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22 Dec, 2014 09:02

Alex Salmond: Cameron not just a bad loser, also a bad winner

The political storm over the Scottish independence referendum seems to have passed: the die was cast, and Scotland decided to stay with Westminster - which has been promising great changes before the vote. But is London actually ready to deliver on that promise? Is the independence cause over and done for decades now? And what is the side that lost - the Scottish National Party - going to do now? We ask the man who led the Independence movement, the former first minister of Scotland , Alex Salmond, on Sophie&Co today.

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Sophie Shevarnadze: Alex Salmond, former first minister of Scotland, welcome to our show, it’s great to have you with us again. Now, mr. Salmond, for 15 years you’ve been working towards this referendum. Just getting there was already an achievement - but tell me something: when, at what moment exactly that night on September 18th did you realise it was all over and that you’ve lost independence vote?

Alex Salmond: I don’t think it’s all over. When I’ve realised we lost the vote on September 18th was when the first result came through. Later on, into the evening, towards midnight, when the first result came through from the first declaration - once that happened, we realised we’re going to fall few percentage point short. I also realised, of course, that the result was going to be much closer than anybody in London had realised when we set up the referendum. On one hand, obviously, I was disappointed with the vote, but on the other hand, I knew that we’ve turned in a very powerful performance, with 1.6 million Scots saying “Yes” to independence.

SS: But looking back, right now, what was it you think you personally did wrong during this latest attempt at independence?

AS: Any campaign will have various strong points, and our strong point in the campaign was that we mobilised hundreds of thousands of people that have never been interested in politics previously, hence we had an 85% poll and 97% registration - almost unprecedented in democratic politics. Where we had miscalculated, underestimated was the impact of the last-minute offer of London government and the opposition parties, the three leaders of Westminster parties, three “amigos” as we call them in Scotland, who said that if Scotland voted “No” there would still be extensive powers given to the Scottish people, and that, in the last few days of the campaign, was enough to swing that vital 10% of people who were thinking about voting “Yes” into voting “No” because they believed that power would come to Scotland even after a No-vote. The task is now to make sure that that promise, that “vow” as it was called is redeemed and Scotland gets what we were promised in the referendum campaign.

SS: When you walk in the streets now, what do people say to you when they see you?

AS: Interestingly enough, when I walk in the streets, I get people looking for selfies. Nothing makes you more popular than resigning. If the selfie count is anything to go by, I am more popular, having resigned as First Minister, than when I was in office. So, being in the streets is something I love doing, of course, because I love the public and the people’s approachability that we have in Scotland - but it’s a very long process, walking anywhere on the streets of Scotland at the present moment - it gets quite a while, getting from A to B, because the selfie count has now reached astronomical proportions.

SS: But except the selfie, do they say anything? Do they thank you, for example, or something else?

AS: Actually, “thank you”... - a lot of people just say that, and it’s very moving. I’ve been in politics for a very long time, and I’ve seen a few things in politics and you’re not easily moved by things - but when people come up to you as has two women did today, incidentally - women who told me they never been the slightest bit interested in politics in their lives, and all they wanted to say was “thank you” because they’ve got interested in the political process, they’ve seen that glimpse of a different future for themselves and for that country. When people say that to you, it’s actually very moving, it’s very difficult not to be touched by that sort of feeling, that sort of rapport. It is moving, it is fundamentally moving, and I’m delighted because I think that despite the fact that we lost the referendum, I think Scotland is now much better place that it was before the referendum experience. It’s now a politically-energized population, and I hope we can keep that going - because as I’ve said on the day I resigned - September 19th - that despite the defeat at the referendum, I think Scotland can still emerge as a winner from this process.

SS: We’re going to talk about where Scotland stands right now, but just before that - I remember, before the vote, there was a lot of negative campaigning against you in the press, with allegations of corruption, etc, we even got a glimpse of it here, in Russia. Who do you think was behind it?

AS: Look, when you take on the British establishment, you must expect to go in for the underhand tactics, and of course, there was lots of negative campaigning, fear-mongering - but I don’t think that negative campaign has actually paid-off. If anything, I think that consolidated the “Yes” support. What was decisive for the “No” campaign, for the Westminster parties, for PM Cameron, opposition leader Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg, the deputy PM - when they joined together, along with the former PM, Gordon Brown, who, unlike the three Westminster leaders, still has some credibility in Scotland - and said, “Here’s an offer of huge powers that you’ll get from a No vote” - that moment was decisive for campaign. So, the negative campaign is what you expect, and that’s sort of stuff that London establishment does; but the offer, the “vow” as it was called, was the thing that decided the campaign.

