Interview with Alex Salmond, Minister of Scotland from 2007 to 2014
Alex Salmond was First Minister of Scotland from 2007 to 2014. One of the best-known supporters of Scottish independence, Salmond led Scotland through its 2014 referendum on potential secession from the United Kingdom, which his Yes side lost with 45 percent of the vote.
After the referendum, Salmond stepped down as First Minister and leader of the pro-independence Scottish National Party (SNP); he was succeeded in both posts by Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s current leader.
The Politic: In the 2014 independence referendum, the 45 percent result for the Yes side was, of course, not enough for secession. But it was nonetheless a significant improvement over the 30-something percent support that Scottish independence would regularly receive in opinion polls over the preceding years. I believe The Herald in Glasgow said the Yes campaign had “failed to win…[but]…changed the UK forever.”
On the night of that vote in 2014, did you expect the Yes side to win, and were you disappointed that it did not, or were you more proud of what Yes had achieved and its prospects for the future?
Alex Salmond: Well, obviously, I did expect to win in the sense that I knew that we were—the campaign had moved the support for independence forward by a large amount; however, we just fell short of the majority that we required.
But—and of course I was disappointed, in the aftermath of the referendum, it was understandable disappointment—but on mature reflection, I would tend to stress the distance that we traveled as opposed to the journey that’s yet to come.
And do you expect to see an independent Scotland within your lifetime?
Oh, yes. I would think—within the next few years, I would have thought. Obviously, political events are moving at pace. Things tend to happen very quickly. Major events that change [maps] are pretty well commonplace. And I would expect one of these to be Scottish independence.
And how do you feel that you will get to independence? Because it seems like the public opinion at present is against another referendum and against secession.
Well, I’d look at it rather objectively. I think as far as independence, the latest polls have support—the last poll had 46 percent for independence [excluding undecideds], which is higher than it was in 2014.
As you rightly said, when we look back on the Yes campaign in 2012, before the referendum in 2014, support for independence was 23 percent. So, the fact that independence support has remained in the mid-40s strikes me as an excellent platform to launch a new campaign from. And, you know, if I was prepared to launch a campaign for independence at 23 percent, I don’t think my successor should feel any compunction about launching one at 46 percent.
And as for support for another referendum, I think, obviously, there’s been a lot of change with the European referendum. But as the European issue comes to a crunch, then I think support for a new Scottish referendum will grow.
Let’s talk a bit more about Brexit. Scotland voted 62 percent against Brexit, and you’ve said that the British government has treated Scotland “disdainfully” over the issue of devolving EU powers.
What should, in your opinion, Nicola Sturgeon and other Scottish leaders be demanding in Brexit negotiations, and would you say they are making those demands effectively right now?
The Scottish Government has outlined proposals that Scotland should stay within the Single Market and the Customs Union. And that would be a sensible thing to happen, regardless of the attitude adopted by the rest of the Westminster government.
Now if the Westminster government concedes to these, then all well and good. If, as is more likely, they don’t, then there will be a decision to be made. And that decision will be—I would argue that it must be put before the Scottish people as to whether they want to choose between a hard Brexit and a European future.
Moving to a different issue—about Jeremy Corbyn: If the next UK general election results in another hung parliament and the SNP has the numbers to make Corbyn prime minister, should they do it?
Well, I think you should use influence positively in a hung parliament position. You know, I’m not—I don’t lead the SNP anymore either in Scotland or Westminster, it’s for those in leadership positions to determine the tactics. But a hung parliament would be extremely good news for advancing Scotland’s ends for any question.
And I’m sure you’d agree that Scotland has issues to deal with other than independence and Brexit and who’s running the UK. And that seems to have been one of the criticisms of the SNP, that there’s too much of a focus on the independence issue. Maybe frustration with that was one of the factors behind the SNP’s loss of many seats in last year’s general election.
What would you say are the biggest challenges that Scotland faces internally, and how has the SNP, under your government or Nicola Sturgeon’s, moved to address them?
