George Kerevan

George Kerevan

The Shadow Boxers: Salmond, Sturgeon and Modern Capitalism

Reading Time: 10 minutes

As part of our series of articles exploring the present condition and possible futures of the independence movement, George Kerevan places the rise of Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon in the context of global changes in the capitalist system. Whatever their differences, they share the same fundamental political project.

The Scotland we live in today was created by Alex Salmond. It was Salmond who, in 1991, unexpectedly seized control of a factious, fringe SNP and turned it into a political bulldozer that wrecked the sleepy constitutional consensus north of the border. It was a just-elected Salmond who rudely interrupted Tory Chancellor Lawson’s budget speech at Westminster, announcing that the days of somnambulant, “tired and emotional” Scottish backbenchers at Westminster were over forever.

Independence Beyond Salmond and Sturgeon

It was Salmond who abandoned the SNP’s fundamentalist commitment to independence and only independence, and whose passionate support for a devolved Scottish parliament in 1997 secured its endorsement from the electorate despite Labour splits. The patrician pleading of Donald Dewar, the only senior Scottish Labour politician willing to quit Westminster to back devolution with his career, would not have been enough to deliver Holyrood successfully. Dewar might be called the “father of the nation” and have his statue in Buchanan Street, but it is Alexander Eliot Anderson Salmond who really delivered a workable Scottish Parliament.

It was the same Alex Salmond who took the SNP into office in 2007, transforming the party from a protest movement into a governing machine dispensing patronage and wielding power. A machine that has dominated Scotland for the past 14 years and looks certain to go on dominating for the next five years at least. For above all, Salmond is a politician for whom the mechanics of power are as important as ideology.

Like US President Lyndon Johnson, Salmond despises erstwhile allies who can’t count the votes or fix the potential opposition. It was Salmond alone who quietly and doggedly courted the Catholic Church in Scotland, assuaging time-honoured Catholic fears that Home Rule was a Presbyterian plot. It was Salmond who realised that the SNP would never prosper unless it oriented to the Central Belt working class and supplant Labour as the social democratic standard bearer in Scotland. It was Salmond who opened channels to the small business community to the point where the Federation of Small Business was practically an SNP front organisation. And never forget, it was Salmond, chief oil economist at RBS, who relentlessly reassured Scotland’s conservative banking community that neither devolution nor, ultimately, independence would disturb their right to make profits.

None of this is to advance a “great man” theory of history. Salmond was the product of his times – a necessary embodiment of the political, economic and class forces of his era. From the mid-1970s onwards, the traditional Scottish economy based on coal, iron and shipbuilding was exterminated by foreign competition and the scortched earth policy towards the organised working class advanced by the neoliberal Thatcher regime in London. The resulting material collapse of the foundations of Labourite social democracy left the political terrain in Scotland open to the model of centre-left SNP which Salmond championed against the party’s petty bourgeois diehards.

But Salmond was also adept at playing by the economic rules of the neoliberal era. After winning the SNP leadership race in 1991 – more of a coup, really – he began to promote the Irish economic model of low taxation, deregulation and foreign inward investment as the way forward for an independent Scotland. Not that the great political eclectic was himself a convinced ideological neoliberal. Rather, Salmond’s politics have always been a blend of pragmatism and opportunism. His forte was being able to straddle the more radical instincts of the SNP’s base with the need to win over (or at least neutralise) the component parts of Scotland’s conservative middle class establishment. In this respect, his constant references to the Irish ‘Tiger’ economy artfully blended acceptance of neoliberal ‘modernity’ with the inference that and independent Scotland would somehow be a radical place.


In bowing the knee to neoliberal nostrums, Salmond was doing no more than other mainstream politicians across the Western world. The death throes of mid-20th century social democracy had created an ideological vacuum for the traditional centre-right and bourgeois liberals. State intervention and tax and spend policies were now rendered ideologically obsolete by the need to promote the free movement of capital and labour. So what possible bribes could the liberal, pro-capitalist left use to garner votes? Enter the Third Way of Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, Bill Clinton… and Alex Salmond. This position embraced neoliberal economics with a vengeance but camouflaged the ensuing bonfire of traditional social democratic redistributive policies by embracing the rhetoric of accelerated social liberalism.

Of course, there were human gains in this enthusiastic turn by mainstream politicians towards the agenda of social liberalism, from the 1990s onwards: same-sex marriage, an embracing of trans rights, drugs reform (or at least a more tolerant legal attitude towards individual possession), and freer divorce and abortion (all these advances having been made more possible by social movements). But we should note that this wave of social liberalism – eventually embraced and even championed by the likes of the Cameron-Osborne Tory government in the UK – hid a turn to the right in other policy areas. The Blair government in the UK enthusiastically embarked on a new round of neo-colonial military interventions culminating in joining the ill-judged US invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Above all, this new era of social liberalism provided a convenient political smokescreen across the Western world for pillage and despoilation (of people and the natural environment) unseen since the dawn of capitalism. A billion more wage workers were recruited – a doubling of the global workforce – to toil in the sweatshops of Asia. Another two billion were forced off the land, to eke out a marginal existence in the favelas of the global south – while their farms were gobbled up by rapacious agribusiness. Above all, a new global finance capital emerged bent on reducing the European and American working classes into indebted, obese consumers. Making these exploited multitudes think they were a new generation of liberated individualists free to be anything they wanted to be (while plugged into the internet) is the very essence of the social liberal seduction technique.

