Interview: Alex Salmond

Interview: Alex Salmond

"It's common sense," Alex Salmond tells me, at the centre of a monstrous media scrum at Edinburgh Airport. "Common sense is a land with huge natural resources and human potential." The cameras are snapping, the crush of bodies is awful, the dictaphones and microphones and notebooks are recording every word. But at the heart of it all, the champion of Scottish independence is calmly rebutting my suggestion that a vote for independence is fundamentally an act of faith. "It's nonsense that nobody is going to take seriously that somehow the land that produced Adam Smith is incapable of running its economy in an effective fashion."

This won't be the first time Adam Smith – the great Scottish economist and moral philosopher whose Wealth Of Nations is widely regarded as the defining magnum opus of classical economics – is mentioned during my conversations with Salmond. He is a man contesting a bitterly-fought campaign which, at its vulgar end, is about whether voters' wallets and purses will feel lighter or heavier as a result of independence. Salmond faces the media pack, which 'Yes' campaigners have now written off as almost universally hostile, with his usual blend of geniality and disdain. But in the back of his mind is a purer, nobler view of independence. This is a man whose actions have divided the Scottish and the English, and divided the Scottish among themselves. But he has lofty reasons for doing so.

History, Salmond thinks, is with him. He recalls David Cameron saying "in my presence" that "he didn't want to lose Scotland as George III lost America". Salmond is unimpressed with the prime minister's view of the contest. "Leave to one side that Scotland is an ancient nation, it's not a property to be lost or found. The reason he did that is he believed that with a binary choice, yes or no, it was in the bag for Westminster. That's why he refused that choice.

"Now of course, things have turned against them. The positive campaign being run by the Yes side has made up so much ground that all of a sudden we have two things: an increase in scaremongering and a calling-in of big organisations to help them out, and then secondly we have these last-minute desperate visits to shore things up. It's just too little too late, and the positive message will prevail."

Later in the day we are in Linlithgow, 20 minutes' drive to the west of Edinburgh Airport. This is the small town which nurtured the young Salmond. His friends from the local golf club accost us in the street. When we show up the first minister that schoolboy became is shouting, without amplification, on the steps of the Burgh Hall to a group of Yes campaigners. It's raining lightly but insistently – naggingly, like the nationalist message for so many years. We retreat to the local Star and Garter pub, where Salmond is expected to be picking up a late lunch and speak to us.

He takes his time. The soup and salad his aides had asked for never gets consumed; instead some ham rolls are packed into a box ready for his next journey. He's already late, I'm told. There's no time for an interview. But Salmond is talking in a corner with two members of the pub's catering staff, one in his 50s and the other barely out of school. He looks cheerful and relaxed. There are less than 100 hours to go until Scotland votes, and the first minister is happy spending what seems like ages talking to just two of its millions of voters.

Finally, as we head upstairs for our interview, he starts talking about Adam Smith again and the speech he gave earlier. He pulls out a battered sheet of A4 paper from his jacket pocket and hands it to me. "You can have that," he says. "Look at it later."

I put it to one side. Now comes the moment to ask a question which has been bugging me since, earlier this summer, I wrote a feature on the question of Scottish values. Is there such a thing?

"In Scotland, nationhood comes out of 1,000 years of history forged in a long millennium of time," Salmond says, rather prosaically. He has the manner of a man settling into a large, very familiar and very comfortable bed. "Our values, though, I think largely emerged during the enlightenment, both in terms of the rational thinking that came forward, that sprung out of Scotland and Edinburgh, and also the poetry which was memorably encapsulated in the work of Robert Burns.

"So what are these values? Well, they're values which say, look, people have to work hard. We founded entrepreneurship, we founded the modern world. But the reason for doing that is so that you can have a fairer society."

The reason many 'Yes' voters want independence, I put it to him gently, is a little more prosaic: that they can 'end Tory rule forever', as one pro-independence placard puts it. These same values are ultimately leftist; they could be found anywhere in the north of England, just as fed up with the dominance of the London-centric elites of Britain. "They're not leftist sentiments, they're Scottish sentiments," Salmond insists. "They're based on the precepts of Adam Smith and the Enlightenment. That's what I think people in London struggle to see."

