I was lying in bed on Sunday when the visage of Alex Salmond appeared to me. He was doing one of those tedious Sunday morning political shows, and was using the opportunity to be distinguished from a ray of sunshine by batting the Scottish Labour party lightly around the head.
Well, fair enough, you might think. If SNP high-ups were prevented from popping the Scottish Labour party squarely around the chops, the world would be a less happy place. The Scottish Labour party is to an SNP Leader as a Policeman’s helmet is to Bertie Wooster. For Alex to cause a slight discombobulation among the heirs of Keir Hardie is the natural order of things, and we should smile beatifically at his attempts.
No, it was not the political poke itself that roused my ire, but the basis on which the assault was launched. Salmond chose to abuse Scottish Labour for the heinous and unforgivable crime of working with other people to thwart the SNPs own political desires and achieve their own, namely forming an alliance with the Scottish Tory party.
Quoth he: “The role, hand-in-glove, shoulder-to-shoulder with the Conservative Party in the referendum campaign is not going to be either forgotten or forgiven for a generation in Scottish politics”
“Every single Labour personality who has been pictured in the referendum campaign in that pose… …will pay a heavy price for many years to come.”
And I thought to myself, Why Alex, you old rogue. You are fuller of it than a supersewer.
Notwithstanding Mr Salmond’s now legendarily loose definition of a ‘generation’, if any centre-left political movement in Britain has worked with the Conservative party in a matter of national import it is the SNP, and if there is any leader who has stood shoulder to shoulder with the Tories to get his business through, it is The Rt Hon Alexander Elliot Anderson Salmond.
Now we all know of the SNP voting to bring down a Labour government in 1979.
Beneficiary and grateful companion in the Lobby: Thatcher, M.
Well, we shall let that one slide. After all, That was 1979, and the SNP were soundly defeated by the Scottish Labour party for several elections afterwards. Perhaps Alex was merely reflecting on his own long years in the wilderness.
So let us fast forward to Salmond triumphant, now first Minister of Scotland in a minority administration, and at last able to put those wretched Tories in their place, which he did by winning their support in order to pass his budgets. Not just once. Not just twice. Not just three times but four times, the SNP did a deal, and stood hand in glove, shoulder to shoulder with the Tories to pass their budget, usually in the face of Labour opposition.
As Salmond said, the SNP were harshly punished for this Tory partnership, only gaining twenty-three seats in the subsequent elections.
Let the warning bell ring out: Working with the Tories is fatal for Scottish politicians.
Of course, it isn’t and of course, Alex Salmond knows he is talking the most profound bilge.
Because while Salmond the political strategist knows that he can always make Labour supporters squirm by waving a Tory ghoul on a stick for Halloween, Salmond the working politician knows that voter reward politicians who work together, get deals done, know how to move the ball forward and don’t get stuck too often in the enjoyable mire of throwing mud at each other rather than the boring business of trying to secure the compromises that might make a difference.
Besides, if you do a deal with the Tories again and again and again, you can always claim it’s in the national interest, and if your opponents do it, you can claim they’re craven sell-outs who don’t have a principled bone in their body.
If they’re stupid, they’ll be so afraid of the charge they won’t notice the smart move is to do what you do, not worry about what you say.
This reminds me of what politics needs to do to see off the populists more generally.
We need to show that politics, as a whole, by and large, and pleasant celebratory moments of helmet-toppling excepted, can work.
When did this government most demonstrate that? when it was saying things like ‘together, in the national interest’, not bickering over free school meals.
So it should be with political reform. Voters are right that politics is out of touch and isn’t working, not least because we let ourselves get stuck in our own party interests, we don’t see the good we could achieve together.
If we want to reform politics, we need to recognise that every party has legitimate worries, reasonable grievances. The Lib Dems and Greens are right that the electoral system unfairly excludes them, especially at the local level. The Conservatives are right that the West Lothian question is increasingly problematic. Labour is right that the devolution of power to cities and regions is long overdue, and change is needed if we’re to deliver the housing and economic strategies needed for a balanced recovery.
If we want to show voters that politics works, we might do a lot worse than come up with a political reform plan that meets all of those legitimate concerns, and so gives voters more power – a greater say in local councils that stop being one party states, a better answer to the imbalance between England and the other nations of the UK, and a more power for the cities and regions in how they’re governed.
Such a deal is possible. It would be a profound answer to the cynics and populist and grandstanders who say politics can’t work, can’t change, can’t settle differences in a sensible reasonable way.
Want to beat the populists? Then do what Alex salmond does, not worry about what he says. Work together, make deals. Find a way to move the ball.
Then, if you’re lucky, you might be punished in the terrible, awful way that Mr Salmond was punished for his partnership with old enemies.