I mean, look, you have to differentiate what is said by your political opponents—and what is echoed in the unionist press, which dominates Scotland in terms of press—from reality. No serious analyst or commentator could say that the SNP government in the last 10 years has been anything other than transformative as far as Scotland’s concerned. Huge new policy initiatives across a range of social and economic provisions. And that’s generally recognized by Scots, which is why the SNP is still the [governing] party of Scotland.
And you referred to the loss of seats at the last general election. And that’s true—the SNP did lose seats at the last general election—but they still were the largest party in Scotland by a huge distance. They still won a majority of Scottish seats.
Definitely. It seems that, across Europe, there’s been some sense in recent years of discomfort from electorates, and maybe even hostility from governments, towards immigrants and particularly towards refugees and asylum seekers. But the SNP has taken a different approach: The party opposes the UK government’s plans to cut immigration post-Brexit and has advocated for Scotland to welcome refugees from Syria and elsewhere.
How would you respond to people in Scotland and other parts of Europe who may not be as comfortable with immigration as you and your party are?
That’s a surprising question, especially from someone studying in America, you know, a country that was built on immigration. You should rather be asking the question, “Why is it that some people, some societies, are hostile to immigration?” as opposed to, “Why are some societies welcoming of immigration?”
I suspect countries like Scotland—which have been émigré countries, countries where many people were emigrating from—are a lot more sympathetic to immigration than some other countries are. And that’s because, of course, the immigrant experience has been the experience of many Scots worldwide.
Although we have 5.5 million people in Scotland, which is a record population for Scotland, we have 100 million people of Scottish ancestry or descent worldwide. And each of these people or their ancestors had a particular experience as an emigrant, or an immigrant in whatever country they settled in. And we would expect our people who come to Scotland to be treated with the same courtesy and respect that we like to see Scots treated with when they emigrate elsewhere.
That, to me, is a much more natural state of affairs than the arguments peddled in other countries. I think the anti-immigrant argument is one of the basest things in politics and that people and politicians who peddle it should be thoroughly ashamed of themselves.
It doesn’t have much purchase in Scotland—one of the reasons Scotland voted pro-Europe and England voted against Europe—it doesn’t have much purchase in Scotland because there’s not a single family in the country who doesn’t have a relative overseas. And therefore, if you’re in that position, with a relative or an uncle or a granny or a father or a son or daughter who’s gone overseas and made their way in the world, it comes very ill that you have people speaking in disparaging tones and arguments about immigrants, which is why the anti-immigrant rhetoric has so little purchase in Scotland.
Now that you’re out of politics, you’ve been hosting The Alex Salmond Show on RT, and you’ve been conducting some interviews of your own. You’ve been quite critical of mainstream media in the UK, but you’ve also taken criticism over RT’s ties to the Russian government. So what is it like hosting The Alex Salmond Show?
It’s great. Fantastic. I’m enjoying it enormously. Obviously, I don’t just do shows on RT, I do shows on LBC and elsewhere as well. But nonetheless, I’ve had nothing but a good experience at The Alex Salmond Show on RT International.
Certainly, in terms of being able to say and do what I want, I’ve got much, much, much more freedom than I’d have if, for example, I was producing a show for BBC or ITV, or for Fox Television, for that matter. And I just think the mainstream media’s attacks are just laughable. Most of these media outlets are, to one extent or another, propaganda outlets, apparently—which is why they’re held in such disregard by the broader [public].
That leads well into my remaining questions. We’re looking for very short answers here. First: Where do you get your news?
Predominantly social media. I think newspapers are at an all-time low and in crisis in terms of public esteem. There are very few reliable print, or online versions of print, newspapers. I think the crisis in journalism is quite extraordinarily, the present one. And it’s to do with a whole range of factors and whole range of things, but, I mean, you’d be very foolish to think that someone could get [quality] news from the BBC, for a start.
