“Oh my goodness, it’s you!” says 92-year-old Mabel Fraser, close to tears as she opens her door to find Alex Salmond standing on her doorstep in the tiny Aberdeenshire village of Insch. “You look different than you do on the telly.”
She's right: He does look different. The former first minister, who came so close to ending the 300-year-old union between Scotland and the rest of the UK, is strangely relaxed on the campaign trail speaking to the people he hopes will send him to Westminster as their MP in May. There's little sign of the combative politician who became a permanent fixture on Scottish television screens in the run-up to September’s independence referendum.
As BuzzFeed News tags along with him knocking on doors in the Gordon constituency, we see Salmond offer his limited-edition Ryder Cup scarf to a chilly constituent, play with a group of yapping Highland terrier puppies, and stop to pose for selfies with what seems like at least half the population of the rural town, which lies in the northeast of Scotland.
“Selfies have become very important in campaigning,” Salmond insists.
But under his jolly exterior, Salmond is on a serious mission. After quitting as first minister following defeat in the referendum, many believed his political career had peaked, but Salmond has other plans. The “bogeyman of the British establishment”, as he cheerfully describes himself, is bidding to return to the very heart of the parliament he tried to sever all ties from just four months ago. Westminster calls.
“There’s every chance of the SNP becoming the third biggest party in the UK in May,” says Salmond, unable to contain his excitement about polls which have shown the SNP could take over half of the votes in Scotland. “The political stars are aligning for a balanced parliament. Neither Cameron or Miliband are capable or deserve a majority, and that leaves space for a hugely substantial SNP influence.”
He is reluctant to be drawn on how the SNP would wield this new-found influence in British politics. He repeats, sometimes a little too insistently, that these are now decisions to be made by his “hugely capable” successor as SNP leader and first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, who he says has taken full control of the party's reins. "Anyone who knows Nicola knows she won't let me be a backseat driver," he says.
But if Salmond is elected as the MP for Gordon, it’s impossible to imagine he will not hold immense sway in what happens next. The most likely option, according to Sturgeon, is a “confidence and supply” agreement between the SNP and Labour.
However, Salmond snorts with derision at the mention of the latest Conservative party poster, which shows a badly photoshopped "deputy prime minister" Salmond hugging Miliband on the steps of 10 Downing Street alongside the caption: “Your worst nightmare just got worse.”
“One of the first things I learned in politics is that you shouldn’t put the other side on your posters," he says. "A long time ago, when I didn’t know these things, I put a picture of Michael Forsyth on an SNP poster saying ‘Michael Forsouth’ because he said he’d leave if Scotland became independent. We thought it was a hilarious joke, but no one took to the posters because it had Michael Forsyth’s face on it.
“But the problem for the Tories, and Labour for that matter, is that I’m certainly more popular than David Cameron and Ed Miliband in England. Definitely less unpopular, anyway, let’s put it that way.”
Salmond is, unsurprisingly, withering about the abilities of the current crop of UK party leaders. He says David Cameron started well but fell in his estimation after “letting George Osborne do all his thinking for him”, that Ed Miliband is “a less than outstanding politician”, and that he’s never been in the same room as UKIP leader Nigel Farage. “That’s no great hardship,” he adds.
On the subject of Jim Murphy – the man Scottish Labour has chosen to fight back against the SNP in this general election and beyond – Salmond is unimpressed. “I’d never underestimate an opponent, but he doesn’t worry me at all. I think [former Scottish Labour leader] Johann Lamont was rather underrated, and Jim is rather overrated. I don’t want to give him free political advice, but people have to like you, or at least respect you, and you have to have a consistent theme. Despite Mr Murphy’s frenetic activity, a clear conviction is difficult to discover, but I’m sure he’s enjoying himself.”
He goes on to criticise Murphy for his "disastrous" staff appointments, which include former Tony Blair adviser John McTernan and the head of the Better Together campaign, Blair McDougall. "They're problematic if Jim Murphy is seriously wishing to win over people who voted Yes. Tactically, [hiring McDougall] is more sound than McTernan, but strategically it’s poor. Wasn’t Jim going to find Yes voters to employ? What happened to that?"