SS: So, at which moment in the campaign do you feel David Cameron’s conduct was dignified, and when wasn’t?

AS: I think that PM emerged very badly from the referendum campaign. Obviously, 10 days before, the very first opinion poll ever showed the “Yes” campaign in lead - so, for the first time the opinion poll showed the “Yes” ahead, by 1%, by 51%-49% there. That achieved result in generating some panic in the heart of the Westminster government. I don’t think that was particularly edifying, and what David Cameron did, was to call a lot of big companies in the Downing Street, and he asked them, told them, encouraged them to make negative comments about Scottish independence, so you had big oil companies, big supermarkets making negative statements. I don’t that’s particularly edifying. I don’t think that was particularly effective, either. Then, of course, there was this offer to Scotland of substantially more powers, which was more effective. And, then, of course, the moment when David Cameron snatched defeat from the jaws of victory - the day after the referendum, he emerged from Downing Street and instead of saying, you know, “we’ll now endorse, we’ll now deliver on the commitment we made to Scotland, no questions asked, no strings attached” - he said something quite different. He said “yes, of course, there have to be changes in Scotland, but they must proceed at the same pace” - he put them in tandem with changes in England, and that was the first time that has been mentioned. It wasn’t mentioned in the campaign. In doing that, he did himself a great disservice, and of course what we’ve seen since the referendum with the SNP surging opinion polls in Scotland, has a great deal to do with how David Cameron conducted himself in victory. There’s one thing, incidentally, in politics and life being a bad loser; being a bad winner, which is what David Cameron was, is something else entirely, and he’s paying a heavy price for that lack of grace, that lack of ability to not just accept the democratic result, but also to go forward on the commitments that he had given without strings attached.

SS: So you feel like the language of love that was spoken, the words of love that were spoken towards Scotland, is kind of fading away?

AS: The offer that was given, the offer and “the vow” is not being redeemed. They’ve set up a committee under a very excellent person, Robert Smith and that produced a report, but the report itself does not match the promises that were made. Scotland was promised “home rule”, which is a word in politics which we applied first to Ireland and then to India in the days of British Empire. What that means is that you control all domestic taxation and domestic legislation. That’s not in offer. The words that were used were: “devolution to the max” by the newspaper The Daily Record, which articulated the vow, and that means all control, all financial control in Scotland - that’s not in offer. What has Gordon Brown, the former PM has said was “neo-federalism” and it’s not federalism, it’s an offer from the Smith commission, even if that is put into legislation, so what was offered during these last, desperate days of the campaign, when the unionist parties were trying desperately to avoid defeat - is not now what’s being matched in the offer that has been made to Scotland. And that as if you take to one side, this caviar that has been put on it - look, you can only get this if there are changes in England as well.

SS: But did you ever feel the promises made about devolution would be kept?

AS:I always greet promises from the Westminster politicians with a large degree of scepticism, because I’ve seen them come and go over the years, and my impression, my understanding, my experience tells me that the Westminster will only deliver anything to Scotland when they have no alternative whatsoever. So, obviously, I put a heavy discount on pledges and commitments. But of course, it wasn’t very important what I thought about it - what was important was that this 10% of swing voters, the people who’ve made a difference between being 55-45 for No or a 55-45 for Yes. That swing 10% of voters, the people who were persuaded that they could vote “No” and still get these substantial, extensive, neo-federal powers to Scotland - it was their impression that mattered, and of course, these are the same people now, who in addition to people who have voted “Yes”, are saying “my goodness, these promises are not being redeemed, we’re going to vote SNP at the Westminster elections to make absolutely sure that the vow is redeemed in full, that the promises made to Scotland are now delivered”.

SS: So, Mr Salmond, the Smith commission's recommendations go further than the original vow, promised by Gordon Brown - they recommended full, instead of part devolution of income tax alongside significant elements of welfare spending. Why isn’t that deal enough, what other powers are missing out of the report?

