We Scots pride ourselves on our hospitality so it’s no surprise that that proudest of Scotsmen, former First Minister Alex Salmond, should have a cocktail waiting for me in our Edinburgh bar meeting place. And not just any old cocktail but a John Panton, a ginger beer and lime concoction fizzing with Scottishness.
Not only is it named after a Perthshire sporting legend – the great ‘Gentleman’ John Panton, one of Salmond’s all-time heroes – but Panton was a 1950s champion of golf, the global sport which has its Scots provenance running through it like a stick of St Andrews rock.
For the 18-handicap Salmond, it is the perfect drink – a devious non-alcoholic tipple with, in his words, ‘a bit of a kick’, which allows you to maintain your watchful eye and affable banter while all around you gradually loosen their grip. A gleeful confrontationist like Salmond is likely to also appreciate the idea that, as he once noted in a newspaper column, “asking for a John Panton is a good way to test a real barman’s knowledge”.
Nothing really bothers me in politics. Even losing my Westminster seat in this last election
Salmond is spending the day hosting the Scottish press in a hotel across from the famous Edinburgh Fringe venue the Assembly Rooms, where he’s due to start a sold-out 15-day run of his (mystery) celebrity-strewn show later this month. The two-time leader of the SNP is perhaps the canniest operator, as well as one of the biggest stars, of the last five decades of Scottish politics; in terms of PR, little is left to chance.
Instantly gifting me with a glowing pink cocktail with matching colourful anecdote may be an act of geniality but it also provides me with a nice opening for my write-up, in which I warmly acknowledge Salmond’s conviviality and skilled anecdote-telling. There aren’t many politicians – despite the egocentricity that comes with the most successful of the species – as conscious and proud of their own mythology as the man whose 2015 book The Dream Shall Never Die: 100 Days that Changed Scotland Forever was described by Paddy Ashdown as “the longest exercise in literary masturbation since politics began”.
The astute lovable rogue persona Salmond will doubtless polish to perfection for his stage show is showcased in every story he tells, and goes right back to his school years. “I wasn’t bad, I was impish,” he tells me, after a tale of how England’s World Cup downfall in 1970 saw a handsome pay-out for the 15-year-old amateur bookie but meant, he claims, he was “the only pupil who went through the whole of sixth year at Linlithgow Academy without being made a prefect”.
“I was a wee guy, light as a feather. I was asthmatic, allergic to everything, in bed for a hell of a lot of the time. It was quite a tough school and if you wanted to stick up for yourself and you were a wee guy like me, you had to be quick of tongue,” he says, with an expert twinkle in his eye. “My defence mechanism was to show off. And I liked to push the boundaries.”
His Fringe show is titled Alex Salmond… Unleashed, the implication being that since passing on the First Ministership to Nicola Sturgeon (pictured below, with Salmond) after the 2014 independence referendum, he is finally free to speak his mind. But the notion of a provocative, straight-talking Alex Salmond is hardly a new one.
The man variously labelled arrogant and a ‘bully’ by his adversaries, who admits he’s spent half of his political career “shouting out to get noticed like the wee boy in class” has long enjoyed giving the impression that, if British establishment politics is the law, he’s the maverick Rebus, despised by the pen-pushers and rule-keepers but tolerated because, in his own unorthodox but brilliant way, he gets the job done.
(Later, he says he’d be comfortable with the SNP taking “a walk on the wild side” and considering an alliance with the Greens – “even though lots of them obviously think I’m a dreadful person”.)
That was a real moment. I knew then we had a chance to win
In this, and many other ways, he compares with that other articulate bigmouth of Scottish politics George Galloway (like Galloway, Salmond often begins a quote from himself with: “As I famously said…”). It’s not just the perfectly formed sentences peppered with stand-out bon mots and delivered with the oratorical swagger of the pulpit preacher (he boasts that the one thing no one can fault him on is his knowledge of scripture) – both men also have a taste for fierce political war and wear the scars of battle with pride.
“Nothing really bothers me in politics,” he says. “Even losing my Westminster seat in this last election. I would have loved to have won but I have won nine times. You take the rough with the smooth. Apart from not winning the referendum – that bothered me a lot.”
