“I LIKE SALMON” and other stories

A few thoughts on SNP Leader/First Minister of Scotland Alex “I like salmon” Salmond, in the light of yesterday’s referendum debate between Salmond and Labour’s Alistair Darling.


While the media narrative has already framed the debate as a bruising set-back for Salmond, that wasn’t how I experienced it. A closer examination of the polling data suggests a much more complicated pattern of feedback. To be crude about it, people who came into the debate with the intention of voting YES generally felt that Salmond won, people who came in with a pro-Union point of view gave it to Darling, and those who came in undecided generally left the same way, with a minority possibly favouring Salmond.

Not that you’d have known it from a quick glance at Wednesday’s papers:


I doubt that the debate will have a drastic impact on the independence referendum – remember how everyone was really impressed by Nick Clegg’s performance in the 2010 debates and now he’s God Emperor of Dune? – but it does seem to have prompted a concerted effort by certain aspects of the pro-Independence campaign to work harder to distance themselves from Salmond.

On some levels this is understandable – my YES certainly isn’t reducible to an expression of support for Salmond or the SNP – but it also comes a little bit too close to reinforcing the mainstream narrative, which is an odd look for people who spend so much time contesting it. (A double difficulty: the attempt to make a YES vote synonymous with The Reign of Salmond is another long standing point of contention.)

All of this has brought into focus the peculiar position Salmond inhabits in the YES campaign: he’s much fêted as a political operator and a debater, and yet he’s also considered something of a negative asset.

For as long as I can remember, hatred for Alex Salmond has been widespread casually accepted, but while I understand why you wouldn’t want to invite him round for drinks and tiddlywinks, I’ve never quite worked out why he seems to provoke quite so much venom compared to some of his contemporaries. Let’s go down the list shall we?

  • Does Salmond regularly appear on your telly trying to convince you that we have to kill our way to peace, like skull-faced Tony Blair?  Nah, of all the political leaders of my lifetime, Salmond is the only one who’s not seemed over-keen to get blood on his hands.
  • Is he a tightly packed cheese sandwich of a man who likes to talk about tough decisions that won’t bother anyone he knows but which might just ruin the lives of the people you try hard not to look at in the street?  Nope: that’s your friend and mine, David Cameron.
  • Does auld Alex drink beer with and bum fags from people he’d gladly sell to serfdom like Nigel Farage, or issue jeremiads against traditional Labour policies while leading the Scottish Labour party, like piss-lipped Johann Lamont?  No. Something tells me that he’s more of a whisky man.
  • Most importantly of all, does he thrum through the dark, terrifying small children and bothering foxes like the reanimated corpse of Margaret Thatcher has been known to do on a warm summer evening? Course not! There’s only room for one monster on that beat (he says, allowing you to tick off the last box in this leftist bingo game).

Like Scottish Lib Dem leader Willie Rennie, Salmond occasionally comes across like someone who’s cheerfully trying to sell you a shoebox full of shit.  More often than that – and I think this might be one of the things that really irks people about him – he comes across as someone who really believes in his own product.  Which is a little big bit annoying, I guess, given that his previous favourite sales routine (The Arc of Prosperity) smells a wee bit similar to the contents of Mr Rennie’s shoebox these days, albeit not as much as Darling would have liked you to believe.

I don’t mean to downplay people’s aversion to Salmond too much, of course – there’s plenty that’s off-putting about him, even when he’s doing what he’s supposed to be good at.  His reputation as a parliamentary bruiser is well deserved, but the sight of him billowing through his big old gills on First Minister’s Questions is likely to put off as many people off as it convinces, and when praising him for being an effective leader it’s always worth paying attention to who benefits the most from his operations (hint: context defines, and our context is still firmly capitalist in nature).

Perhaps I’m going too far to look for reasons why Salmond annoys so many people though. He’s spent decades working to bring about a situation that, according to the polls, a small majority don’t want to come to pass and a good chunk of the population simply don’t know what to think about. I probably shouldn’t underestimate that when trying to work out why so many people seem to hate him so much.

Or maybe it’s even simpler than that. Watching the televised debate, I saw two well-off white men shouting at each other – Darling’s attempts to make a case for the economic security and redistributive powers received the canned laughter they deserved, and Salmond came off like a total dick when he repeatedly avoided an answerable, but potentially awkward, question about a what would happen if the UK parties stuck to their guns and refused to negotiate a currency union between Scotland and the UK. The fact that Salmond might possibly be right about Scotland’s prospects of using the pound doesn’t matter in this context, nor does the argument over whether we should be particularly keen to retain it.  

As he circled round the question again and again, he looked like exactly what he is: a career politician, doing his job.

For all his faults Salmond isn’t quite as loathsome as some of the other kids in the playground, but that doesn’t mean that he’s going to inspire anyone who already feels alienated from the process by which their lives are governed. While I think it would be a mistake to spend too much time and energy playing along with the official story and disavowing Salmond, I’m still glad that this debate is much bigger than Salmond and Darling duking it out on the telly.

Let’s just try to keep that in mind over the next six weeks; together or apart, we can do so much better.

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