AS: What Gordon has offered in the last week of the campaign - by the liberal party it was “home rule”, by the newspaper which articulated the vow, the Daily Record, was the “devolution max” as it’s called, and by Gordon Brown, it was neo-federalism. What the Smith commision has offered is not that. It’s not that, because Robert Smith, the Lord Smith and Chair of the Commission, had to go at the pace of the slower ship in the convoy - in this case, the Labor Party which is an extremely slow ship to have to go at the pace of. Therefore, what we’ve been offered is not control of finance, we’ve been in control of finance, 70% would remain in London. We’ve not been offered control of welfare, because 80% of that would remain in London, and therefore, what the Smith commission has offered, even if you assume it’s going to be delivered, falls far short of what Scotland was offered during the last week of the campaign. Therefore, it’s extremely important, as we approach the next electoral test in Scotland, that people in Scotland take the opportunity to make sure what was offered and promised to Scotland is redeemed, and to do that at the ballot polls by exercising the right to make sure that enough people from Scotland go down to Westminster to make certain that the promises to Scotland are now delivered.

SS: Now, doom-mongers say this deal is the beginning of the end for the UK - what if Whales and Northern Ireland ask for more powers as well? What happens then? And - do you think they should?

AS: You know, what Wales and Northern Ireland do and not do is a matter for people in Wales and North Ireland. I mean, my view is that not just Scotland, but Wales and Northern Ireland would benefit from having more powers, as, indeed, would the English regions. There’s actually nothing to be frightened of in terms of the devolution of power. The devolution of power is a good thing; a federal system in many places in the world works extremely well, so this fear that people have in Westminster of concentrating of all the economic power in one center - it’s actually extremely bad, extremely bad for London itself, but it’s also bad for the whole country. You’re far better to distribute power, to allow economic activity to take place much more evenly - but, you know, the future of Wales and Northern Ireland is really a matter for the people in these countries. The future of Scotland is my concern, and my concern is that we now make sure that Scotland now has, after the UK general election, the powers that were promised to us during the referendum campaign when these three Westminster parties - Labor, the Tories, the Liberal-Democrats - were desperate up against that, they thought they were losing Scotland, and therefore promised us the Moon. Well - that’s what they promised, it’s now up to us to make sure that is what’s delivered.

SS: Now, the “Better Together” camp has promised the question of Scottish independence won’t be raised for another generation. Your successor, Nicola Sturgeon on the other hand, promised holding another independence referendum on top of the agenda. So, who is being realistic here?

AS:I always support my former deputy, my new leader Nicola Sturgeon. What Nicola Sturgeon has to say is always much to be regarded and certainly be regarded better than anything the Westminster politician has to say. The point that Nicola has made about this was two things - one, the coming contest, the coming general election - this is not going to be a contest about the independence for Scotland. The task at the coming general election next May, that’s May 2015, is to ensure in Scotland, by electing SNP mp’s - and the current opinion polls are very favourable - to make sure that the promises made to Scotland are now delivered. What Nicola said about future referendum is that this will be determined by the people of Scotland; if the people of Scotland, in the future, at some point, vote by majority into the Scottish Parliament, people who want to have another referendum, then they will determine whether or not the referendum takes place. So, the decision on the future referendum is not one for the “Better Together” campaign or the Westminster parties, or even, actually, for Nicola Sturgeon or myself. It’s a decision that’ll be made by the Scottish people at their elections to the Scottish Parliament.

SS: You know, the first minister should represent the whole of Scotland. So, does calling for a new referendum correspond with people’s desire? I mean, with all the respect, they’ve just voted against independence, even though it was in a very small margin.

AS: Yeah, Nicola Sturgeon does represent the whole of Scotland and of course that’s what she made clear when she was elected as first minister. But, she’s also made the point that the pace at which Scotland proceeds towards independence will be determined by the Scottish people. There is no backdoor to Scottish independence, there’s no way around this. The only circumstances in which Scotland can become independent is firstly that people elect to the Scottish parliament a majority under proportional representation of people who want to hold the referendum, and they’re after by majority of people of Scotland holding such a referendum and having a “Yes” majority. The timescale of that is in the hands of Scottish people. Now, if I could just comment on Nicola Sturgeon’s first few weeks as first-minister - I think she has been outstandingly successful. Well, you might say “oh, of course you would say that, because you’re a firm supporter of Nicola Sturgeon. Much more importantly, I think is the opinion of the Scottish people, and as you know, the SNP has soared to unprecedented heights in the opinion polls, and we now have almost a hundred thousand members! Perhaps five times as many, perhaps more as any other political party in the whole of Scotland. So, more importantly than my impression about Nicola Sturgeon as the first minister is the impression of the people - and that seems to be a resounding thumbs-up.

