With a few notable exceptions, political journalists have been struggling to cope with the new Scottish politics that is the legacy of the Yes campaign. Not that the transformation has been dramatic in any absolute sense. But the dynamic in Scotland is sufficiently different from what the British media’s hacks are accustomed to that they have been left floundering in incomprehension.
We see this in the way that everything is brought back to the familiar old Tory/Labour dichotomy with all its faux rivalries. Whatever party or parties are being discussed – SNP, Plaid Cymru, Greens etc. – they are invariably treated as if they have significance only in terms of their relationship to the “big two”. They can have no significance of their own in the wider political context. The question is never – or vanishingly rarely – what does the advance of this or that party mean? It is almost always, what does the rise of this or that party mean for Labour and/or the Tories.
One is left wondering how long it will take before commentators finally get their heads around the fact that the age of two-party politics is over. Perhaps this inertia will only be overcome when this reality dawns on those who run the two main British parties.
Back to Alex Salmond. He is imagined to be “on a short leash” because that is what would happen in the old parties. It simply doesn’t occur to those making such facile assumptions that Salmond could be keeping a relatively low profile of his own volition – simply because it is politically wise to avoid any distraction from the main election battle and the person who is the unquestioned figurehead of the SNP’s advance.
For journalists unfamiliar with anything other than the venal snake-pit of British politics, it is unthinkable that there should not be some bitter rivalry between Nicola Sturgeon and her predecessor. Their default assumption is that Alex Salmond must resent Sturgeon’s success. And they will cling to this assumption regardless of the total lack of so much as the merest hint of tension between the two. If friction does not exist, it must be invented in print.
The reality is that both Salmond and Sturgeon are masterly political operators who have a great deal of respect for one another. There is no friction because each has a role to play and each is fully aware of the importance of their respective roles.
Most importantly, neither Salmond nor Sturgeon are driven by personal ambition. At least, not exclusively. And certainly not to the extent that the leading players in the British parties are. Such personal ambition as they have is very much subordinate to the cause that they share. The cause of representing the interests of the people of Scotland.
If those interests are best served by Alex Salmond taking something of a back seat, he won’t need urging from Nicola Sturgeon or anyone else. Incomprehensible as it may be to many journalists, he will follow political instincts attuned to the cause of Scotland rather than personal advancement.
Journalists may not be able to recognise an attitude so rare among the politicians they are used to dealing with. But the people see it. To those journalists, I offer this advice. Next time you are watching Nicola Sturgeon (or Alex Salmond) among a crowd, don’t look at them. Instead, study the faces of the people around them. That thing you’re seeing is called respect.