Neither man will much care for the comparison but, more than ever, Alex Salmond is rather like Gordon Brown. Each struggles to admit their opponents might ever have a point and that said point might be held in good faith. More importantly, each has the habit of thinking their opponents lesser mortals simply because they dare to take a different view on the great issues of the day.
I thought of this today when I saw Salmond’s remarks responding to the sad news about Charlie Kennedy’s death. They were revealing remarks, just not in any way that flatters the former First Minister. Salmond, like everyone else, acknowledged Kennedy’s essential decency but then, as has often proved the case, found himself unable to resist the lure of some wishful thinking.
Because Charles Kennedy was a good man and a fine public servant and because this fundamental decency could scarcely be denied it must be obvious that, being a good man, his Unionism could hardly have been sincere or whole-hearted. Because good people, you will remember, are nationalists.
“Yes, he was an extremely generous human being. I have had one or two, but not many, people who had a bad word to say about Charles, and that’s very rare in politics. In terms of the independence referendum, I don’t think his heart was in the ‘Better Together’ campaign.
“His heart would have been in a pro-European campaign, that’s a campaign that Charles would have engaged in heart and soul. That is something he absolutely believed in.”
I suppose we all often see only what we wish to see but there’s something unseemly about this nonetheless. Charles Kennedy had ample opportunity to demonstrate his nationalist sympathies. To my knowledge he declined any and all such invitations. Perhaps because, jings, he wasn’t a nationalist. His heart and his head were Unionist. Ill-health much more than anything else prevented him from being a larger part of the Unionist campaign.
Salmond has form in such matters. He sees potential converts or secret sympathisers everywhere. Unionists fall into two camps, the incorrigible and the yet-to-be-publicly-converted. The former are irredeemable; the latter may be permitted their eccentric attachment to the Union for the time being and until such time as they see the light.
Even death provides no protection against Mr Salmond’s Nat-divining powers. During the referendum we were assured that everyone and anyone, from Keir Hardie to Robert Burns and all points and people in between, would have been out for Yes. And we were told this as though it was obvious and as though, in some strange fashion, this political grave-robbing could possibly matter at all.
But it obviously mattered to Salmond and many others. Real Scots, remember, voted Yes. Bad Scots voted No. Hence, again, the need to imagine Charlie Kennedy’s evident goodness was coupled with a secret sympathy for the nationalist cause. Because how else could he really have been a good man?
Could, as Salmond said this morning, Kennedy have “reconciled” himself with the new realities of an independent Scotland? Well, of course he could have. Like many of us he would, one imagines, adapted to changed circumstances even if those circumstances were neither his preference nor of his choosing. That’s very different from secretly yearning for such a development.
But, in the end, as far as he is concerned you are either with Salmond or against him. Good – that is, as yet unconverted – Unionists have a light or a fire or some other tenderness for the nationalist cause. They may yet be redeemable; at any rate they are not yet beyond hope. Their opposition is not sincere, you understand.
It’s a worldview, however, that easily becomes exhausting. Everything, from the newspaper columnists you read to the whisky you drink, is defined by the national question. Did so-and-so or such-and-such a company take a position on the referendum and, if so, did they choose wisely? If not, then hell mend them.
Normal people, it should be said, do not think or behave in this fashion. Then again, normal people do not achieve what Alex Salmond has achieved. He is a formidable operator with an unerring ability to make himself the story, regardless of situation or circumstance.
That has often been a strength for Salmond and his movement but there are times when it can be a liability too. It helps explain why there has been a hardening of the arteries in Scotland lately, on both sides of the great constitutional divide. Each accuses the other of being unable to let it go and each, in fact, has some reason for the accusation.
Nationalists are more easily able to be relaxed about this than Unionists. They feel time is on their side. Unionists, by contrast, fret that they’ve been granted little more than a temporary reprieve. Sooner or later and probably sooner rather than later their faith must be tested again. No wonder so many, perhaps even most, of the SNP’s 56 MPs think Scotland will be an independent country within a decade.
The wounds opened by the referendum remain raw and bleeding and, increasingly, there is less and less that can be done to bridge the great divide between Nationalist and Unionist.
If Unionists sometimes seem obsessed with Salmond that is, in part, because many of them blame Salmond for forcing a fight upon them they wished no part of in the first place. They would like to put it behind them but cannot do so for as long as the former First Minister is around to tweak them.
That tweaking is his prerogative, of course, and something at which he is a master. He cannot resist inserting the independence cause into everything and everything. No subject is too small it cannot be used as a sharp dividing line. No moment can pass unseized. Nor, it is clear, is the too-soon-death of a political opponent immune from such politicking.
In that respect Salmond’s remarks this morning were entirely in character. They were all too revealing and, I suspect, will strike many folk as being as contemptible as they were typical. For a big man, Alex Salmond can be very small.
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