Not until the global banking crisis of 2008 would mainstream, centre left politicians such as Alex Salmond come anywhere close to criticising neoliberal economic orthodoxy. Salmond was, as stated, an ex-employee of RBS. As RBS went under, one of Salmond’s chief acolytes – Andrew Wilson – was in charge of the bank’s corporate communications strategy. As such, Wilson promoted the over-expansion of RBS – to become, for a moment, the world’s biggest bank by assets. But Wilson was also chief placeman in obscuring the growing crisis within RBS after the ill-fated takeover of ABN AMBRO. Thus, Edinburgh and key members of the SNP elite were at the heart of darkness as the global neoliberal order came close to the brink of imploding in 2008.

By then, First Minister Alex Salmond had come a long way from his time as a left-wing firebrand in the SNP’s so-called 79 Group. This ginger group advocated civil-disobedience and a radical turn by the party towards the Scottish working class. Indeed, I first came across Salmond in the Scottish Socialist Society, a united front body created by the International Marxist Group (of which I was a member) and 79 Group refugees expelled by the conservative SNP leadership. As Thatcherism swelled and threatened the Scottish economy, Salmond returned to the SNP fold, kept his head down and eventually won the party leadership. The rest, as they say, is history.


It is tempting to explain the break between Salmond and Sturgeon as existential. From the Salmond side, Sturgeon is seen as supporting (by omission or commission) a plot to destroy his reputation and stop him returning to front line politics. Seen from the Sturgeon camp, Salmond is either a predatory sex pest and/or a political dinosaur who lacks the emotional warmth and relatability to win over a pro-independence majority, especially among women voters who historically are wary of the SNP.

To these stances can be added the view common on the left and in radical indy circles that Sturgeon is a conservative politician unwilling to challenge constitutional conventions. Equally, there is a strong current – inside and outside the party – who view Sturgeon in messianic terms as the one political figure who has won overwhelming public confidence for her handling of the pandemic crisis.

But is there really such a gulf between the politics of the two SNP leaders? In fact, they have more in common ideologically than recent events suggest. Sturgeon was hand-picked and nurtured by Salmond as his eventual replacement. She joined the SNP in 1986, the year before Salmond was elected as an MP. She rose rapidly in the party ranks, often cited as a friend and acolyte of Roseanna “Red Republican Rosa” Cunningham, for long the parliamentary standard bearer of the SNP left wing. Sturgeon entered the Scottish Parliament at the 1999 election, on the Glasgow list.

In 2004, the then leader of the SNP John Swinney – Salmond having quit in 2000 – decided to call it a day after mounting internal criticism. Cunningham immediately announced her intention of running for the top spot. To everyone’s surprise, Sturgeon suddenly announced her own candidature (with eternal dissident Kenny MacAskill as her running mate). Sturgeon’s break with her mentor Cunningham was never explained in public. Possibly, Sturgeon was putting down a marker for the future. However, dramatically, Salmond decided to stand (for a second time) as party leader. A deal was cut that Sturgeon would run as his deputy. This “dream ticket” romped home with a massive majority leaving Cunningham humiliated.

It was clear at the time that Salmond saw Sturgeon as his successor and he was always careful to give her equal billing at party conferences, where their jokey joint routines were a hit with the party faithful. Cunningham thereafter lapsed in a quiet careerism and was rarely heard from again. A nascent SNP republican left that had started to mature in opposition to the Swinney leadership simply melted away. The SNP won (narrowly) at the 2007 Holyrood election, forming a minority government.

Thereafter, the Salmond-Sturgeon axis ruled the political roost, steadily shedding radical rhetoric and policies that might prove too controversial. For instance, the SNP’s long-time plan for introducing a local income tax was quietly ditched and with it any hope of enhanced local government democracy. Overall, bureaucratic centralisation replaced the traditional SNP commitment to small government and popular control. The trend toward centralisation could be justified as a cost-saving measure in the face of the budget cuts imposed by Westminster, in the aftermath of the 2008 Bank Crash. On the other hand, the alacrity with which the SNP government created a national police force, a national fire service and a national health administration, suggests that central control had its delights.

There are differences in the political approach of Salmond and Sturgeon, of course. Famously, Salmond is by temperament a gambler. He likes to bet on the horses and for long wrote a newspaper column on racing. But he gambles politically as well – witness his running (successfully) in the 1991 SNP leadership race when few commentators gave him a chance of beating Margaret Ewing. Sturgeon (a former lawyer) is one of nature’s cautious conservatives. Again, Salmond was ever happy to court the party’s activists while the bureaucratic Sturgeon prefers to keep them at arms-length, appealing instead directly to the voters.


