Review: The Dream Shall Never Die by Alex Salmond
By David Torrance
At one point in Alex Salmond’s much-anticipated tome, The Dream Shall Never Die: 100 Days that changed Scotland forever, he reflects on never having written a book – "loads of pamphlets, speeches and White Papers, but never a book". Before putting that right, he adds in an epilogue, suggesting he thought it "might be something of the same, just more words"’.
But of course a book, even a political one, isn't like writing a speech or policy paper, it has to have a purpose, a compelling narrative, inside information and a dash of colour. One might think the recent independence referendum would easily fulfill those criteria, particularly when the author was in the driving seat.
Curiously, however, it does not. Indeed much of the book – ostensibly a diary of the referendum's last 100 days – isn't about the referendum at all. Rather it serves to reveal how distant Alex Salmond was from the day-to-day battle. Only occasionally does he dip in and out of the fray, and only in the last week or so does he appear fully engaged with the referendum. Instead there are detailed accounts of Salmond’s first ministerial duties, particularly his attendance at sporting events. How interesting that is for the reader is subjective, but those expecting a blow-by-blow account of an historic battle may be disappointed.
Political memoirs or diaries are usually used to settle old scores, and The Dream Shall Never Die is no exception. Salmond’s hostility towards two Old Etonians, the prime minister and Treasury permanent secretary Nicholas Macpherson, manifests itself early on. Rather eccentrically, Salmond believes their opposition to independence derives from their "landed interests" in Scotland. When he discovers Cameron has never visited Huntly, in the north-east of Scotland, he is surprised "that someone should be so rootless as to never have thought of visiting a place presumably of importance to their family origins".
Particular sarcasm and condemnation, however, is reserved for the fourth estate, the alleged inadequacies of which dominate the book. Salmond is at once dismissive ("We are long past the stage where the looking-glass world of the unionist press can have much impact") and obsessed with the print and broadcast media. The Scotsman is "on a suicide mission"; he takes "considerable pleasure" in phoning The Times editor John Witherow to chastise its "anti-Scottish bias"; he's incredulous when the Sunday Post splashes on his hotel expenses ("it would be possible to meet company CEOs or international dignitaries at the local Holiday Inn, but I'm not sure how well that would work for Scotland’s benefit") and records with relish his attempt to offer a young Telegraph journalist "a packet of liquorice allsorts for good attendance at every press event". When, inexplicably in Salmond's eyes, Ben Riley-Smith "takes exception" to this condescending gesture, Salmond puts his "tetchiness" down to low morale at the Telegraph, which is, after all, "a subdivision of the 'No' campaign".
Salmond provides few insights into why the Yes campaign failed to win the referendum
Particular vitriol is reserved for the BBC, especially its Scottish arm. When the Beeb isn't being "biased", it's guilty of "incompetence". Salmond spends a lot of time calling director-general Tony Hall. On one occasion he diplomatically suggests the BBC is "a disgrace to public service broadcasting", reads Lord Hall a tweet from Paul Mason and adds, for good measure, that "it is now difficult to tell where the network BBC stops and the 'No' campaign begins". Salmond acknowledges this won't achieve anything, but records, revealingly, how he "really enjoyed saying it".
And although Salmond acknowledges making mistakes, he rarely accepts full responsibility. When, for example, he attracts criticism for saying he admires Vladimir Putin in a magazine interview, Alastair Campbell is blamed for having "trapped" him into saying it; when he loses the first TV debate it's because he allowed himself "to be persuaded to act out of character"; and when it comes to the declining value of Brent crude Salmond writes breezily that "no-one really knows what the price of oil is going to be in the short term", despite having spent several years arguing precisely the contrary.
The idea, meanwhile, that Salmond's currency union proposal might have been unsuccessful doesn't get a look in; most criticisms of the idea were "low-grade and empty nonsense", while in his mind the issue had been settled once he'd "won" the second TV debate. When, for example, the BBC's Nick Robinson has the impertinence to question him about it on September 2nd, Salmond observes that it's "as if the debate with Alistair Darling had never even taken place". The "metropolitan" or "London media" simply didn't get it.
