At one end of a Scottish Parliamentary office sits a pristine copy of Murray Pittock’s The road to independence? Perched on top of it is a slightly better thumbed edition of 50 people who screwed up Scotland. It just so happens that the office’s occupant is 47th on the list. He sits at the other end of the office, a soft brogue audible from behind a computer screen and a hand within easy reach of a half empty bottle of Irn Bru. The voice’s owner is on the phone and purchasing the final dress in stock from Harvey Nichols’ Knightsbridge branch for his wife. “Alex Salmond. That’s A-L-E-X-S-A-L-M-O-N-D,” he says, spelling it out to the sales assistant. Peering around the computer screen he fixes me with a familiar grin etched across his face. “There’s something I quite like about ordering the last dress in England,” he says, before completing the transaction, hanging up the phone and declaring: “That’s Christmas sorted!”
Such is Alex Salmond’s festive spirit you would not recognise him from the dejected figure he cut only two months ago when he conceded defeat in the independence referendum and announced his resignation as Scottish first minister and SNP leader. But of course, the subsequent months have seen a surge in party membership and soaring poll ratings – a recent YouGov poll placed the SNP on 47% in Scotland, 20 points ahead of Scottish Labour whose embattled leader Johann Lamont resigned in the wake of the referendum. Add to that the 90,000 SNP members’ fanfare that greeted his decision to stand again for the House of Commons and it is easy to see why the goose seems slightly plumper this Christmas.
Glasgow Commonwealth Games medals adorn the wall, alongside a framed copy of The Spectator which has just handed him the honour of parliamentarian of the year. “Bunch of right-wing zealots,” he tells me. “Not as bad as The Telegraph though. They’re all deranged,” he says, before reeling off a long litany of Telegraph journalist who have irked him over the years. “What about Ben Riley-Smith?” I ask, referring to the journalist who revealed that Mr Salmond had personally pressurised St Andrews principal, Louise Richardson, to show support for SNP higher education policy. “That was utter nonsense. Just ask Louise yourself,” he says. Later, as I make to leave, he tells me with a change of tone: “Jonathan, you do know the principal was on my economic advisory panel?”
“That’s the European Ryder Cup tartan scarf,” he says, gesturing towards a coat stand. “Paul McGinley [the European captain] gave it to me after they won. One of the perks of the job,” he says. Talk of golf brings us to Mr Salmond’s time in St Andrews where much of it, it seems, was occupied by the game. “Too much?” I ask. “Not enough,” he quickly counters. When not on the golf course, the former first minister admits that academia was not a priority. “I didn’t spent much time in the library although I did suggest a sit-in in the library for opening hours,” he says. The MP and contemporary of Mr Salmond at St Andrews, Desmond Swayne, told me that he never once saw him at a lecture.
Never one to enjoy the fripperies of Raisin Weekend or May Dip (the closest he got to taking the icy Mayday plunge was the post-revelry beach clean-up), a picture swiftly emerges of a single-minded focus on student politics. Such was his zeal that during the 1975 European Economic Community referendum, Mr Salmond did not sit a single end of year exam. “I couldn’t possibly have sat an exam when I was in the middle of a political campaign,” he recalls. He is quick to offer some salutary advice for current students, however: “It’s the kind of priority that those who get overly enthusiastic about student politics sometimes arrive at. It’s not a decision I would commend to any St Andrews student of today nor one I would take if I had my days again. I was pretty cocky that I’d get through. It was a risk not worth taking.”
St Andrews was the setting for a chastening political rite of passage for the former first minister. In the 1978 Student Representative Council (SRC) presidential race Mr Salmond suffered his first and hitherto only personal electoral defeat, made all the worse for it being to a Conservative. “I learnt that day never to lose to a Tory again,” he tells me bluntly. Is it a defeat that still keeps him awake at night, I ask. “It doesn’t haunt me, I don’t find it difficult. I think it’s quite amusing actually.” The result may not linger in Mr Salmond’s mind but after 35 years the margin of defeat has not escaped his memory. “That a left-wing student nationalist comes within 13 votes of winning the SRC presidency of St Andrews strikes me as not a bad result,” he says.
Aside from chipping away at his handicap and developing a lifelong antipathy for the Conservatives, what did St Andrews teach him? Leaning forward in his seat, he clasps his hands, his voice shifting gear from Alex Salmond the student with a rebellious streak, to Alex Salmond the statesman. “In terms of politics I learnt if you want to succeed you had to build alliances, especially if you’re running an election at a right wing anglicised university. Most years in the 1970s, the Conservative candidate usually won by a landslide. Therefore to win you had to unite progressive forces,” he says. “I suspect I learnt more about fighting an election as a left-wing Scottish nationalist than I would have if I’d been a right-wing Scottish Conservative where perhaps I would regard it as an entitlement to win an election in St Andrews. No election is ever an entitlement.”
