There ate two stories here – the political damage; and the sad reality of the individual psychodrama.
Former First Minister, Alex Salmond, who has no position of authority in the SNP or in government, nevertheless appears to be setting both the government and the party agenda for the upcoming General Election.
Mr Salmond is demanding tax autonomy for Scotland in return for a deal to prop up Labour in Government in the UK – working to take Scottish seats off them in the election and then lending them back the power of those seats if they do what he tells them, should, as is unlikely, the combined total of Labour and SNP seats will add up to enough to form a government.
Today Mr Salmond is back in the headlines, setting out ‘his’ conditions for backing Labour: full control of taxes, of pensions and of oil revenues for Scotland [the less said about which the better for the former First Shrek].
These moves – and he is making repeat or varying demands on an almost daily basis – effectively sideline the current First Minister to the position of a parochial deputy with her predecessor talking the big game.
As First Minister, Mr Salmond was famous for making both policy and damaging statements on the hoof and when the game was up, taking cover and sending the more courageous Ms Sturgeon to the chamber at Holyrood to admit all and withstand the flak.
It was Nicola Sturgeon who had to make it known that not only did the Scottish Government have no legal advice on an independent Scotland’s approaches to EU membership but that it had never even asked for it, despite Mr Salmond’s throwing public money at taking governmental legal action to defend the right not to reveal the advice [that did not exist].
It was Ms Sturgeon who had to admit there was no Plan B on the currency for an independent Scotland – that it was the pound or… ?
In these political gymnastics, at least Mr Salmond was First Minister. Now he is a noisy memory but it still railroading the policy, setting the agendas – with or without Mr Sturgeon’s imprimatur and often with that imprimatur awarded retrospectively.
So who really drives Scotland?
Nicola Sturgeon initially insisted – verbally – that she would be in the driving seat.
It now seems that the vehicle of state has dual controls and that there is a co-pilot with authority denied to the official Deputy First Minster and the official Deputy Leader of the Party.
Ms Sturgeon is Leader of the party and of the Government. John Swinney is Deputy First Minister. Stuart Hosie is Deputy Party Leader. Angus Robertson is Leader of the Westminster SNP MPs. Alex Salmond is an SNP MSP.
Policy has got to come from the constitutionally proper source. It must not be hijacked by an unlicensed raider from the past.
In the current NHS incident, following the Scottish nurse’s infection with Ebola, it was noticeable that new Health Secretary Shona Robison was not given charge of her portfolio. Press statements were handled by the First Minister. Ms Robison was later allowed to appear on camera in a hospital corridor with an anodyne statement on another matter altogether.
If Mr Salmond does not think his successor is up to her job – or up to the job as he would have done it -he should keep quiet if, for no other reason, in return for the loyalty she has always shown him.
If Ms Sturgeon does not think her friend, Ms Robison, is up to her job, why did she appoint her to so elevated and complex a position?
This is looking very like the old familiar centralism – but with Mr Salmond conferring upon himself an autonomous roving brief outside the tent.
Nicola Sturgeon is being made to look like she’s limited to being Leader in Holyrood. Mr Hosie – Deputy Party Leader and Westminster MP and Mr Robertson – Leader of the SNP’s Westminster group of MPs, look like impotent patsies. And Mr Salmond rampages on. This is no good for the party and if Mr Salmond does manage to be returned to Westminster via Gordon, it will be even worse.
The sad psychological inevitable
What is happening is the predictable psychology of someone used to complete and unquestioned power who, on leaving it involuntarily, struggles desperately still to command the oxygen of an audience.
There is the sense of no longer having a voice and experiencing profound disorientation with loss of identity. Most people, when they retire from their employment, experience a version of the same thing and so can relate to it.
Mr Salmond’s alter ego, Margaret Thatcher, suffered badly from this [and so did her party and its successive leaders through her regular public interventions]. She never really created a post-political identity for herself; and it is questionable whether Mr Salmond has any more ability than she had to do this.
It is an almost insuperable challenge. The answer is always to do another proper job – of any kind, necessarily outside politics and preferably not in the frontline of anything; but most lack the discipline and the interest to do this.
Such people have willingly abandoned the sanctuary of a private identity in the pursuit of power. They no longer know who they are beyond the temporary lease of authority through their former job – and that private identity seems to be irrecoverable.
Few are worth listening to as thinkers. Most continue to crave the adrenalin of performance though, realistically, their time onstage is over. Nothing lasts for ever.
It’s all very sad and inevitably, it is always played out so gladiatorially in public, like watching time land a marlin.
We cannot think of a single dominant political leader who went on to create a successful post political and different identity for themselves. Can anyone else?