by Nicola Barry
In Part Three of our exclusive interview with Alex Salmond, NICOLA BARRY takes up the politician’s life story with his transition to First Minister and an insight into his life away from the corridors of power.
Four years ago, after an eternity in the wilderness of political opposition, Alex Salmond became Scotland’s First Minister. To go, overnight, from critic-in-chief, to being in the hot seat, came as a huge culture shock. Yet it didn’t take him long to adjust. It’s fair to say Salmond is enjoying his time in office. Certainly, he is a man who likes to get things done – usually in a hurry. The Scottish people seem to approve, though, and he has the highest satisfaction ratings of any First Minister ever, despite four years of minority government.
Sitting in the office of his Bute House residence, Salmond reflects on all that has happened since 2007 and insists the job has not changed him. Nevertheless, you notice the bumptiousness, that opponents accuse him of, has been replaced by a more sophisticated self-confidence.
While his impatience is legendary, he has learned to manage it, saying it is better to vent your spleen and get on with it. Certainly, the man is a perfectionist. He demands that those who work for him go the extra mile and then some. “Over the years, I have definitely become more relaxed,” he says. “In opposition you can become a bit uptight, whereas in power, you get to make more positive announcements.”
He does acknowledge that running a minority government means you have to be able to get on with everyone. “Luckily,” he laughs, “I am very, very difficult to offend. Before the SNP came to power in 2007, people were hugely disappointed by the Scottish Parliament. They had rested so many hopes on it but very little was happening. Now those same people are, at last, seeing their expectations realised. The Scottish people wanted Scotland to have a voice – to say and do what we, as a country, want to do.”
But did he dream he would eventually become First Minister? “I always thought I would win the election last time round or, rather, that the SNP would win, ” he says. “Remember, there were people who said we would never see a Parliament. I recall Wendy Alexander saying I wouldn’t become First Minister in my wildest dreams. Well, I managed to have some pretty wild dreams. But then the forecasting power of my opponents was never very good.
“Most people say the Parliament is a lot livelier now and more interesting. Of course it is. Every vote is on a knife edge.” Salmond is clearly pleased with how his administration has fared over the last four years, and he believes the change from Scottish Executive to Scottish Government raised its status. He is particularly proud of having delivered on free education, and of having put an alternative economic strategy in place to help Scotland survive the recession.
“As a result,” he says, “employment is rising in Scotland and unemployment is falling – a much healthier picture than in the rest of the UK.” Political commentators have goaded Salmond in recent times about having to drop his Referendum Bill on Independence, but he has no doubts about Scotland’s constitutional future.
“I do believe I will see Independence in my lifetime,” he insists. “I want Independence because that brings the real economic power to fulfill our potential and benefit from our resources. It’s about jobs, protecting and creating them. Is this a grand dream? Yes. But that is the difference between us and the other parties in this coming election. We have the vision and we have the means to deliver it.”
During the week Salmond lives at Bute House – a charming Georgian mansion on Edinburgh’s Charlotte Square – but he goes home most weekends to see his wife, Moira. There, in Strichen, Aberdeenshire, the couple live as normal a life as they can, away from the cut and thrust of daily politics.
“Moira keeps ducks,” he says, when asked if pets roam around the Salmond household. “She doesn’t have any just now because, unfortunately, in the wild they have been totally eliminated by otters. She had 30 at one time.” He looks appalled when asked how often they sit down to roast duck, and responds: “I haven’t eaten duck, which, incidentally, I used to love, since Moira started keeping them. You can’t keep ducks and then eat them. At least, I can’t.”
Away from electioneering, Salmond takes an interest in football – he supports Heart of Midlothian FC – and plays the occasional round of golf. “I went into my wilderness years on the golf course for 17 years,” he says. “Too busy doing other things. My politics was interfering with my golf. One day, after winning the election in 2007, I entered the Inchpool Urn with my team and we won. In fact, I must be the only First Minister of Scotland who has actually won a golf tournament while serving.”
He then jokes: “Maybe that means I should have been paying more attention to being First Minister. Honestly, I was playing like God’s anointed – birdie after birdie. And when I discovered Gordon Brown was the Honorary President of the club, I just had to stay for the ceremony. I knew folk would be waiting in my surgery, in Inverurie, just down the road, so I rang my office manager, put her on speaker phone and said, ‘Look, I’ve just won my first golf tournament in 17 years. If you let me stay to collect the trophy, I’ll see everybody even if I have to stay until midnight and I will give you all biscuits and shortbread.'” So, did he stay? “Damn right I did,” he guffaws. “I put it to the vote and they all said, ‘stay and accept the trophy’.”
A seasoned debater and a man who knows how to work a room, Salmond loves his north-east constituents, their strength of character, their determination and dignity. He is also fond of his deputy, Nicola Sturgeon, and the pair have become one of the great double acts of Scottish politics.
Such is their relationship, Salmond and Sturgeon always tease each other when speaking at party conferences. This year he was teased about the fact that The X Factor auditions had been held in the conference hall the night before. Sturgeon claimed they had to keep it secret from the First Minister in case he had turned up. He, in turn, had things to say about her Twitter account which now has more than 2,000 followers.
But returning to politics, he says: “She has reduced the rate of hospital-acquired infection dramatically, increased the number of doctors, nurses and medical staff, and cut cancer waiting times – something Labour failed to do after eight years in government.”
Salmond considers it a huge compliment that other parties are now mimicking the SNP’s popular policies, such as freezing the council tax and ending student tuition fees.
“We have tried to compromise where possible and we will always put the people of Scotland’s interests first, ” he says. And how does he rate Labour, his only real rivals for power? “Frankly, Labour in Scotland produces the ultimate B league players,” he says. “They have an inferiority complex as wide as the Clyde, always deferring to Westminster. They have no ambition for this country.”
With the election just weeks away, he adds: “I am absolutely confident we will win.” Considering he is a man who enjoys a flutter, few would dare defy him in the betting stakes.