For the record, I think Alex Salmond – Scotland’s portly and garrulous First Minister and leader of the independence-seeking Scottish National Party – should apologise for a comment he made in a recent interview for GQ Magazine. During the interview he said he ‘admired’ certain aspects of Vladimir Putin’s presidency, though he qualified that by saying that many of the Russian leader’s policies he didn’t agree with.
I have no doubt that Putin has qualities that all politicians are envious of – for one thing, his ability as a tactician, which seemingly has the West dancing on a string over the current crisis in Ukraine – but ‘admire’ was hardly an appropriate verb to employ. Certainly not for a creature like the ruthless, shark-eyed Putin who, even before you consider his impact on other countries, has made life miserable within Russian borders for ethnic minorities, homosexuals, dissidents and so on.
Salmond, I believe, should say sorry and explain that – not for the first time, incidentally – his mouth had got a little way ahead of his brain. That he’d expressed himself inappropriately: inappropriately to the point of causing offence.
If he apologised at some length and with some sincerity, he could also highlight the difference in political cultures between Holyrood, in Edinburgh, and Westminster, in London. At Westminster the other week, David Cameron’s culture secretary Maria Miller gave an apology for irregularities in her expenses that was so perfunctory and cynical that it provoked an outcry and led to her losing her job. Salmond would also show a circumspect and self-critical side of his nature that might actually boost his standing. There’s been a lot of talk lately about how his macho, take-no-prisoners style of politics is off-putting to female voters.
He could even take the opportunity to condemn any leader who invades, or threatens to invade, another country for strategic, economic or ideological gain. No doubt this would have the Labour Members of the Scottish Parliament squirming in their seats, considering how 11 years ago their past leader, one Anthony Charles Lynton Blair, did just that in cahoots with George W. Bush and as a result, according to the Lancet, had by July 2006 contributed to the deaths of 655,000 Iraqis.
However, Salmond hasn’t apologised and probably won’t apologise. This disappoints me but hardly surprises me. For a start, apologies are not his style. Also, many of the criticisms levelled at Salmond have come from the UK’s political establishment – the other day, for example, Lord Paddy Ashdown, who once led the Liberal Democrat party, lambasted him for siding with the ‘big and powerful’ rather than with the ‘threatened and oppressed’ – and Salmond no doubt believes that these criticisms are laced with hypocrisy. After all, at different times in the past, the UK political establishment have tried to court Putin when it suited them.
Indeed, Britain and other Western powers have to shoulder much of the blame for what is happening now with Russia and Ukraine. Back in the early 1990s – which was Ashdown’s political heyday – the G7 and the IMF didn’t attempt to shape a post-communist Russia with a genuine system of social democracy. Instead, they happily encouraged Boris Yeltsin (a man who in 1993 used troops to attack his own parliament) to lift price controls, impose free-trade policies, slash welfare spending and do a fast-track privatisation of the country’s thousands of state companies. This left Russia with what Naomi Klein described in her 2007 book The Shock Doctrine as ‘casino capitalism’, a system autocratic in political character but a free-for-all economically. Thanks to this, Klein noted, a quarter of Russians were living in ‘desperate’ poverty by the mid-1990s. At the same time it created the culture of super-rich oligarchs and paved the way for Vladimir Putin. The G7 and IMF, to use Ashdown’s words, sided with the ‘big and powerful’ rather than with the ‘threatened and oppressed’. For all that Western governments complain about Putin today, they shouldn’t forget the inconvenient truth that they helped to create him. He’s their own Frankenstein’s monster.
Also, I suspect Salmond doesn’t want to set a precedent. By apologising for the Putin comment, he’d then be under pressure to apologise for some utterance or other every week between now and the Scottish independence referendum in September. He has few friends in the mainstream Scottish and British media and he knows journalists are scrutinising his every word in the hope of finding ammunition to use against him and against the independence cause, of which he’s supposedly the figurehead.