In typical Salmond style, though, it’s a moment of peak hope he chooses to dwell on. “For me, 2014 was the best of times and the worst of times,” he recalls, a tad dreamily. “The worst because of what happened in the end. But there was a wonderful day when I realised we were in with a real chance. I was in Dundee and I saw a big queue of folk standing in the sun beside the statue of Desperate Dan.
“I asked a guy why he was queueing and he said he was waiting to register to vote. I asked why he wasn’t on the register and he said: ‘Listen, I haven’t been on the register since the poll tax. We’re here because for the first time there’s something worth voting for.’ That was a real moment. That was a real manifestation of something. I knew, despite the commentators and charlatans, I knew… we had a chance to win.”
Despite his insistence that media criticism is water off a duck’s back, it’s clear that Salmond’s grudges against the unsympathetic press run deep, and still hurt. He reckons that “apart from about six decent political journalists in Scotland – the rest are a waste of space. Everyone has to earn a crust, I get that. But there are some things you just shouldn’t do and running down your country is one of them. I don’t know how they live with themselves.”
He also blames the media for one of his biggest regrets – resigning after a decade as leader of the SNP in 2000. “If I could go back to that time I’d say to myself, don’t be so daft. I managed to convince myself that the bad press the SNP were getting was down to me. I’d had 10 years of facing down a bunch of unionist scoundrels but I’d managed to keep a step ahead of them all the way.
“We had gone from having three MPs in 1990 to having 37 in the Scottish Parliament. I thought, right, we’re well on our way now. If I stand aside we’ll have the wonderful John Swinney, who is such a nice guy – no one on Earth could possibly dislike this man, he has every virtue you could want and he has none of my faults – he’ll get a much better press than I have.
“And of course what happened is the hyenas killed him. They ripped him to shreds. And John lasted four years.” (The “first-rate” Swinney is currently Deputy First Minister, and Education and Skills Secretary in Sturgeon’s government.)
Salmond returned to the role, cheered on like a resurgent Braveheart. And there he stayed for another decade, until the 2014 referendum finally saw him off. Other than that premature resignation, however, he insists he wouldn’t have done anything differently.
I’m not a moper. My dad’s advice was to always play the ball where it lands
“I’m not a moper,” he says cheerfully. “My dad’s advice was to always play the ball where it lands. Great advice. If I went out tomorrow for a nice evening game of golf, just playing against myself, and my ball landed in the rough, I couldn’t take it out. I would be physically unable to shift my ball out of a bad lie. Because all I would hear is my dad saying, play the ball where it lands.”
He smiles at the thought, and for the first time offers no accompanying anecdote. His 95-year-old father died just days before the general election in June (though he’d be “tickled pink”, Salmond says, to know his postal vote was still counted). Talk of his ex-navy father Robert softens his voice and leads him to consider another regret.
“My dad and I disagreed about everything – I was a supporter of the Viet Cong, he wasn’t. I loved Cassius Clay, he didn’t. The only time I backed him, when he was assailed by the rest of the family, was when he defended his belief in independence. But… I should have stood up for him more.”
A tear runs down his cheek as the merry mood turns distinctly melancholy. His thoughts move to his mother, formidable ex-Tory voter Mary. “I have a clear memory of when I saw her for the last time. I dashed into the house, my boyhood home in Linlithgow, to rush out an article on her computer before I dashed out again.
“She made me something to eat and put it in front of me while I was writing. We had a brief conversation and I dashed back out of the house. That was the last time I saw my mum.”
He is suddenly, unexpectedly, overwhelmed by emotion and takes a few seconds to gulp his breath back. “You think back and you think stupid, stupid… that was the week of the election and she died very suddenly up a mountain just afterwards. For her, glorious. It was exactly the way she would have wanted to go. For the rest of us, devastating. If I could have said one last thing to her it would have been…” – his usually confident voice is almost inaudible – “Thanks… Just thanks.”
He takes a long, deep breath and composes himself. Then he launches into a funny story about his parents’ battle over which party poster to put in the window. And abracadabra, Alex Salmond is back in the room.