Sunday, 27 April 2008

SCOTTISH NATIONALIST LEADER POPULAR AS EVER

A year on, Salmond's charm gets stronger

A year on, Salmond's charm gets stronger As the First Minister prepares to celebrate his first 12 months in power, Neil Drysdale finds that even loyal Labour voters now share his vision

Neil Drysdale
Sunday April 27 2008
The Observer

The talk in Union Street, Aberdeen, was principally about
oil and petrol and the possibility that Scotland might
grind to a halt in the next few weeks, with the closure of
the Forties pipeline and the start today of a strike by
refinery workers at the BP plant in Grangemouth.

In other circumstances, you might have expected that the
Scottish government and First Minister, Alex Salmond, would
be the subject of criticism, whether deserved or not, as a
fuel crisis looms, amid reports of panic buying, exorbitant
mark-ups by garage owners and abortive attempts at
conciliation between the management, Ineos, and union,
Unite.

Yet, to date, and even as Salmond celebrates his first year
in power, there has been little inclination to fling abuse
at the Nationalist leader. Instead, with his personal
popularity ratings at levels normally reserved for Soviet
presidents, and support for his party running at record
levels, he is enjoying an extended honeymoon with the
electorate, even among those traditional Labour voters who
defected to the SNP last May.

'Alex Salmond has done an excellent job so far, and, not so
long ago, I never imagined I would be saying that,' said
Avril Lennox, an Aberdeen businesswoman. 'When [Henry]
McLeish and [Jack] McConnell were in charge, it seemed as
if all their speeches were scripted by their political
masters in Westminster and yet, no matter how unpalatable
some of the policies were, people like me used to stand by
them.

'Then, during the build-up to last year's election, I just
grew so fed up with the relentlessly negative tone of the
Labour campaign that I decided enough was enough. They had
backed the Iraq war, they were clamping down on state
benefits, trying to out-right the Conservatives on
immigration and crime. Salmond, by comparison, was
anti-war, he had a progressive agenda and made big promises
in his manifesto, most of which he has delivered.'

At the city's railway station, the majority of people
endorsed these sentiments, with varying degrees of warmth.
'He always looks a bit pleased with himself, but you can't
fault his intelligence or the way he has built up consensus
with the other parties,' said Derek Flett, a 25-year-old
printer.

'I'm a wee bit worried that the Nationalists seem to be
spending an awful lot of money, but they have cut business
rates, abolished bridge tolls and have promised 1,000 extra
police officers on Scotland's streets, so these are all
plus points for me,' said Gordon Reid, 52, an accountant,
who switched allegiance from the Conservatives to the SNP a
year ago.

As for a first-time voter, Rebecca Mathers, 19, expressed
praise for both the Scottish government's scrapping of
student tuition fees and highlighted one of the reasons why
Salmond may be enjoying such a widespread love-in. 'Most of
my friends and I have no interest in confrontational
politics. You know, when one old man tries to make a speech
and another keeps flinging insults at him. Whenever I
watched McConnell on television, he was always talking down
to young people like me.

'They never gave you the impression that they could make
positive things happen, it was all nanny-state stuff and
that's insulting to young people,' said Mathers. 'I don't
always agree with Salmond - I'm not sure we need all these
extra policemen, for instance - but he has authority and a
confidence in Scotland which I find refreshing.In
comparison, that Wendy Alexander [the Scottish Labour
leader] gets on my nerves. Does she know how to do anything
without screeching?'

From Aberdeen to Dundee and on to Falkirk, my journey
resonated to the sound of Alexander being excoriated. Some
of the criticism was patently malicious, but there is no
doubting either the scale of the antipathy towards her, or
that much of it springs from her insistence of trumpeting
the perceived dangers of Nationalism and alleged perils of
Scottish independence.

'She doesn't seem to appreciate that things are changing in
this country and that the public don't want politicians
abusing each other all the time,' said Alistair Scott, 42,
a haulier, outside the giant Tesco supermarket in Dundee.
'It was bad enough with Blair preaching to us about living
by his conscience, while fighting illegal wars, going on
free holidays and standing toe to toe with George W Bush,
but Labour seems to have learned nothing and I think
Salmond is laying a big trap for them. He wants
independence,' said Scott [as do 43 per cent of Scots in a
recent poll, with 41 per cent opposed to the idea], but he
knows he won't get it until the Tories are in power in
London and he is prepared to be patient and forge links
with the more progressive elements among the Liberal
Democrats and Greens.

'In the current climate, with Gordon Brown sinking like a
lead balloon in London, Labour is between a rock and a hard
place and Wendy Alexander doesn't have a clue how to pull
them out of it. But the more she rants and raves about
saving the Union, the more that many of us look at England
and ask: do we want to be stuck with them forever?'

Certainly, such sentiments are gathering momentum in
Scotland. You might expect David Alexander, the SNP Group
Leader in Falkirk, to be bullish at the present state of
affairs, but he is positively bubbling with excitement. 'I
believe independence is now inevitable, because the
difference in direction between the governments in
Edinburgh and London has become so marked,' he said last
week.

'The likes of the abolition of tuition fees, local income
tax, localised health services and changes to the
right-to-buy legislation at Holyrood compare with
Westminster's closure of post offices, clamp down on state
benefits and waging illegal wars.

'From a local government perspective, we now have a working
relationship between local and national government which
would have been unheard-of under the previous regime.' At
the town's Howgate Centre, I asked a group of senior
citizens what they thought about Salmond. Asked to describe
him in one word, they responded with 'smug', 'ambitious',
'bright' and 'statesmanlike' and the divide was repeated in
their opinions on Scotland going it alone.

The two dissenting voices, Maggie Forrest and Sandra
McLeod, looked fearful at the prospect of an end to the
Union. 'We're just a wee country, with terrible social
problems and I don't think we could afford to break away
from the English,' said Forrest, while McLeod raised a
familiar refrain. 'OK, we always want to beat them at
football or rugby, but, let's face it, when the chips are
down, our soldiers are fighting together in Iraq and
Britain works best when everybody pulls together.'

Until recently, this view would have been almost unanimous
among the over-sixties, but the times are definitely
changing. 'When I look at the debates in Westminster these
days, I don't see much common ground between us and the
English. They seem obsessed with cutting immigration,
working themselves into a state of panic over house prices,
health, terrorism ... you name it, they are narrow,
self-centred folk,' said 74-year-old Pat Carmichael.

Her companion Norman Brown, 72, summed up why Salmond is in
the ascendancy. 'The politicians came up with the slogan
that we were the best small country in the world, with the
emphasis on the word "small". Alex Salmond has transformed
that vision. He obviously feels we can make a big
impression on the international stage and why shouldn't we?
Sweden is successful, the Republic of Ireland is
successful. We can be, too.'

It wouldn't do to exaggerate Salmond's successes in his
maiden year as First Minister. And it would be ironic if
oil was to provoke the first crisis of his government,
given that the Nationalists have been accused of using the
black stuff as a panacea for the nation's ills for the past
50 years. But, for the present, Salmond is exactly where he
wants to be and there is little that Alexander can do about
it.

Guardian Newspapers

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