Is Alex Salmond really the best man to speak for Scottish independence?

Today is the anniversary of the Battle of the Standard, where the Scots under King David battled Norman English forces. Fast forward to 2014 and Alex Salmond claims to lead the Scots. They could do better.

Today is the anniversary of the Battle of the Standard, where the Scots under King David battled Norman English forces. Fast forward to 2014 and Alex Salmond claims to lead the Scots. They could do better.

Perhaps it says more about the company I keep, but I would bet a great British pound coin on it that I’m not unique in having a conversation about the ‘leadership qualities’ in Alastair Darling recently.

Speaking to a friend recently, who had just returned from Scotland recently (“the banners saying “no” far outnumber the ones saying “yes””), I pointed out that perhaps this side of Darling was missing in the years he was chancellor. “Perhaps, but being behind Gordon Brown would soon see that disappear”.

Though the more I think of it, the more convinced I am that whatever the merits of Darling’s qualities as a cool and convincing leader, he has been dealt a pretty good hand going head to head with Alex Salmond, who it must be said looks less like a leader in the past weeks and months he’s been doing battle over independence.

With Salmond you get the impression that this is all a vanity show; independence is what it says on his card but really the television appearances, the knee-jerk commitments to things that are later found rather more complicated like the issue of currencies, these are all just things to get us listening to him.

Take the recent issue around the National Health Service. Salmond has stated that he will focus the final month of the independence campaign telling Scots how their health service is in jeopardy with cuts and privatisation threatening to do irreparable damage.

Already this has upset those independence campaigners who want their leader to focus less on the negatives, and more on what an independent Scotland can do for the future prosperity of the Scots. But also it runs contrary to previous messages spelt out by the SNP leader.

Not only this time round did Salmond undermine his own argument by admitting that the Scottish Government received more funding due to spending commitments on the NHS, which will serve only to confuse voters, but it also runs contrary to an important line found in the SNP manifesto of 2011:

“The Scottish Parliament has responsibility for the health service and that means we can protect NHS budgets.”

A letter in the Scotsman recently gets to the point, asking:

“It is …clear… Alex Salmond has conveniently changed his tune to scrape up Yes votes.”

What’s fairly obvious to most supporters of independence, and yet oblivious to Salmond, is that the tack he is taking does two things: 1) Steers his argument to negative points that opens up a vacuum for the Better Together campaign to offer a more positive vision of the future; and 2) makes it very hard for Salmond to stay consistent with his previous optimism for a more devolved Scotland.

Salmond cannot have his cake (more Scottish power than we’ve previously had will bring greater rewards) and eat it too (more Scottish power doesn’t mean anything, we need independence). So what should he spend the next month doing?

As someone who thinks Scotland’s future would be better within the union, it would not do for me to offer Salmond advice on this one, but it seems that what is missing is too obvious to go uncommented.

Murray Stewart Leith and Daniel P. J. Soule’s 2011 book Political Discourse and National Identity in Scotland lays a great deal of emphasis on what it calls non-elite perceptions of nationalism and identity in Scotland. Everything from social attitude surveys to online forum discussions have been analysed to try and pick up, for want of a better description, the mood of the nation.

What they found in their in their study is that when asked what makes Scotland a distinct national and cultural space, the images that resonate are things like the legacy of the Kailyard – the school of Scottish fiction developed in the 1890s, myths such as Scotch Mist, and the noble savage or the “lad o’ pairts”.

What Salmond probably shouldn’t do is stand at a lectern and read George MacDonald poems, but what he perhaps should do is tell a better story of what Scotland is, what images it raises as a distinct space, and what importance it has across the world. From here Salmond can afford a positive case for independence, rather than focusing on the dystopia he paints currently.

Leith and Soule’s book also points out that Scottish nationalism is a civic nationalism, defined less as a set of exclusive personal criteria (say of ethnicity or language), but rather one of tolerance and pluralism. Salmond could learn how to better use this notion, instead of making party political gestures that, whatever the merit of Tory-bashing, do not always land.

In the round the presence of Alex Salmond has probably done more to confuse, or worse disadvantage, the campaign for independence. For the sake of the union I hope this campaign comes second place, but forgetting my political colour for now I’m sure in the days leading up to the vote advocates for an independent Scotland will be wondering whether they chose the right man to lead them.

Carl Packman is a contributing editor to Left Foot Forward

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