Although he may not become best friends with Westminster political figures, it seems inevitable that Salmond will soon be joining them in London. Out and about, we don't encounter a single person in Insch, a small town at the heart of the Gordon constituency, who isn't at least considering voting for him in May. His main competitor, Christine Jardine of the Liberal Democrats, probably hasn’t been helped by Nick Clegg’s pledge to come to Aberdeenshire to campaign against Salmond.
“Does he need any help with a bus fare?” Salmond asks, grinning.
On the streets of Insch, the man who's usually seen having debates about currency unions and the intricacies of European law instead goes back to political basics. He tries to win over each constituent by reassuring them about potholes in the road and discussing the cost of the curtains in incumbent MP Malcolm Bruce’s office. One constituent tells Salmond he’d heard Bruce's curtains cost £8,000.
“Dear oh dear, Mrs Salmond would never have allowed that,” replies Salmond.
Alex Salmond meets Irene and Roland Young.
“I like people, so I like politics,” says Salmond afterwards, on whether he enjoys door-to-door political campaigns. “I know some politicians who don’t like people, but I do.”
To prove his point about politicians who can’t handle people, he tells a story about visiting then prime minister Gordon Brown’s house in 2009 and finding Brown in a terrible, sullen mood. Salmond became concerned at the time that there had been some kind of grave international incident.
“Years later I found out that Brown’s chef had become locked in the toilet and Gordon was panicking about that,” he says. “We were definitely fed – I don’t know if he got a takeaway in or something.”
Does Salmond ever get a bad reception on the streets? “Rarely,” he says. “Although I was in Glasgow recently and these two Orange Order guys approached me, and I thought, ‘Here we go, they aren’t my demographic,’ but it turned out they just wanted a selfie with me. After I posed with them, I asked if they would vote for me now, and they both said: ‘Will we fuck!’”
One theme that's mentioned more than any other on the streets of Insch is the independence referendum. Scotland has by no measure got over the vote yet. On a few occasions when Salmond meets a disappointed Yes voter, he teases them with the prospect of another referendum. “That last one was just a dry run,” he tells one constituent. “I was just testing out the No side to see what arguments they would come up with – we’ll be getting another chance.”
Salmond hasn’t quite recovered from the referendum either. He still can’t shake hands with the members of the public we meet because he seriously damaged his elbow shaking thousands of hands before the referendum.
He becomes twice as animated when September’s vote is mentioned – he calls it “the best, most scintillating, most engaged, most exciting campaign in the history of democratic politics”. Indeed, he says he stayed up until 2.45am on the day of the interview putting the finishing touches to his diary of the campaign, which will be released in March.
He's also frank about revealing his “huge disappointment” about the referendum loss, and says he was so downhearted he had to give up his 5:2 diet. “I’m back on it now,” he says, “but I had a break – that diet and losing the referendum would have been a bit much".
It hit him hard because he genuinely thought he was going to win, even on the day of the vote. When the polls closed he thought Yes was one or two points ahead, and he was shocked to see the result turn out to be 55% to 45% in favour of No. However, he denies reports that he thought he was 14 points ahead on the basis of a mysterious group of “Secret Canadians” carrying out social media sentiment analysis.
“The thought I was closeted away with Secret Canadians is utter rubbish,” he says. "They were so secret that I never met them."
Salmond coped with the stress of the campaign by playing as many rounds of golf as he could – an obsessive of the sport, he tells almost every constituent we meet about his victory in a Pro-Am tournament in Insch in the 1990s when Gordon Brown was the honorary chairman of the club. His faith, however, has always been a private matter; in a rare comment on the issue, he explains why he didn't discuss it during the referendum campaign.
