Today, Scottish voters are answering the question, “Should Scotland be an independent country?” That Scotland could be only hours away from voting to leave the United Kingdom would once have been unthinkable. But the entrance of St Andrews alumnus Alex Salmond into the political arena transformed Scottish nationalism into a mass movement that would later sweep the Scottish National Party to power at Holyrood.
Mr Salmond arrived at St Andrews in the autumn of 1973 from a council house background in Linlithgow, where he was already familiar with political diversity, his family being divided along Labour and Conservative lines. Once at St Andrews, the economics and medieval history student forged his own political path. According to his biographer David Torrance, Salmond ended up joining the SNP after arguing politics with his girlfriend Debbie Horton, a student from Hackney who was the secretary of the university’s Labour Club. Ms Horton reportedly told the now Scottish First Minister, “If you feel like that, go and join the bloody SNP”.
Mr Salmond did just that, and took an active role in revitalising the Scottish nationalist scene at the University, an establishment traditionally known for its right-wing and Unionist student body. Only six people were present at the first Nationalist meeting he attended, yet by 1976 Mr Salmond had helped grow the Federation of Student Nationalists to 72 members, still dwarfed by the 509- strong Conservative Association.
Mr Salmond’s nationalist passion led him to found the Free Student Press, an alternative student newspaper with a socialist and Scottish nationalist bent. On one occasion, according to an article published in The Herald on 10 March 1997, Mr Salmond was photographed at a meeting of the Free Student Press’ editorial team wearing a Maoist cap. Mr Salmond’s leftist tendencies would later see his ’79 Group faction expelled from the SNP in 1982.
What makes St Andrews so significant in the political development of Alex Salmond is that it was the scene of his only personal electoral defeat. The fateful election was his candidacy for SRC President in 1978, in an election dubbed by Aien as the “Closest Election Ever”.
Mr Salmond ran on a four point platform which included weekend opening of the library reading room and the provision of a library for Albany Park. He also called for “sympathetic treatment” and financial help from the University for self-financing students affected by rises in fees. A further proposal was to allow 24-hour visiting in halls of residence where at least two-thirds of students agree, while his final policy plank was to lobby the University to implement changes to ensure Scottish scientists were not “confronted by unsuitable first year syllabuses”, a theme which was a focus of his term as SRC Vice President for Education in 1977.
In a three-way battle against Bill Hogg and Conservative-backed Peter Bainbridge, Mr Salmond trailed Bainbridge by just 11 votes after the first round. But after the elimination of Mr Hogg and redistribution of his 288 votes, Mr Bainbridge defeated Salmond by 648 votes to 594. In an interview with the Daily Record in 2011, Mr Salmond acknowledged that he had been “taught… a valuable political lesson which is never to lose an election to the Tories.” Mr Salmond did later avenge his defeat after he was appointed Honorary President of the Students’ Association in 2001. The honour, bestowed on him for a one year term, was made in recognition of the SNP’s campaign at that time against tuition fees. The narrow defeat was still fresh in Mr Salmond’s memory when he spoke to The Saint on his appointment, stating that “coming back to the Students’ Association in this way feels like settling an old score”.
Mr Salmond’s letters published in Aien, The Saint’s predecessor, allow a glimpse into the personality of the future First Minister. Trawling through the archives, it is clear that Mr Salmond’s wit and penchant for personal jibes were already in evidence during his university days. His correspondence displayed all the combative qualities that have become his political trademark.
Indeed, the letters page of Aien was the venue for all manner of spats throughout Mr Salmond’s time at St Andrews. The targets of his barbs, usually Tories, were patronised (“You’re a nice lad, hard-working and I’m sure you’ve got the best interests of St Andrews students at heart”) and insulted intellectually (“now I wouldn’t question your comprehensive command of economic science, but…”). Not even Aien’s gossip column was safe from criticism. In an issue from March 1977, Mr Salmond attacked the column as “intellectually weak” and accuses the columnist of “juvenile fabrication”.
There was of course more to Mr Salmond’s time at university than diatribes. A lighter moment came on 9 February 1977 when Aien humorously covered the “Society Wedding Of The Year” between Mr Salmond and Peter Brunskill, his best friend. The article satirises the joint withdrawal of Salmond and Brunskill from the 1977 election for SRC President. The article is illustrated by a range of photos, including one of Mr Salmond with his “bride”. The celebrant “Reverend Swayne” is also pictured with Mr Brunskill. Described as “a trend-setting vicar… [Swayne] dispenses with the formality of wearing a dog collar”. The “vicar” Desmond Swayne has scaled the political heights too. He now sits as the Conservative MP for New Forest West and is the Minister of State for International Development.
Another well-known associate of Mr Salmond’s was Brian Taylor, who served as the editor of Aien. On 24 November 1976, he and Mr Salmond wrote a front page article together with the headline “Big Brother”, an exposé of the planning of clandestine meetings between the sitting SRC president and the Principal’s Committee, meetings that were proposed to monitor student unrest. Incidentally, Mr Taylor is now tasked with holding Mr Salmond to account as BBC Scotland’s political editor.
While Mr Salmond now leads the nationwide “Yes Scotland” movement, he gained his first experiences of referendum campaigning during his spell on the east Fife coast. In 1975 he vigorously supported the losing “No” side in the Common Market referendum, to the extent that he failed to sit an exam, choosing instead to spend his time on the campaign trail.
The next year, he again found himself on the losing team. The question was regarding NUS membership, a topic that still stirs passions in the student body. Mr Salmond campaigned in favour of the Students’ Association remaining part of the NUS, but on 27 January 1976, St Andrews students voted to disaffiliate by a 2-1 margin. Despite further referenda, including most recently a ballot in 2012, St Andrews remains to this day outside the NUS umbrella.
Today is a historic day for both Scotland and the United Kingdom, no matter the result of the referendum. For Alex Salmond, a political career which began at St Andrews has now reached a pivotal moment. The iconic figure of Scottish nationalism has managed to unite various factions in a cohesive movement, a force that has brought the country to the brink of exiting the United Kingdom. Whether or not Scotland votes for independence is in the balance. But what is certain is that student life at St Andrews helped mould Salmond into the robust and self-assured leader that he is today.
Photos: Wikimedia Commons and The Aien
Illustration: Olga Loza