Alex Salmond, my story 2: From brickworks to the heart of politics

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by Nicola Barry

The teenage Alex Salmond toyed with a job in the local brickworks, at least until his family secretly conspired to get him back into education. When he was 15 he took up a holiday job at the site where his uncle worked and, as far as he was concerned, that was that – he was going to leave school and work there permanently. Until his mother intervened?

“I couldn’t understand why day in, day out, I was being given the dirtiest, smelliest, most back-breaking jobs going – even though my uncle was the foreman,” he says. It was just three weeks before the broken teenager suddenly announced he had decided to go back to school. Years later he discovered his mother had asked his uncle to “do everything in his power” to ensure he did not want to stay there.

It was partly because of this, and partly thanks to the influence of a teacher at Linlithgow Academy, that the young Alex Salmond found himself at St Andrews University. Admittedly, he wasn’t overly enamoured at first.

“I suppose the real reason I went was because I was a keen golfer,” he says. “I’d been to the 1970 Open and loved it. Quite honestly, I considered St Andrews a bit of an English university, where upper-class folk went, so I think I went there to make a point.

“I had a rebellious streak – I still have. I started off doing history and eventually did economics as well. In the end, I adored university and would have stayed, but I had to earn a living.”

Salmond was just one of four students taking medieval history and he studied under renowned expert Geoffrey Barrow. But it was student political life, and not academia, that helped shape him into the man who would become First Minister.

The early Seventies was the time to be a burgeoning politician in Scotland and it was no different for Salmond. He joined the SNP and became a member of the radical 79 Group, where his belief in independence was fostered.

“It wasn’t easy to join a political party in the Seventies, ” Salmond says.

“You either joined the trade union movement or student societies. Now, anyone can join a political party. Very few people do though.

“Back then I discovered a lot of Scots believed all the guff about the economy – that Scotland was a poor, wee, dependent country. In fact Scotland is, potentially, one of the richest countries on the planet, and if we became independent we’d be the third most prosperous country in Europe.”

Inevitably, Salmond played a lot of golf at university. “I was a reasonable golfer,” he confesses, “but there were a lot of scratch players at St Andrews.

“They still had ballots in those days and you had to enter the ballot to go on the Old Course. The only way to beat the system was to be on the Old Course at 5am and finish just as the tourists began to arrive.”

After university, Salmond joined the civil service in 1978 before moving on to the Royal Bank of Scotland as an assistant economist two years later.

While working for the bank, in 1983, he created the Royal Bank/BBC Oil Index that is still used today.

Romance also entered his life in his post-university days when he met Moira McGlashan, an engineer’s daughter from Peebles. She was a senior civil servant and became her future husband’s boss when he joined the Scottish Office as a junior economist with a promising future.

But when the couple married in 1981 – when she was 43 and he was 26 – she gave up her job to run their home.

As a young SNP activist, Salmond was considered left-wing by the party. He has never been known to shy away from confrontation, and in March 1988, shortly after becoming a MP, he caused uproar when he was thrown out of the House of Commons for interrupting the Budget speech to protest at cuts in income tax rates and the introduction of the Poll Tax.

Although the interruption earned him a seven-day ban from the House, he received hundreds of letters of support from voters.

“The only bad aspect was that I was due to have dinner with the Speaker at the time, who later told me I would have been sitting next to Princess Diana,” he says.

Having risen through the party ranks quickly – via posts as vice-convenor for publicity and then senior vice-convenor – he became leader in 1990, winning a contest against Margaret Ewing, when Gordon Wilson stood down.

His first tenure of SNP leader came to an end 10 years later when he stood down and gave up his seat in the Scottish Parliament, but remained a backbencher at the House of Commons. It only took four years for his return after John Swinney resigned following the party’s poor election showing of 2004.

Salmond reckons his political leanings came from his paternal grandfather and smiles at the memory of a mistake he made in his early days. “When I was a young and foolish MP, a journalist asked about my parents’ politics,” he says. “Actually, it was a family joke – Mum thought Churchill was the greatest man who ever lived and Dad wanted to hang him because of what he’d done to the miners.

“Their opinions could not have been more polarised and I said as much to the reporter. Well, the inevitable happened. A banner headline appeared, saying, ‘Salmond’s father wanted to hang Churchill.’ In a bit of a state, I phoned my father and said, ‘Er, dad, about that article.’ He said, ‘Yes, what about it?'” Salmond grins, adding: “I said, ‘Look, I should never have said that. Sorry.’

“And my dad exploded, ‘What on earth do you mean? Did I teach you nothing? How many times do I have to tell you? Hingin’ was too good for that man.'”

Of his time as a MP, Salmond believes the campaign that gave him the biggest challenge, but also the most satisfaction, was the raising of the Sapphire fishing boat in 1997. It had gone down in the October of that year while heading for its home port of Peterhead.

Skipper Victor Robertson, who was in the wheelhouse, escaped after spending 90 minutes clinging to a life raft in freezing conditions, but the crew of four men were lost.

The relatives of the dead men came to ask Salmond for his help in raising the boat so they could recover the bodies of their loved ones. Westminster had point blank refused to pay the £380,000 to salvage the vessel so the families set about doing it themselves.

“It was an extremely raw time,” Salmond recalls. “In the end all four bodies were recovered and I went to all the funerals. That was when I realised we had done exactly the right thing.”

Courtesy of the Scottish Sunday Express