The many personas of Alex Salmond
Crucial to any understanding of Scotland’s First Minister is that there are many different Alex Salmonds. At last night’s Hugo Young Memorial Lecture in London, the Anglophile Alex Salmond was in full flow. Today, when he launches his consultation on an independence referendum back in Edinburgh, the patriotic Alex Salmond will no doubt be on top form.
This chameleon-like instinct also applies ideologically. To an audience of Guardianistas and the cream of London’s commentariat, the SNP leader presented himself as, ironically, the defender of Britain’s post-war social democratic consensus. Later, under questioning, he slipped into language worthy of a City analyst, for there is also a neoliberal Alex Salmond.
Inevitably, this something-for-everyone approach produces inconsistencies. Approvingly name-checking Clement Attlee and his commitment to National Insurance, ‘housing for all’ and the NHS, Salmond appeared to be arguing that the case for independence flowed from the breakdown of that very consensus, despite the fact he – and other Nationalists – have been arguing for it since 1945, when Butskellism was at its height.
Nevertheless, it is an attractive vision, and one that makes life difficult for his political opponents both in London and Edinburgh. With, as Salmond points out, increasing policy convergence between Labour and the Conservatives at Westminster, those wishing to preserve a ‘progressive’ agenda in Scotland have little option but to back the SNP and, by logical extension, independence.
Salmond, of course, is not the first to claim a ‘progressive’ mantle. As the Guardian’s editor Alan Rusbridger pointed out after last night’s lecture, Hugo Young would have been amused that two other memorial lecturers had done the same, namely David Cameron and Nick Clegg. ‘Progressive’ can mean different things to different people, and therein lies its appeal to the Scottish First Minister.
This ideological mood music, however, is not the main event. Events have moved quickly over the last few weeks: the UK Government has little choice but to accept the Scottish Government’s preferred timetable of ‘autumn’ 2014 for an independence poll, while the SNP quickly gave ground on the involvement of the Electoral Commission (which they initially opposed).
Extending the franchise to 16 and 17 year olds (another SNP demand) is also unlikely, so it all boils down to the referendum question: will Salmond go for all or nothing with just one question on independence? Or will he hedge his bets with a ‘devo-max’ third way? The UK Government is resolutely opposed to the latter, but with opinion polls showing little movement in those supporting the former, another persona, that of the pragmatic Alex Salmond, may come to the fore.