Indeed, the Scotsman has tried to stir front-page controversy with another remark Salmond made during the same interview, concerning Scotland’s tricky cultural and psychological relationship with alcohol — he used the expression ‘a nation of drunks’. Funnily enough, a claim made a while back by Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont that Scots are ‘not genetically programmed’ to make political decisions caused no outcry at all in the press. (Both Salmond’s and Lamont’s words have, I’m sure, been quoted out of context. But in the interests of balance…)
What irritates me is not that the mainstream media is determined to play the man, Salmond, rather than play the ball, the Yes campaign for the upcoming independence referendum. It doesn’t surprise me that the media is desperate to discredit a personality rather than engage with an argument and defeat it with superior arguments. Playing the man, not the ball, is what politicians and political journalists do, unfortunately.
However, the hysterical right-wing middle-class tabloids that populate Scotland’s newspaper racks, such as the Daily Mail, the Daily Express and the Scotsman, have become so obsessed with Salmond that they haven’t realised the ball isn’t even at his feet. Salmond isn’t the Yes campaign. The Scottish National Party isn’t the Yes campaign either – it’s just one component of it.
The chairman of the Yes campaign is Dennis Canavan, who as a distinguished old-school Labour politician was once MP for Falkirk. After years of service, Canavan was forced out of the Labour Party because the Tony Blair clique running the party at the time found him too much off-message. (His replacement as Labour MP for Falkirk was the thuggish Eric Joyce, whose violent, drunken shenanigans in the Houses of Parliament led to public disgrace. It also triggered a murky chain of events involving the trade union Unite that led to an industrial stand-off at the nearby Grangemouth Oil Refinery and almost caused the refinery’s closure.) Canavan is practically ignored while the media strives to portray the independence cause as being all about Salmond, Salmond, Salmond. I have to say that one of the biggest culprits is the London-centric BBC, whose political correspondents seem to be genuinely ignorant of Canavan’s existence and genuinely believe that Salmond heads the Yes campaign.
(c) The Herald
In addition, the Yes campaign also includes the Scottish Green Party and various socialist groupings, plus independence-supporting factions from the Scottish Labour Party and Liberal Democrat Party. There are even right-wingers like the historian Michael Fry who believe that the only way for the Scottish Conservative Party to crawl back from its current position, which is at death’s door, and renew itself is to sever its ties with London and promote itself as a new party within an independent Scotland. Also under the Yes banner are non-political groups like Business for Scotland and the cultural movement the National Collective, plus a lot of people who see themselves as having no political affiliations at all. Again, though, the mainstream media would have you believe that these many groups and individuals are but tiny particles making up the dark political miasma that is Alex Salmond.
Finally, the identification of all things independence-related with Salmond is annoying on a further level. It assumes that people in Scotland are incapable of reasoning and making decisions for themselves. (Which, actually, was what Johann Lamont seemed to say in her ‘not genetically programmed’ comment.) Forget individual thought – the part of the population that’s countenancing voting for independence, pushing towards 40% according to recent opinion polls, has been seduced by that great evil mastermind, Alex Salmond. Apparently, everything had been hunky-dory since the Union of the English and Scottish parliaments in 1707, before he oozed along and started brainwashing people with his separatist cant.
The Scottish and British media love a good pantomime villain and for them Salmond fits the role. Conveniently, it also allows them not to focus on the fact that a great many people see reasonable, logical and principled reasons for voting Yes in September. But then, that’s what most mainstream media coverage of the referendum debate has been so far – a pantomime.
Having said all that, I don’t think it would do Alex Salmond any harm if for once he could squeeze the word ‘sorry’ out of his gob.
PS. Two days after writing this post, I got a chance to read the GQ interview that had caused all the kerfuffle. It’s available at http://wingsoverscotland.com/the-talk-of-the-town/. It was the interviewer, not Salmond, who used the verb ‘admire’ in relation to Putin. (Q: “Admire him?” A: “Certain aspects.”) That interviewer, by the way, was Alastair Campbell, Director of Communications and Strategy to Tony Blair and supposedly the inspiration for the foul-mouthed Malcolm Tucker in the satirical TV show The Thick of It. Evidence again of the old saying, “He who sups with the devil should have a long spoon.”