By Kenneth Roy
A European journalist working in London asked me yesterday if, in the unhappy event of Alex Salmond falling under the proverbial bus, there might be someone to replace him. He did not put it quite that way; I am not even sure whether European journalists working in London are as familiar with the concept of proverbial buses, and people falling under them, as we are in a country where gloomy fatalism is bred in the bone. As I myself wait for the bus in the morning, it is not invariably with hope that it will arrive; or, that if it does, I will get to the airport in one piece.
I replied that Nicola Sturgeon would be a popular successor to our great leader; that the admirable but almost invisible John Swinney would continue to add up the sums; and that Alex Neil was an all-round good egg. Did I mention my former phone-in host, Mr Neil? Perhaps not. Anyway, that is roughly what I replied.
The European journalist – who was scarily well-informed not only about Scotland but about the Scottish Review – seemed mildly interested in the curious notion that we would stagger on somehow without our great leader and that it was conceivable the governing party would win the referendum even without the late, much-lamented Eck. But in my wildest nightmares – I have been having a few recently – I do not see Mr Salmond anywhere near a bus under which he could conceivably fall. He is more vulnerable to hubris, a condition which originated in Greece and to which ambitious politicians are often prone.
At this point I recall Douglas Crawford. When I was very young and unsure what I wanted to do with the rest of my career – nothing changes – he entered my life and took it in a certain direction. For a while we were colleagues. As I came of age to vote, Douglas was the second-brightest person I knew; the first was the Marxist literary critic Christopher Small, whom I held in awe. Douglas could think, and analyse, and write, and edit, and sell lots of business magazines.
I remember being shocked when he confided in me that he was a member of the SNP and that he might go on to work for the party. For heaven’s sake…Douglas Crawford? I associated nationalism with a wild romanticism characterised by such heroes as Douglas Young and Ian Hamilton and, of course, John Rollo of Bonnybridge, who hid the Stone of Destiny under his factory floor, and to whom close members of my family were devoted. The SNP was not a serious party. It was a rabble whose history of flyting and secession made free presbyterians look almost disciplined by comparison. It was a party of lost deposits and frustrated hopes.
Yet, I think he is in a little danger. He may be starting to believe his own publicity. He may be nursing the illusion that it would be a splendid thing to do business on the back of Bannockburn 2014.
Well, I had to take Scottish nationalism more seriously when Douglas Crawford joined the faithful. I could not imagine anyone less romantic than Douglas, although his young wife Joan (who went on to become a columnist and agony aunt in the Scottish press) might at that point have disagreed. Sure enough, he became ‘director of communications’ of the SNP, a master of North Sea oil economics, and one of the group of 11 who won Westminster seats in the second of the 1974 general elections; the one in which Edward Heath didn’t invite us to decide who ran the country, the miners or himself.
The day after that election, the BBC sent me to the Caledonian Hotel for the victory press conference; and there was my old mate Douglas sitting next to the golden girl Margaret Bain. I hadn’t met her before, although I knew and admired her husband Donald, the party’s researcher, who was intellectually able. He has been lost to us; I believe he now lives abroad. As has Margaret, who died young. Another sensible head at the top table that memorable morning was the SNP’s man in a suit, Gordon Wilson, who had the persona of an accountant you could trust.
The point I am making here is that the key figures in the nationalist revival were not obviously enamoured by the tradition of poetic rhetoric, kilts, and battlefield rallies which had got the party nowhere in successive general elections since the second world war; they believed in the idea of self-determination but from a rational contemporary perspective. By a tragic irony, Douglas, possessor of one of the best brains in Scotland, suffered a cerebral haemorrhage in middle age and was never quite the same again. It will be 10 years in April since he died. I have thought of him a lot recently, wondering what he would have made of this or that. I doubt that he would have had much time for the Homecoming charade.
What is Mr Salmond? Is he a romantic or a rationalist? Or can he adroitly go on being a bit of both? The romantic in him seems to be winning at the moment. I tried to explain to the European journalist the source of his attractiveness to the people of Scotland, including many who abhor his politics: the excellent male timbre of his voice, his easy manner, the bonhomie when called for, the air of supreme reasonableness, the well-positioned indignation, his quick wit wth interviewers and political opponents, the sheer Scottishness of the man.
Yet, I think he is in a little danger. He may be starting to believe his own publicity. He may be nursing the illusion that it would be a splendid thing to do business on the back of Bannockburn 2014. Like many golfers in sight of victory, he may no longer be playing one shot at a time, but imagining the ovation on the 18th green as he sinks the winning putt. Mr Salmond is probably still too canny an operator to allow himself to be blown away on the high tide of his own charisma, but the potential is there. A pro-union lobby – making the large assumption that a credible one can be mustered – would do well to exploit it.
Courtesy of Kenneth Roy – read Kenneth Roy in the Scottish Review