He quotes Andrew Carnegie, the "most successful entrepreneur in history", who said that "he who dies rich dies shamed". There's a pause to let that sink in. Salmond's mind is flitting back to the controversy of the day – the warning from the supermarkets that independence would mean everything costs more. As Adam Smith taught us, he continues, "the prosperity of a nation is tied up in the welfare of its citizens". What welfare means here, he says, is "the promotion of prosperity, but also the promotion of fairness".

The question of what kind of country Scotland could become is a fascinating one. To Salmond, it is a means to translate those Scottish values into a new kind of diplomacy. Britain has always been a warlike nation; and Scottish empire-builders were a big part of the military clout which brought the UK to greatness in the 19th century. Salmond prefers to forget this. Here, his history is more recent. "We're not going to aspire to world domination or even being a global superpower," he says. "If you think that being a significant force in the world is to disobey international law and launch an illegal invasion in Iraq, most people in Scotland say 'we don't want that'. What we want to have is a country which regards its greatness not in the number of Trident missiles it has, not in the wars it participates in like Iraq, but a country that values the compassion it shows towards fellow human beings."

It's ultimately a question of faith, though, and a point I begin to put across by suggesting there's a big problem with the Yes campaign. I don't get any further.

"You think the 'Yes' campaign's got a problem," Salmond shoots back. "If you think the 'Yes' campaign's got a problem," he says, eyes bulging with animation, "you're not getting out enough!" I have made the terrible mistake of daring to question his great movement for change, and am now being lumped in with all the other doubters and cynics who have travelled up from Westminster. "It's only the London bubble and airwaves, the metropolitan media, who think the 'Yes' campaign has got a problem," Salmond continues. "The 'Yes' campaign is the most positive and empowering campaign in recent political history."

I try again, this time successfully. If there was a problem with the 'Yes' campaign, I insist. "OK, very good," Salmond says, smiling. I point out there are lots of question-marks. The first minister is contrasting the Scotland that might be with the Britain that has been, and it's not a very fair comparison.

"I would never describe Britain as a has-been," he comes back, quick as a flash. "Unfortunately David Cameron is doing his best to put it in that description. I think that a lot of people have doubts about self-government, whether a nation can rise to the challenge of governing itself. But when I hear that question, I say to myself, look – I've got great confidence in the people of England."

That's right – England. Not Scotland. This is his response to the constitutional tumult his referendum has unleashed south of the border. His words of advice to the oppressed majority may not be welcomed in London.

"I think England is well capable of self-government," he declares. "I don't think people should question its ability to move forwards as a country. It has a fantastic literary heritage, it has tremendous democratic intellect. It has a great cultural hinterland.

"Equally please, please don't suggest, in the way of Cameron or Miliband, that somehow the country which produced Adam Smith and Robert Burns is incapable of governing its own affairs successfully. Because the people of Scotland don't want to hear that anymore." He is drawing to a close, slowing the pace of his words, becoming reverential and solemn. "They want to hear the positive message of inspiration to say let's put Scotland's future into Scotland's hands."

And with that the interview ends, decisively and abruptly, to a clamour of applause from a gaggle of faithful supporters who had silently gathered behind me. Salmond is up, aware that he is late for his next meeting and eager to move on. Those rolls await, too. So does another group of earnest fans. The room is, very quickly, quiet once more.

And then I remember the piece of paper Salmond had thrust into my hands before we started. As I unwrap it, I imagine it's going to be a scribbled draft of his speech, perhaps. A curio for a referendum campaign memorabilia hunter, maybe. Instead of detailed notes, what I find is a simple quote written in large block capitals that are, surely, the first minister's own handwriting. "No society can surely be flourishing and happy of which by far the greater part of the numbers are poor and miserable." It's an Adam Smith quote. As the barbs of the unionist campaign continue to pierce his arguments, his vision of the idea Scotland he wants to build remains untarnished.