“I do believe in God, but most Scottish Presbyterians, like me, don’t wear their religious convictions on their sleeves and nor would they think it appropriate to invoke the lord god almighty in a campaign,” says Salmond. “We believe in faith, and that people get their just deserts in life by their own merits. Tony Blair never caught on to the fact that you pray for other people, not yourself, but who am I to judge the great Tony?”
During the referendum campaign, Alex Salmond was critical of many media outlets, including the BBC, the Daily Record (which published the infamous devolution promise known as “The Vow”), and, in particular, traditionally conservative newspapers such as The Telegraph and Daily Mail. He was reported to have gone as far as to ban journalists from less favoured newspapers from his resignation speech as first minister, but tells us this was untrue.
Alex Salmond on the campaign trail.
“My relationship with the media is not good, although that’s more to do with them than it is to do with me,” he insists. “All the old media, with some honourable exceptions, are, in their professional operational mode, unionists – these circumstances are difficult for me. But for my farewell address, I didn’t sit with a list like Julius Caesar saying, I’ll have this reporter, or that one. I was writing my speech – that was strangely of more importance at the time.
“There’s a wee lad at The Telegraph, Ben Riley-Smith, who took umbrage because I gave him a packet of Liquorice Allsorts for attending every news briefing and press conference, and he felt that I was intimidating him. The first time someone has intimidated someone with a packet of Liquorice Allsorts. But he got it for good attendance – that sort of implies I wasn’t trying to stop The Telegraph attending, otherwise he wouldn’t have had the coconut ring for good attendance.”
Instead, he reads the new pro-independence newspaper The National, which he encourages several constituents to try out, along with the Press & Journal and The Courier – both of which he writes columns for.
“The rest, I just don’t bother with now,” he says.
In place of the old media, Salmond has turned to social media, and is particularly obsessed with one Twitter parody account of himself, @AngrySalmond. Indeed, he has gone to extraordinary lengths in an attempt to uncover the secret identity of the tweeter.
“I’ve done a bit of a Hercule Poirot on this,” he says. “I had a reunion of my staff ... and I had Angry Salmond up on my phone to see what he was posting. I looked at my staff very carefully to see who was doing suspicious things in their pocket – it was like Shot in the Dark, trying to find out who did it with the candlestick in the library – but everyone I suspect has convincingly denied it.
“I thought it was [STV journalist] Stephen Daisley once, but I checked out his stuff and saw that the sentence structures didn’t match. Anyway, I try not to spend too much time thinking about who Angry Salmond is but now you’ve got me right back into my obsession. Whoever it is is, in my estimation, a genius. I’d really like to find out who it is to offer him or her a job.”
Salmond is also a fan of the slightly more high-brow figure of Robert Burns – whom he calls “the person of the millennium” – and on the day of the interview had written a newspaper column about him. Salmond appears to love all things Scotland: Is there anything Scottish he doesn’t like?
“Of course – the Scottish Daily Mail. But come on, we have faults and foibles in this country. There are things I would like to improve about Scotland. But I love haggis, bagpiping, Burns, and Scottish history.”
Scottish history played a notably low-key role in the referendum because the Yes campaign was reluctant to showcase an overtly masculine Braveheart side of Scottish nationalism. It’s obvious that Salmond, who briefly studied Scottish history at university in St Andrews, would have evoked the memories of Robert the Bruce and William Wallace much more if the decision had been left entirely up to him.
“Bruce came into my mind quite a bit during the referendum campaign,” the former first minister says. “We had the 700th anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn in the middle of June. Some of my young advisers were very uncomfortable with that association, but I think your soul would have to be dead to not be inspired by it. While I don’t regard David Cameron as Edward Longshanks – for a start, he’s not as able – there are parallels you can draw and things you can learn from history.”
But what about Alex Salmond? In centuries to come, when a young St Andrews student is battling against a deadline and looks up the name of Alex Salmond in the books of Scottish history, what will it say?
“My part in history remains to be written,” says Salmond. “That’s the great thing about history.”
Jamie Ross is a Scotland reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in Edinburgh.
Contact Jamie Ross at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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