SS: Can I ask you something - are there any people close to you, your family or your friends - that don’t agree with Scotland’s independence, and have a different opinion other than yours.

AS: Can I just say, my late mother, for many years, who I love dearly, and she was one of the most amazing people I’ve ever met in my life - my late mother for many-many years was a firm Conservative party voter in Scotland, but I have to say, in her later years she decided to vote in the same direction as her husband and her son. So, I welcomed her support, but I still lover her as my mother even when she was voting Conservative.

SS: Now, you say, you want the British nuclear arms and submarines out of Navy bases in Scotland - but where would they go? Do you propose UK lose its nuclear deterrent?

AS: There’s two issues here. One is, if and when Scotland becomes independent - I hope, when Scotland becomes independent - then, of course, the nuclear weapons would have to be moved out of Scotland. Nobody seriously would argue that Scotland as a nation of 5 and quarter million people should be a nuclear power. As to where they would move - it would be up to the rest of the UK government; there’s certainly space in Devonport to base submarines. They would have an issue about the supply system for the nuclear warheads, but of course, there’s plenty of facilities elsewhere, in America for example, to do that. My advice to the UK government under this circumstances would be to take the opportunity not to be a nuclear power, but I do accept that is a matter for the rest of the UK. The second issue is the one that’s coming up in the next election - and that is during the term of the next Westminster parliament, a decision will have to be made as to whether to renew the Trident nuclear system, to go to new generation of nuclear weapons at the cost of someone hundred billion pound sterling over a generation. I think that would be the wrong decision at any time, I think in the atmosphere of a severe financial pressure on budgetary issues in the UK, that would be the wrong decision to make. I think it’s indefensible at time of austerity, when key issues affecting the economy of the social provision for the people are being squeezed, when public services are under pressure, it’s decidedly not for the hundred billion pounds of expenditure on the new generation of the new submarines and new missiles. That would be a bad decision, and certainly it’s one that the SNP mp’s will do absolute best to make sure it does not happen in the term of the next Westminster parliament.

SS: Now, you have set your sights on the UK Parliament. Nicola Sturgeon said “Westminster is shaking in its boots as a result”, but the MP’s in the Westminster - they feel like they are the winners, and they would look at you as a man who has lost the main battle in his life. So, how are you going to go about it?

AS: I’ve declared my candidature for constituency in the North-East of Scotland, I’m taking nothing for granted, I expect a hard fight in that constituency, particularly against the Conservative party. I know the bookies, the bookmakers have me as a strong favorite in that constituency.But, you know, as a favorite in constituency I will have to work extremely hard to get support of the people, but it’s not really a question of just of securing that election. It’s a question of how many SNP mp’s will turn across Scotland. Current indications are that could be a substantial number. If it is a substantial number, then that block of MP’s along with the allies in the Green Party and from Wales could have a substantial influence in the next UK parliament.If that happens, of course, then I think it is the case that Nicola Sturgeon will be right, that the Westminster parties, the Tories, Labor, the Liberals will be shaking in their boots. And they have a reasonable cause to be shaking in their boots.

SS: So, the Tories have promised to start working on the British-EU exit referendum if the next election allows them to do so. Why are you so against leaving the EU - last time we spoke, you told me that independence means control over finances and resources - I mean, does anyone in the EU have control over their finances?

AS: Yes, they do. The distinction, of course, between the EU and being part of the Euro area. The European Union has a substantial trading relationship , but being a country in the EU still gives you control of 99% of your taxation, everything except the VAT contribution. Obviously, restrictions come in if you’re part of the Euro currency as well, but nevertheless taxation is under control of individual countries - it should be said that many countries in Northern Europe in particular find great benefits from that relationship. So, I don’t think you want to say - look, here we changes within the EU, we’d like the EU to be more progressive in social policy, for example, and therefore the answer for our wish for change in the EU is to withdraw from it entirely and to abandon the close trading and political relationship that we’ve developed over these last 39 years. I think that would be a ridiculous position to adopt, but that is the position that is being adopted by many people in the Conservative party and the UKIP. It’s not a position that is shared in Scotland.

SS: Mr Salmond, thank you very much for this interview, we wish you best of luck with all your future undertakings. We were talking to former first minister of Scotland, the man behind the Scottish independence movement, Alex Salmond; talking about his future plans and where Scotland stands after referendum. That’s it for this edition of Sophie&Co, I’ll see you next time.