Entering the New Year with a swag bag of political awards, the Scottish Robin Hood, Alex Salmond is out for yet more fragments of British power to piece together his new Scotland. And, undoubtedly, it is with this mix of irony (The Times’ Briton of the Year) and merit (The Spectator’s Politician of the Year) that will provide him with a base from which to salvage yet more morsels of political strength to fill in his jigsaw nation. Indeed, as of this moment Alex Salmond’s reputation is stronger than ever. His own people think him the most competent politician for a generation (regardless of whether they support independence or not) and, increasingly, those South of the border are equally convinced by his reasoning. A poll conducted by the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) shows that almost 25% of English people would happily see Scotland leave the union, with around 75% supporting the policy of “devo max”.
Salmond’s domestic credibility has proved his party to be the best choice for the country- a party strong enough to rule over an independent Scotland. Moreover, he himself has demonstrated his charisma as leader. In the terminology of Max Weber, he has been set apart from his fellow political personalities by his excellence and higher insight. Indeed, of late his steadfast nature has been made even more palpable by the vacillations of the leaders around him: in Europe, countries are busy clamouring to save, or destroy, their post-national European state; and at home, David Cameron frets as his political reach is made slight by the growing pile of economic and reformative problems mounting up against him.
Now, Alex Salmond runs up and down Britain like a political renegade, persistently blagging his way into Westminster’s power vault and back out again. Admittedly, this appears to be a romanticised version of events – too mawkish and scripted for modern politics. But it is a phenomenon central to Alex Salmond’s success.
People adore a hero, especially one who is destined to lose, or willing to break a few rules in order to restore goodness to the world. This is the same in politics, where charisma is bred from a romanticised recalcitrance. Against a ‘remaining’ state over ten times its size, and with a leader in Salmond who is not afraid to tread on political toes, the necessary qualities of a Hollywood Blockbuster are evident. My point here is that Alex Salmond‘s charismatic authority is defined by his political quest: the subversion of tradition, the questioning of 305 years of union, and the taking on of the state and winning.
Of course, this is not a phenomenon unique to Scotland- take the former and now deceased President of Slovenia, Janez Drnovsek as an example. After developing cancer in his kidney, the once textbook politician relinquished all his self-imposed formalities, and in the face of death, decided that he would say what others around him thought too delicate to mention. He gave up his presidential residence for a cottage in the mountains, refused to attend formal state engagements and even withdrew from his political party. Furthermore, he set up a blog explaining subjects from religion to vegetarianism and in the process became a personality cult, a demi-religious figure, who, tucked away in a rural hermitage, guided the nation with his spiritual rhetoric. His battle was against the indecisiveness and ultra-diplomacy of the existing system, a system which obscured the truth with busy inaction. Indeed, it was this subversion of governmental tradition that mirrored stories of legend and saw him become a sort of fantastical political presence within his country.
Like Drnovsek before him, Alex Salmond’s charisma comes from his conflict with forces far bigger than himself, and from the parallels to legend which come with such a conflict. As the anthropologist Thomas Hylland Eriksen argues, the strength of ethnicity is conditional on the extent of the threat it faces externally. Pilfering this sociological theory, Salmond has since reshaped it in his own rhetoric, positioning himself as the underdog in a fight for emancipation against the assuming champion. He has then used this narrative-like discourse to further his cause. He has told the denizens of Scotland that the threat is big, and that now is the time to do political battle.
In this universal story of the little man sticking it to the man the politics of Scotland has transformed from arcane and boring, to engaging and accessible. We have empathy for the little man vs. the man story because we experience it, read about it and watch it every day. It is a David versus Goliath story or the Dowlers versus NewsCorp. In everyday life it is the average person’s fight to get what they need from the system in which they live.
However, if Scotland does gain independence, Salmond’s political “enemy” disappears. With this autonomy the minor problems will grow larger and will no longer be absorbed by the overarching problem of independence from Westminster. So, when the enemy dies, the hero often becomes the enemy of someone else. Salmond could easily fall to the same story that gave him his charismatic rise in leadership.