Replace St Andrews with Westminster, amplify the anti-Tory rhetoric and Mr Salmond could well be discussing his long march south and the likelihood of his party holding the balance of power in the House of Commons after next year’s general election. “I think there is something of an analogy there,” he tells me. I ask him how he sees the election panning out. “Greatly to Scotland’s advantage” is the automatic response. “Our main priority would be to secure the delivery of the promises made in the last few days of the independence referendum campaign.” He is less forthcoming on the chance of a coalition with a minority Labour government. “Nicola [Sturgeon] has described a coalition as unlikely. Unlikely doesn’t mean out of the question, it just means unlikely. More likely would be negotiating on a vote by vote basis or a confidence and supply arrangement.” He will not be drawn into speculating on how many SNP MPs he expects to see in May; “a barrel-load,” he tells me. “The people of Scotland will determine whether it will be a big barrel, a small or medium sized barrel.”
So long is the shadow Mr Salmond casts I ask him if electoral success could see him obscure his long-time protégé Nicola Sturgeon. “Anybody who knows Nicola would never associate her with the word ‘obscure’. Whether I was here [Scottish parliament], in the European parliament or in Timbuktu, Nicola is not capable of being overshadowed.” Indeed, any personal ambition for power is concealed by the garments of party loyalty. He is very quick to dismiss any suggestion he might seek a position in the cabinet. “Nicola Sturgeon is party leader and she will decide party strategy,” he tells me.
As complimentary as he is of Nicola Sturgeon, Mr Salmond is equally vituperative in his condemnation of David Cameron. “We would not countenance, formal or informal, a coalition with the Conservative party. That’s pretty obvious.” He regards the prime minister’s conversation with New York mayor Michael Bloomberg – in which he said the Queen had “purred” upon news that the Union had not been splintered – as behaviour befitting a schoolboy. “I think if you have to boast to a billionaire about the important people you know that would go down in my estimation as schoolboy behaviour,” he says. “Six of the best is what the prime minister needs. I’d reintroduce caning just for him.”
Talk of caning leads us to the subject of education and its cost, a subject about which Mr Salmond is more liable than most to wax voluble. Indeed, the vote in the House of Commons on whether to introduce £9,000 tuition fees at English universities was one of the only two times he broke the SNP convention by which SNP MPs do not vote on matters only affecting England (the other was on foundation hospitals). “I voted against it because I felt it would spread to Scotland as of course it did. We can’t exempt English students from tuition fees because you can’t have that imbalance,” he tells me. “I think it’s important not to burden people coming out of university with huge amounts of debt. I think that affects their ability to act as responsible consumers, adults and participants in a democratic society.”
Scotland is of course, as Mr Salmond is eager to remind me, the birthplace of free education. “And we did it in the 16th century which was kind of advanced for us,” he says. “When I was a boy in Linlithgow I stumbled across the thought that Scotland seemed to have invented everything: television, the fax machine, tarmacadam, just about everything. I could never get my head around why this was the case. Were we just more naturally inventive than everybody else? And then I suddenly stumbled across the reason, because we invented the most important invention of all. We invented free universal education. That’s why it’s particularly close to my heart and to most Scottish hearts because it’s the thing that made us invent everything else. It’s one of the most important things in Scottish society.”
Mr Salmond’s bottle of Irn Bru is almost empty now and his afternoon meetings await. There is one subject that has remained untouched, however. “I can’t tell you when another referendum will be but what I can say is that in May we’ll be standing on a platform that says not that we’re going to have an independence referendum,” he says. “We’re standing on a platform that says we want delivered unto Scotland what was promised in the vow in the last week of the campaign, which is the language of ‘home rule’ from the Liberals, ‘devo to the max’ from the Daily Record, ‘as near federalism as is possible to have in the UK’, quote Gordon Brown.” His gaze unwavering, he tells me: “I will absolutely see Scottish independence in my lifetime.”
Before all that, however, is the festive period and the SNP’s Christmas party that night for which his assistants have made the journey to Edinburgh. “Do you enjoy working for him?” I ask a bright-eyed PA on the way out. “It’s certainly never dull,” she tells me, smiling. And why not smile? Two months after a bitter political and ideological defeat, Alex Salmond seems yet again set to scale the dizzy heights of Westminster. And for a man who somehow escaped St Andrews with a degree despite failing to sit exams, who would bet against him? For the moment, all he needs to worry about is that the Harvey Nichols dress arrives at the Salmond household in time for Christmas.