Of all of the places you haven’t yet visited, where would you most like to go?
[Laughs.] Lots of places! Well, let me answer this one differently. I went to Beirut for the first time recently, and I must say, I found it a really fascinating experience. So I’m sure there’s plenty places in the world that I’d like to see.
I suppose that of the countries I haven’t visited, the ones I regret not visiting are Australia and New Zealand—Australasia. I’ve had many, many invitations to go, and I haven’t gone, and I feel that I should before I’m old.
You were an economist before going into politics. If you hadn’t pursued those two careers, what would you be doing?
Probably—if I’d stayed as an economist, then probably I’d be still working for the Royal Bank of Scotland, and hopefully I would have helped the bank avoid some of the grievous errors that it [made]. In that parallel universe, the Royal Bank might be the biggest bank in the world by now.
Which living person do you most admire?
Living person? Of those people in my generation, people I’ve met, undoubtedly the most admirable politician I’ve met was Nelson Mandela, by a substantial distance.
Of the [living] people I admire most…[pauses]…it’s quite tricky, actually, there’s no standout figure. I’ve met some very eminent—the people I’ve met doing the show, people of great ability that I’ve interviewed in the last month or two. Mary McAleese, for example, the former President of Ireland. A wonderful lady. She has a real vision and compassion. It’s a pleasure to interview people with something relevant to say.
What keeps you up at night?
Nothing. Nothing keeps me awake at night. I like late nights, but nothing keeps me from sleeping.
What is your advice for university students?
Come to Scotland. Or move to Scotland. There won’t be any [tuition] fees. Basically, if you settle in Scotland or have EU qualifications, then you won’t have to pay any tuition fees to go to some of the greatest universities in the world. I think that would be my strongest advice for students. [Laughs.]
You have a contentious relationship with President Donald Trump, going back to his multiple unsuccessful attempts to stop wind farm construction near one of his golf courses in Scotland. You’ve called him “three times a loser” and “chicken.” What’s the nicest thing that you can say about him?
Well, the nicest thing I could say about him would be, “No comment.”
You know, Donald is one of these people that, the more you get to know them, the less you like them. That’s unfortunate, but that’s the truth.
And I can’t think of anyone less fit to be President of the United States of America. It’s a great tragedy, actually. And it’s a tragedy for America and a setback for the world. In the end of the day, it’ll probably be a tragedy for The Donald as well.
I think the weird thing about Donald Trump is to think that his attitude—you know, his origins, Donald is very proud of his Scottish ancestry through his mother’s side, Mary MacLeod. Mary MacLeod went to America as a penniless refugee—economic refugee—in 1926. And she arrived in America by hard work and dedication. She married Donald’s father, and they raised a family and had outstanding success. By everything I’ve read, she was a thoroughly admirable woman.
But of course, if Mary MacLeod had been treated in America the way that Donald Trump likes to treat many of the immigrants in America, she would never have been successful. She would never have been welcomed into a new country. And she would never have established herself and her family. And I find it extraordinary that someone from that background could have so little empathy and compassion for economic refugees from other countries, given that’s what his mother was.
And our last question: Your tourism pitch as to why our readers should visit Scotland.
[Laughs.] Visit Scotland, the greatest country in the world! Scotland has—obviously as a Scot, you can tell by my love of Scotland—but Scotland has, well, for those who are interested in Scottish history, then you’ll find the origins of the modern world in Scotland.
For many Americans, you’ll find their ancestors in Scotland. For all Americans, you’ll find the origins of the Constitution in Scotland. So, in terms of the intellectual backbone of the American Revolution, it was Scotland and the Scottish Enlightenment. As well as many of the personnel, of course, such as Hamilton, for those people queueing up to see the musical.
For anybody who wants to understand the history of Scotland, as well as the history of America, Scotland’s a must-go-to location. We’ve also got the most outstanding scenery in the world, the greatest golf courses, and, I like to think, the most friendly and welcoming people.