Alex Salmond, Scotland’s nationalist first minister, has had three political lives. In the first, he was a leftwing firebrand, republican and abrasive, a young man regarded by his party’s leadership as little more than a nuisance, albeit a clever one. Then, when he was elected MP for Banff and Buchan in 1987, a transition took place. His gifts as a judicious tactician saw him manoeuvre easily to the leadership of his party. The notion of smart Alex, a consummate politician, operationally brilliant if somewhat bereft of vision, was born. Finally last month, at the age of 53, Mr Salmond’s third and most important political life started when he became first minister of Scotland’s devolved government, a leader committed to a referendum on independence.
His admirers and his enemies (and there are plenty of both) are noting that Mr Salmond has changed again. His tricky task – leading a minority administration and facing, before too long, considerable fiscal pain – calls for tactical sure-footedness that he undoubtedly has in abundance; but even his detractors concede that a new style has been evident. Mr Salmond has been dignified, persuasive, emollient. He has left the bitterness to his opponents, although significantly not the Tories, who in these early weeks of the new dispensation have been surprisingly supportive.
Of course, the Scottish Tories have been at such a desperately low ebb that they had nothing to lose, post-election, by being constructive: why not respond positively to Mr Salmond’s dulcet calls for reasonable consensual politics? Also, the Tories see in the new Scottish dispensation a chance for implementing some of their cherished ideas on crime and punishment, as the Scottish National party takes a fairly populist line on law and order.
Meanwhile the independence question can be pushed to the side for the moment and the problems of opposition can be left to Labour and its former coalition partners the Liberal Democrats, who ran Scotland for eight years. Life in Scotland is suddenly very unpleasant indeed for senior Labour politicians, who do not know quite what tone to adopt. Defeat by the tiniest of margins has necessitated the most punishing of adjustments for Labour, which for so long was able to regard Scotland as a fief that could be taken for granted.
So Mr Salmond is aware that he is enjoying, if not a honeymoon, at least a pleasant and breezy fresh start. He consorts with royalty, becomes a privy councillor, upstages Tony Blair. He can take the high ground in dealing with Gordon Brown, who will shortly be a Scottish prime minister of Britain for whom Scotland has become a personal irritant and an embarrassment.
Mr Salmond well knows that his first big test will come in three months, when his administration will have to unveil its comprehensive spending review. He is committed to big spending projects and at the same time has promised stripped-down government. Mr Salmond is going to require all his political and economic finesse to keep his spending promises while retaining credibility with those who voted for the SNP on the basis of its pledges of fiscal responsibility and efficient, lean administration. Can he pull it off?
The omens look good, surprisingly so. In his youthful leftwing days, Mr Salmond was more than just a fiery troublemaker in the smoke-filled halls that were the political habitat of the time. Already a graduate of the University of St Andrews, he was now spending long hours studying hard in the august ambience of the Royal Bank of Scotland’s fine library. Mr Salmond worked as an economist at the bank for eight years and in his time as a banker he carefully made himself a master of oil economics and energy law. He remains a sedulous and well-informed economist. He disguises it craftily, but he is one of the brainiest politicians around.
He has reminded some of the young Harold Wilson, a brilliant academic economist who entered politics as a man of the left, a highly cerebral man who also had the common touch. Tactically astute to the point of deviousness, Wilson won four general elections yet somehow never quite made the transition to statesman.
Now that he has gained power, Mr Salmond seems to be signalling that he might just manage the long leap to statesman status. Rather like Germany’s Angela Merkel two years ago, through sheer political canniness he can turn the narrowest of victories into a position of unlikely strength.
The writer was editor of The Herald, Glasgow, 1997-2000