No-one, however, can fault Salmond's capacity for hard work, and The Dream Shall Never Die reveals his formidable networking skills, particularly when it comes to helping rescue the Ferguson shipyard. Other initiatives aren't as successful. He attempts to get a US congressman to table a "favourable" motion (about independence) to "snooker" the Foreign Office, tries but fails to persuade the former (Labour) first minister Henry McLeish to back independence (he "is clearly torn between loyalty to party and country"), and tries but fails to win the Scottish Sun's backing (on September 7th Murdoch is still prevaricating; by September 16th he has opted for "benign neutrality").
The BBC is singled out for criticism by Salmond for its Scottish independence referendum coverage
Nevertheless, the book contains some revealing nuggets. Salmond recalls, for example, suggesting to David Cameron shortly after he became prime minister that he should "spring a political surprise and implement radical devolution", although he seemed surprised when the PM gave this "devo-max" idea "short shrift". On July 18th 2014, meanwhile, Salmond concludes he would be "minded to resign" if he didn't win the referendum, but he tells no-one beyond Nicola Sturgeon, his wife Moira and adviser Geoff Aberdein.
The book, however, offers little of the inner Alex Salmond, although it does reveal a bit more of his marriage, about which he has always been fiercely private. "To one of Moira's favourite garden centres," begins one entry about Mrs Salmond. In July 2014 they go on their first holiday since 2010, and by August Moira is "none too pleased" about his "hectic" schedule. On September 18th, meanwhile, two exchanges between Mr and Mrs Salmond capture the highs and lows of polling day. "Have we won?" asks Moira at one stage. "I think so," replies Salmond. But later, following the first declaration, Moira asks: "How bad is that?" Salmond replies diplomatically. "It’s only the first result and it's pretty close," he says. Then he starts work on his concession speech.
There are flashes of self-awareness. In the book's epilogue Salmond notes that his special advisers and private office team "did not always see the sunniest side of my nature", although at other points he positively relishes his ability to put powerful individuals in their place. When there are transport issues during the Commonwealth Games, Salmond phones the chief executive of FirstGroup and adopts "a tone of controlled menace", noting that the "tone of total contrition" he gets in response helps matters "greatly". At another point, and following President Obama's endorsement of the Union, Salmond ticks off the US ambassador for his government's "poor treatment" of a "small country that has always been a staunch ally".
President Obama's endorsement of the Union earns the US ambassador a rebuke from Salmond
But there is surprisingly little analysis of why Scotland ended up voting No. Throughout the last 100 days Salmond is convinced things are moving his way: "Whatever is happening it is not being fully recorded in most polls" (29 June); there's "a real change in the air" (25 July); and "it's perplexing that we haven't as yet seen the same movement in the polls that I'm detecting on the ground" (16 August). Yet when all this proves overly optimistic, Salmond offers no real explanation beyond the 'Vow' (even though academic analysis doubts it had much of an impact) and some dodgy number crunching by mysterious Canadians.
There are, however, interesting glimpses of what might have been. For example Salmond's preparations for the launch of a 'Scottish Monetary Authority' immediately following a Yes vote (Mervyn King suggested Professor John Kay, who had agreed to lead it), but beyond that, for anyone well-versed in referendum politics, there is no real insight, depth or analysis. Much of the book could be summed up as 'why I was right and everyone else was wrong'. There are lots of exclamation marks and, at one point, a bizarre allusion to a Ridley Scott film starring Orlando Bloom.
Part of the problem is how the book was written. At no point does Salmond clarify this, but while the central portion takes the form of a diary it seems likely it wasn't written up every day, but rather fleshed out from notes later on (with subsequent rewriting by 'associate editor' and Scottish Sun deputy editor Alan Muir). As a consequence it lacks immediacy or flair; whole entries are turgid or bogged down with lengthy digressions, and overall it feels padded out rather than judiciously edited. There are, in short, better books to be written about the recent referendum, it's just a shame its chief protagonist hasn't produced one of them.
David Torrance is Alex Salmond's biographer and the author of The Battle for Britain, an insider's account of the fight for Scottish independence. You can purchase the book here. Follow him on Twitter.