. He is, in more ways than one, on a roll.
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