Tags: Scotland | Europe | Alex Salmond

Scotland's Salmond Targets Westminster Seat for Next Nationalist Push

Tuesday, 24 Mar 2015 09:11 AM

Scotland may have said 'No' to independence last year, but Alex Salmond, who has campaigned for 30 years to break away from the United Kingdom, believes a tie-breaker British election next month could offer a chance to put the question again.

Since Scots voted 55-45 percent to preserve the United Kingdom in last September's referendum, the country has seen a surge in nationalism. At the same time Britain's two biggest political parties Labor and the Conservatives are neck and neck, watching a wider disaffection splinter their support.

Most opinion polls now suggest the Scottish Nationalist Party will win the lion's share of Scotland's 59 Westminster seats, potentially making it the third largest party in London after May 7 and handing it the balance of power.

As a result, Prime Minister David Cameron's claim after the Sept. 18 referendum that the question of Scottish independence was settled for a generation looks premature.

Salmond, the former SNP leader and most successful Scottish nationalist to date, is now targeting a seat in Westminster, at the heart of British power. From there he aims to work as chief strategist to his protege and current SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon while she runs the party's continuing drive for independence from the Edinburgh parliament where she has 64 MPs, a majority.

"Scotland has every chance of being able to call the tune in the next Westminster parliament," Salmond, 60, told Reuters in Insch, a village in the Aberdeenshire Gordon constituency where he is running for election.

"This is the only time in history that the contest between the prime minister and the leader of the opposition has not been a popularity contest. It's an unpopularity contest."

Gordon, held for 32 years by the Liberal Democrats, is one of many pro-union party strongholds that pollsters expect to fall to the SNP in May.

With Prime Minister David Cameron's Conservatives haemorrhaging votes to the anti-EU UKIP party as fast as Ed Miliband's Labour Party is losing them to the SNP, neither look likely to win an overall majority in the 650-seat Westminster parliament.

If Labor wins the most seats but cannot muster the 323 seats needed for a majority government, SNP support will help it access Number 10 Downing Street, the prime minister's office.

If Cameron, who has admitted many Scots dislike him, is re-elected, his government's unpopularity could further stoke nationalist cries to break away. He could also trigger another Scottish referendum if the 2017 British poll on European Union membership that he promised as a sop to potential UKIP voters results in English nationals deciding to leave while more pro European Scots vote to stay.

If elected, Salmond would hold vast influence over a record haul of SNP parliamentarians at Westminster but is unlikely to be named leader of the SNP group in Westminster. That job is already held by Angus Robertson.

Instead Salmond, described by former Conservative minister Malcolm Rifkind as "the infant Robespierre" for his subversive tendencies, would be free to write battle strategy and publicity as the most famous face of Scottish nationalism.

While Salmond's victory in the 2011 Scottish election and his tactics in the 2014 referendum earned him the respect even of his enemies, his critics are quick to seize on what they see as his recurring pride, which could put off potential allies.

In a recent BBC interview Salmond suggested a Labor government would have to negotiate its Budget with the SNP, saying: "If you hold the balance, then you hold the power."

Ed Miliband riposted that Salmond was "bluster and bluff" while John Lamont, a senior Scottish Conservative, told the Telegraph newspaper: "Even for him, this is stunning arrogance."

SNP leader Sturgeon's insistence that the party would never do a deal to prop up a minority Conservative government may also have made future negotiations tougher as it forced Labour to rule out a formal SNP coalition in order to allay the fears of some English voters.

"Why would we want to do a deal with a group of people who want to break up the United Kingdom?" one senior Labor source told Reuters.

But Miliband has not ruled out informal deals known as "confidence and supply" or "vote by vote" that Scottish nationalists have said are most likely, prompting the Conservatives to release an election campaign poster with the Labor leader pictured in Salmond's top pocket.

The SNP's main election poster shows some of the traditionally green leather benches of the House of Commons covered in Scottish Tartan under the slogan "More SNP seats. More power for Scotland."

SNP leader Sturgeon, Salmond's deputy for 10 years, has been clear that she and the party leadership, not Salmond, would handle any talks with other parties after the election.

Opponents whisper that their relationship, free of major discord to date, could be tested by their two-pronged strategy for independence. SNP sources dismiss that: For the new generation of nationalists it is Sturgeon, not Salmond, who embodies their hopes.

In the sports hall at Insch, there is a party atmosphere: Against a background of Scottish pop songs, Scotland's former First Minister tours tables of families, surrounded by balloons in bright yellow, the campaign color of the SNP.

Eschewing his trademark business suit for a blazer and chino trousers, Salmond is relaxed and confident, a far cry from the haggard figure who passed the party leadership to Sturgeon after losing the referendum.

Since then, the SNP's membership has almost quadrupled in size to nearly 100,000, making it the third-largest party in Britain by signed-up members.

Much of the new intake includes former Labor voters like Victoria Harper, a 33-year-old housewife put off by what seems to be a London-centric Labor distant from its left-wing roots.

"I quite liked Labor for a long time, but after the last election I lost all heart. Then the Yes campaign came along and it was something I wanted to scream from the rooftops," she said.

Standing in Salmond's way however is Christine Jardine, a former BBC journalist who plans to keep the Gordon seat for the Liberal Democrats after current MP Malcolm Bruce steps down.

She points out that Aberdeenshire voted strongly in the referendum to stay in the United Kingdom and notes too that while the Lib Dems are faring badly in national polls after their coalition in the Conservative-led government, they are holding on to support locally.

"This isn't a straight re-run of the referendum, it's about who's going to make the best MP and people know we have a record of delivering for the area.

"Alex Salmond isn't quite the same all-conquering hero here that some people might think."

© 2017 Thomson/Reuters. All rights reserved.

 
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Scotland may have said 'No' to independence last year, but Alex Salmond, who has campaigned for 30 years to break away from the United Kingdom, believes a tie-breaker British election next month could offer a chance to put the question again.
Scotland, Europe, Alex Salmond
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2015-11-24
Tuesday, 24 Mar 2015 09:11 AM
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