The Moderniser: Alex Salmond's Journey

Article excerpt

It is a curious, but pleasing, coincidence that the most gifted centre-left politicians of recent times were all born in Scotland: Gordon Brown (born in Giffnock, 1951); Tony Blair (born in Edinburgh, 1953); and Alex Salmond (born in Linlithgow, 1954). Different in upbringing, beliefs and political style, this trio can nonetheless be classed together as the outstanding representatives of a single political generation.

Salmond is rarely viewed in this context. Party differences are assumed to trump any similarities, while a lifetime devoted to the SNP meant that Salmond's career trajectory was out of synch with the rise and fall of Blair and Brown. Salmond is only now enjoying the peak of his public career, after his contemporaries have been vanquished from office. But a comparison with Blair and Brown is illuminating. Amid the recent effusion of metropolitan commentary on Salmond, it is easily forgotten that he has also been on a political journey, like Blair and Brown weathering the slow erosion of positions once firmly held in the face of bleak and implacable circumstances.

The generation of Blair, Brown and Salmond rose to political maturity in the 1970s, and to positions of political leadership and influence in the late 1980s and early 1990s. In spite of their differences, this generation therefore shared a disagreeable burden: crafting a left response to the victories of Thatcherism and, in effect, presiding over as orderly a retreat as possible from the positions entrenched by the left in the 1940s.

The spirit of '79

Salmond of course chose a different path from Blair and Brown. He rejected the comforting embrace - and career advancement - offered by the British labour movement. But the labour movement was an influential factor in Salmond's thinking as he rose through the ranks of the SNP during the 1970s. Salmond first stepped into the political limelight as a result of his participation in the '79 Group, an organisation which aimed to promote a more decisively left-wing agenda within the SNP. The Group was formed in response to the political disappointments of 1979, notably the failure of Scottish devolution to win greater popular support in the referendum of that year and the loss of nine of the SNP's eleven MPs in the subsequent general election. The '79 Group argued that Scottish nationalism would only become electorally successful if it won over working class Labour voters, and to attract their support it was necessary to present Scottish independence as a means of advancing socialist objectives. As Stephen Maxwell, one of the most important members of the Group, observed a few years later:

  Among the chief intellectual influences on the '79 Group must be
  counted the Labour Party, or, more precisely, the Labour Party's
  success in retaining its working-class support in Scotland when it
  was being steadily eroded in England. (Maxwell, 1985, 12)

The members of the '79 Group therefore adhered to a relatively traditional form of Labour socialism - supplemented by an admixture of New Left-style community politics - and oriented themselves towards Labour voters and institutions, especially the trade unions. As Maxwell noted, Alex Salmond - one of 'the "discoveries" of the Group' - enjoyed influence and prestige among his colleagues because of his involvement in the campaigns against factory closures in his home constituency of West Lothian. The model offered by the West Lothian SNP's fight against deindustrialisation 'helped to confirm a model of Scottish society in which the industrial working class figured as the only potential challenger to the British state' (Maxwell, 1985, 13).

The '79 Group was ultimately seen as too factional and provocative by the rest of the SNP. Among other things, its commitment to civil disobedience caused discomfort to the SNP mainstream. Salmond himself was briefly expelled from the SNP in 1982-83 as a result of his association with the Group, though a deal was quickly brokered that soldered the Party back together (the full story is recounted in Torrance, 2011, 97-117). …