We sometimes misunderstand the character and motivations of leaders. We may see them and hear them every day and yet never really know them. In fact we project on to them our own prejudices often unfairly and frequently take the image prepared by the media and allow that to shape our opinion.
Most leaders never let their real self emerge except in small and/or private settings. Thus two I can think of, Ian Lang and Johann Lamont, allowed a distorted impression of their real self to become the persona of their leadership. Neither would thank me for the comparison, and I don’t mean it politically, but both have a sense of mischievous humour with dry and withering wit that rarely works for them in public.
Lang was famous for – apparently – writing sketches for satirical reviews but was so imperiously polite and socially correct that only those close to him ever saw that side.
How this buttoned-up Lloyds Name and Tory grandee needed a popular touch when he struggled as leader of a fast-disappearing Tory Party. Instead he was seen as a dry stick whose dealings with ordinary Scots was restricted to telling the gardener at the Ayrshire mansion to trim the lawn edges. He was achingly nice to all but never relaxed in common company.
Johann – who appeared in my dream last night wearing her coat inside out (any theories?) – has never translated her appetite for a biting one-liner into a weapon of debate. She labours jokes and people laugh out of sympathy – I know what this is like and am similarly afflicted. Her attempts at laughs sound cynical and scornful rather than witty. The advice would be – don’t bother. But in friendly surroundings preferably minus media, she can make it work. Some say her best joke was making Anas the deputy.
I mention this because the media today is trying to work out David Cameron afresh. He had stumbled it seems over Coulson and Junker. We had assumed he was smart, borderline spiv, with that posh ability to smooth over the creases. But it was surely clear from the start that with warning after warning from friend and foe alike that the appointment of Coulson was a massive risk with no upside, something he was doing wilfully in spite of the evidence because he believed himself untouchable so long as he had the Murdoch gunslingers riding shotgun in Downing Street. He left himself no wriggle room and trusted all to a troop of fellow travellers whose interests were never the nation’s but the company’s. It’s a spectacular misjudgement similar to the one he made over the second question in the referendum. He has gambled all on a straight win and now finds that is a diminishing prospect. Having put in place the Edinburgh Agreement, he has again removed all wriggle room if there is a Yes. It looks like a fatal flaw in the Cameron makeup.
But I disagree that isolation over the new President of the Commission makes him look a failure. I think he has calculated this precisely to paint himself as the outsider fighting the powers of Brussels on behalf of plucky Blighty. When he rejected a treaty change at the end of 2011 his ratings went up and his right wing anti European support rallied. He is repeating the trick by ‘standing up to Brussels’ which is the language of the little Englanders who now run our country. This is bad news from UKIP’s point of view as Cameron again becomes the champion of the Eu-exiters.
Does he really care who is Commission President? Indeed, there is a case for saying that if Junker does make bold moves towards federalism, it will again enhance Cameron’s credentials. The trouble with this bus ride of brinkmanship is that it is leading to the terminus. There is only so much anti-European spin you can feed the public before they begin to believe you and the British public is half-way there already. Cameron’s wilful ignoring of hard facts will take us to the end of the European line even though that is not what he himself intends.
I spent time with Alex Salmond this week (batemanbroadcasting.com details to follow) and was reminded why he has been First Minister for so long. You get so used to the relentless anti-Salmond agenda that you don’t realise how it gets into your head until you see him close up and personal, reaching out to an audience and radiating belief.
In the English media he is more often than not portrayed as assuming too much, like the ghillie getting too familiar with the laird. He hasn’t understood that Westminster leaders are the real thing – they’re national – and he is provincial.
To the London media and its laughable ‘ Scottish editions’ he is arriviste, a pretendy Prime Minister in a pretendy parliament that doesn’t realise when it’s well off. His comeuppance is clearly imminent.
It’s puzzling then why two third of Scots trust Holyrood more than Westminster, three quarters want more powers but only half think they will be delivered and Salmond has a popularity rating of plus 11 with Cameron on minus 45. And that’s after seven years in power. His party is cruising ahead of Labour in the opinion polls, his cabinet is favoured over Labour’s and his deputy is more popular than either of their opponents or indeed of Salmond himself. This by any measure is a political phenomenon which shows no sign of declining even if the referendum is lost.
My view now is that a No vote is the worst outcome for Labour which will divide over extra powers in theory and is unlikely to deliver in practice as Miliband can’t make it to Number10. Two Scots Thomas Docherty and Ian Davidson publicly oppose more powers and the talk at Westminster among Labour MPs is of cutting spending to Scotland, not empowering Holyrood for more. Meanwhile when the remaining spending cuts still unfulfilled are added to the extra £25b planned, the effect on Scotland’s working and non working people will be devastating – it already is. Opinion will demand answers and defence from the party that said there was only misery to be had from a No vote.
Salmond makes that point in our conversation and says it is fear and fear alone that prevents us taking the chance to revive our democracy and re-energise our economy.
Alex Salmond has gifts as a politician that few can match and every professional opponent knows it. Why is he always late? Because he talks to people – anyone, anywhere about anything – he stops and engages, exchanges, shares. He struggles to stick to the itinerary because he enjoys the company of people and has to be dragged away. This innate ability to communicate is Margo-esque. They may not have been soul buddies by they share the people gene. He laughs with them, looks them in the eye. Cynical manipulation? Mastery of the political arts? Perhaps. But you can’t hide peoples’ affection if you’re only mimicking lines, can’t invent interest in each person’s individual story hour after hour if you’re a cardboard cut-out. Put it this way, if Salmond’s real opponent is Alistair Darling, how many of those skills can he muster? Would you share personal stories with Alistair? Can you imagine spending time with him – how was your trip to Monaco to pick up £30,000 for corporate speaking, Al?
There is a common experience of Alex Salmond that people will tell you – the public expect not to like him and after they do, they’re won over. His real strength is in personal contact not contrived situations and the press commentators know this too but it does fit their anti independence line. And it’s worth remembering that Salmond himself hasn’t begun campaigning yet. His own personal crusade when the best of him emerges is still winding up towards the final crucial weeks.
You might not vote for him and some of you still might not like him but he has proved a worthy and pioneering leader for our times who may be on the cusp of eclipsing them all with a stunning win. Whatever does happen, the Unionist plan to crush him and his project has already failed. I think Yes or No, this is Win-Win for Salmond.by