Alex Salmond has made a career out of avoiding the grip of his political opponents. Does he fare any better against his biographer?
The smartest guy in the room?
Another day, another book by David Torrance. Putting sarcasm aside, we should welcome the fact that it is Torrance, the journalist and historian, who is the first person to try to make sense of Salmond’s public and private lives. Most books on Scottish politics are dreadful. However, Torrance’s biography of George Younger was well received and his portraits of successive Scottish Secretaries were impressive.
The only surprise is that it has taken until 2010 for someone to write a biography of Alex Salmond. One of the dominant figures in Scottish politics over the last twenty years, Salmond has taken a ramshackle organisation from the fringes to the heart of government.
Torrance’s diligence and attention suggested he would produce a polished take on Scotland’s First Minister. However, despite Torrance’s qualities, Salmond: Against The Odds is a missed opportunity. The abundance of political biographies that litter dusty shelves in second-hand bookshops shows that the genre, while worthy, is nonetheless difficult to master.
In terms of charting the rise of contemporary politicians, two practitioners stand out. Andrew Rawnsley, the chief political commentator at The Observer, is the New Labour biographer who chronicled the Blair–Brown psychodrama. He has used his unrivalled contacts book to put together an insider’s account of the rise and fall of ‘the project’. Rawnsley showed himself in Servants Of The People and The End Of The Party to be the best fly-on-the-wall biographer of his kind.
Newsnight’s Michael Crick is the other expert in the field, albeit from a different perspective. Stranger Than Fiction, his 1995 debunking of Jeffrey Archer, is arguably the best biography of any British politician. With no access to his subject – only hostility– Crick pieced together the author’s bizarre life through a combination of textual sources and hundreds of on- and off-the-record interviews. The ultimate outsider’s biography disproved the theory that access to a politician is a prerequisite for such a project.
Torrance’s work falls into neither category. This book offers no convincing evidence that the author has managed to obtain the inside track on Salmond’s life – either from enemies or supporters. He claims to have spoken to “friends and colleagues”, but you get the feeling these contacts constitute only a handful of true believers.
Apart from Torrance’s original research, particularly when covering Salmond’s early years, the author’s approach has been largely to stitch together nearly 300 pages from previously available newspaper articles and books. He does this competently, but at times Against The Odds reads like a patchwork of other people’s work interspersed with the author’s personal insights. In this regard, it’s more a chronicle than a biography.
Structurally, the book is standard fare: from cradle to happy childhood; from St Andrews University to working at the Royal Bank of Scotland; from forming the republican 79 Group to winning the SNP leadership in his mid-30s; and from establishing the SNP as the official Opposition at Holyrood, to becoming First Minister.
Torrance’s formula works well enough for the period until Salmond defeated Mar-garet Ewing to become SNP leader in 1990. His portrait of Salmond as a student is also illuminating, in so much as it depicts Salmond as an anti-establishment figure. Just as his political career has been characterised by failed attempts at sweeping away Labour in Scotland, his time at St Andrews was marked by distaste for the institution’s right-wing ethos and students. While there he developed two unfashionable campus passions: socialism and nationalism.
Torrance is enlightening on Salmond’s expulsion from the SNP over his membership of the left-wing 79 Group. A leading member of a group that included Roseanna Cunningham and Kenny MacAskill, Salmond’s iconoclastic tendencies were tempered by a caution some fellow 79-ers would never embrace. The book reveals that while certain comrades in the splinter group approved of a Sinn Fein representative attending a 79 Group conference, Salmond was lukewarm.
Ironically, the book falls flat at just the moment Salmond’s career takes off. As soon as the author reaches 1990, Torrance’s book can be critiqued in five words: “Don’t we know this already?” For instance, while he presents the definitive account of why Salmond and his one-time mentor Jim Sillars fell out, little light is shed on a decade that included the 1997 general election, the devolution referendum and the SNP’s shambolic campaign in the 1999 Holyrood poll. Controversies remain unexplained.
Consider the backdrop to the 1999 election. In the year running up to polling day, journalists were put on the scent of a baseless story about Salmond having gambling problems. If Torrance had dug deep into this smear campaign, he would have found that a third party had gone to the trouble of hiring a private investigator to examine the SNP leader’s financial records. Nothing untoward was found, but the episode was symptomatic of an attempt to unsettle Salmond before the election.
The author’s handling of perhaps the biggest mystery of Salmond’s career – his resignation as leader in 2000 – is similarly frustrating. While ill health and the party’s financial difficulties were hinted at at the time, Torrance never comes close to unlocking the truth.
But it is his treatment of the SNP’s election victory in 2007, and the following three years of SNP government, that most disappoints. Against The Odds offers a pacy run-through of the main events that have already been reported. At times, it is nothing more than a fleshed-out timeline.
The insights Torrance wraps around his narrative are a better advert for the book. In particular, he is adept at showing the extent to which Salmond’s political thinking has barely developed since he was kicked out of the SNP. Apart from ditching socialism for social democracy, as well embracing the European Union, Salmond has been banging the same drums – oil fund, renewable energy, multi-option referendum – for years. As the author puts it: “Salmond left St Andrews University with the basic political beliefs and tactical instincts that would remain with him for the rest of his career.”
While this can be read as an example of Salmond’s remarkable consistency, it is more likely evidence of intellectual laziness. Take his views on securing independence via a plebiscite. Between 2000 and the present day, Salmond has failed to budge on a policy which has never promised to deliver independence. There have been tweaks, such as embracing a multi-option poll, talking up a ‘social union’ and playing about with the timing, but these are minor changes. It’s the same dog but with different fleas.
Torrance is also correct to show that Salmond’s occasional policy rethinks have not always ended well. During his first spell as leader, Salmond announced that an independent Scotland would become like Ireland. In other words, a ‘freed’ nation would slash corporation tax in the hope that increased revenues would pour into a Scottish Treasury. To this end, Salmond and his advisers wooed the business community.
Fast-forward to 2007 – the eve of the biggest global financial crisis since the 1930s – and what is Salmond proposing for Edinburgh bankers? “We are pledging a light-touch regulation suitable to a Scottish financial sector with its outstanding reputation for probity, as opposed to one like that in the UK, which absorbs huge amounts of management time in ‘gold-plated’ regulation.” Put simply, at a time when the ‘financial community’ was wrecking the global economy with irresponsible lending practices, Salmond was calling not for regulation but deregulation.
Relatedly, Torrance’s identification of Salmond as a tactician, rather than a thinker, is the book’s most telling contribution. Whether it be the SNP leader’s approach to the monarchy, a referendum, or religion, Salmond’s positions always seem to be manoeuvres designed to outfox his opponents, rather than gut instincts that flow from basic convictions. As a tactician, Salmond has turned the SNP into a formidable political force. Beyond that, support for independence is stuck where it was when he first became leader. Being the smartest guy in the room may make you successful, but it is not a strategy for winning hearts and minds.
The reaction of Team Salmond to Against The Odds will be one of relief. Torrance never really gets beneath the skin of his subject. Instead of rushing out a biography, he might have been wiser concentrating more on subject areas. Does there remain more to be said about Salmond? The odds are even.