That said, there is hardly a cigarette paper between Salmond and Sturgeon in terms of political programme. Both are middle of the road social democrats, happily endorsing the Washington consensus of free trade, free movement of labour and capital, low taxes on business, and liberal parliamentary democracy. Both are advocates of EU and NATO membership and have little (or nothing) to say about reforming either body. Their nationalism is civic and bounded by a fierce adherence to the legal norms of the British state. Neither Salmond nor Sturgeon are advocates of any form of civil disobedience nor do they contemplate using Holyrood as a platform for contesting the boundaries of what the Scottish Government can or cannot do.

What then are the political roots of their present antagonism, beyond the immediate questions raised in the inquiry? There are obvious proximate causes for the rift. The SNP has been in government office for 14 years and in the process has spawned a vast bureaucratic party and civil service bureaucracy which has its own material interests. This bureaucracy sees Salmond’s more free-wheeling approach to politics as a threat to itself. At the same time, the party bureaucracy in particular (run by Sturgeon’s husband Peter Murrell) sees its job as protecting the First Minister before advancing the campaign for independence.

Whether this has resulted in a conscious, contrived plot to do down Salmond remains a moot question. Equally, there are members of the inner sanctum of the party bureaucracy who are not above skulduggery. To this writer’s personal knowledge, the party machine is well versed in the arts of applying both patronage and punishment towards those it favours and those it views as “enemies”. This is hardly a surprise in any political party, especially one in power. On the other hand, this is a wholly new phenomenon inside a party that for most of its existence has been a loose movement run by volunteers.

The Salmond-Sturgeon rift splits the party on generational lines. Older members (more traditional social democrats) tend to side with Salmond. They are increasingly frustrated by Sturgeon’s conservative strategy of pressuring Westminster by accumulating mandates for a Section 30 order to hold another referendum. The post-2014 membership are less attached to memories of Salmond’s leadership, and some cohorts of younger members are less ‘movementist’, seeing the SNP as a road to political careerism. They grew-up during the aforementioned and deeply contradictory push for social liberalism. For them, Sturgeon’s reliance on social liberal nostrums represents true leadership.

It is very likely that this inner-party division would have emerged regardless of the Salmond-Sturgeon split. The two personalities merely put a face to a material conflict. If anything, viewing the evolution of the SNP through the Salmond-Sturgeon animus obscures both the emergence of an insidious bureaucracy at the top of the party and the fact that the SNP Government has no programme to deal with the subordination of a weak Scottish economy to the forces of global capitalism – whether led by Sturgeon or Salmond. In which case, independence could turn out to be a hollow victory, no matter who takes the salute on Freedom Day.

Here we need to probe a bit deeper into the class forces at work under the surface of Scottish politics. Sturgeon has superb communication skills and an unrivalled ability to project empathy during the pandemic. As a result, a consistent majority now supports independence.

But the Sturgeon cabinet is intellectually weak and desperately in need of an economic strategy. In response, Sturgeon has embraced the pro-market advice of Andrew Wilson, the former chief communicator at RBS, now performing a similar role for a slew of big companies. In addition, Sturgeon has hired Benny Higgins, the ex-boss of Tesco Bank who now works for one of Scotland’s biggest land developers, to write her economic strategy reports. Effectively this means that big capital has started to direct Scottish Government’s economic thinking.

Salmond has responded by publishing (in co-authorship with Alex Neil, a former SNP economic minister) an “industrial strategy” based on massive investment in new housing to kickstart economic growth after the pandemic. The paper harks back to 1980s Bennite government intervention, which is not necessarily a criticism. However, there is nothing in the plan to challenge the logic of the marketplace or of private ownership of production. Doubtless a boost to aggregate demand in Scotland would be welcome but there is nothing in the Salmond-Neil paper that leaves an indy Scotland as anything other than a minor satellite of either the rUK or EU-German economies. Alex Neil remains a hard-headed left social democrat – he’s a former head of research for Scottish Labour who quit the party with Jim Sillars. But the Salmond-Neil plan is more cosmetic than transformative.

For the left, there are lessons to be drawn. Perhaps the biggest is that we need to begin to think about creating a genuine left alternative to the SNP, especially immediately after independence. To be clear: I am not advocating a two-stage approach – first back the SNP to win independence then create a left opposition based on class politics. It is just that our chances of creating a mass left-wing workers party – one capable of winning elections in Scotland – seems a way off. Probably, it will be easier in the aftermath of independence when such a project will draw support from the left of the SNP and the remnants of Scottish Labour. The backing of the trades unions would be essential. However, that should not stop us exploring initiatives right now.

But in the meantime, honesty about the real continuities and discontinuities in the Scottish independence movement is essential. Enough shadow boxing.

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