ÀLEX TORT, BARCELONA 21/08/2022
Alex Salmond, during the interview – Joan Mateu Parra / Shooting
Interview with the former Scottish First Minister, former leader of the Scottish National Party (SNP) and now leader of the minority party ALBA
During the conversation with Alex Salmond (Linlithgow, 1954) there is always one idea: that he who follows gets it, that if you want to advance towards independence you have to persist until you make “life impossible” for your opponent. The former Scottish First Minister, ex-leader of the Scottish National Party (SNP) and now leader of the minority party ALBA, has come to Prada de Conflent, to the Universitat Catalana d’Estiu, of the Anna Arqué, of the International Commission of European Citizens (ICEC) to give a talk on “The right to independence”. Salmond talks to La Vanguardia at the Casa Fuster in Barcelona. He was the architect of the 2014 referendum. Now the Scottish Prime Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, is proposing another one for 19 October 2023, but Salmond disputes her strategy, especially her idea of going to the Supreme Court.
“There is no such thing as an illegal referendum; they are either agreed or self-initiated”.
Is Sturgeon acting diligently?
The only way to get a referendum is to force the new prime minister, probably Mrs Liz Truss, to grant section 30, the same device I negotiated in 2012 with David Cameron for an agreed referendum. But Truss has said no. And secondly, [Sturgeon’s] strategy is to go to the UK Supreme Court in London to ask for permission. It’s like praying to the Virgin Mary. I think the chances of the Supreme Court saying “yes, go ahead and hold a referendum” are about the same as the Spanish SC saying the same thing to Catalonia.
What is your relationship with Sturgeon?
I haven’t spoken to her for some time. But if there is a referendum or there is an all-party push for independence, there will be no difficulty for ALBA to fight and support it.
“The difficulties of the state, whether Britain or Spain, are opportunities to move towards independence.
What do you propose?
A sustained political campaign to force the Conservative government to grant it. That requires political urgency, imagination, will, popular mobilisation and parliamentary intervention. None of which the SNP seems to be prepared for. I don’t think it is impossible to do so, because Britain is in a weak and dangerous economic political condition. It seems an excellent time to force the issue. Or as they used to say in Ireland, Britain’s difficulty is Ireland’s opportunity.
“There is absolute chaos under heaven; the situation is excellent,” said Mao Zedong.
The national movements in Scotland and Catalonia tend to concentrate entirely on the goal of independence, how to achieve it, debate it and discuss it endlessly. And they do not always pay enough attention to what is happening in the parent state. That phrase I uttered was coined by Daniel O’Connell, who saw the difficulties within the British Empire as a significant moment for Ireland to claim its independence. So perhaps there is a lesson from Ireland for Scotland and for Catalonia: we should pay more attention to the difficulties of the state, whether Britain or Spain, and see the opportunity to move towards independence. We should not just fixate on what is happening in Catalonia or Scotland.
By “opportunity” do you mean the highest taxes in seven decades, the highest inflation in forty years, frozen wages, etc.?
There is double-digit inflation. People are facing electricity bills that have already gone up by 40% and they plan to raise them by another 60%. There is very big dissatisfaction in almost all the main trade unions and they are going on strike or are about to go on strike. The incoming prime minister is in a situation of total chaos from her predecessor, Boris Johnson. So it would seem to me to be an excellent time to place another problem on her arrival. The great chess players, the great tennis players and anyone who participates in a sporting competition, the greatest of them will always keep an eye on their opponent.
Is this also a good moment for Catalan sovereignism?
I don’t have a magic formula, but I persuaded the British state to accept a referendum. Often in Catalonia they say “oh, we should go the Scottish way”, as if it would have been easy. And it took decades, many, many years to get to the situation of holding the referendum! Don’t expect your opponent to agree immediately. You have to convince him that the alternative to agreement is less acceptable than agreement, more uncomfortable, more of a political problem.
Voting for independence
“You have to convince your opponent that the alternative to agreement is less acceptable”.
If the Supreme Court denies Scotland can hold a referendum without the need for London’s approval, would you agree to pose the UK general election as a plebiscite, as Sturgeon proposes?
You cannot seek a plebiscite election. And I don’t agree with this going to the Supreme Court. I would first pass the legislation in the Scottish Parliament to take a stronger position, as the courts are sometimes reluctant to strike down democratic legislation. But a plebiscite election is an election? If they are to be different from an election, in which all sorts of other issues besides independence are discussed, then the pro-independence people would have to fight under one banner, under one candidate for independence in each constituency. Otherwise, it would become a normal election. And secondly, if they go ahead, it should be by a majority of seats, not votes, because you would be putting up a barrier to success: no political party [in a UK general election] has won a majority of votes in Scotland since the Second World War.
And if Westminster doesn’t allow the referendum, would you consider the UK an undemocratic state?
Also many in Catalonia, after getting London to agree to a referendum, said: “These nice people in Westminster …. why can’t these cruel people in Madrid agree to this democratic element?”, overlooking the 50 years it had taken to get there. However, it seems that since 2014 London has learned more from Madrid than Madrid could ever have learned from London. And London’s attitude now is totally undemocratic. To change their minds, you have to make their lives impossible.
Would you support a referendum like the 1-O referendum, which the Spanish justice system declared illegal?
There is no such thing as an illegal referendum. Unless you are stupid enough to go to the Supreme Court to ask for a ruling…, which I wouldn’t do. Referendums are neither legal nor illegal. You cannot define a democratic vote or an expression of the people as unlawful. Referendums can be agreed, or self-initiated, declarations of independence can be agreed, or they can be unilateral. In international politics, things are either agreed or they are not. The key is, of course, international acceptance. You become an independent state when everyone says you are.
To ERC, Junts and the CUP
“If you prepare and mobilise people with the expectation of success, you have to finish it”.
The CUP believes that referendums in Scotland and Catalonia should be synchronised and voted on the same day. Is this a good idea?
I don’t know. But I do think it is important that there is much more communication and contact and exchange of experiences between Scotland, Catalonia and Ireland, and others. There are shared experiences, which are very important because these three countries have tried every political initiative you can think of.
JxCat argues that the results of 1-O are still valid and ERC is playing the negotiation card. What do you agree with?
I’m not going to parachute in from Scotland and tell the Catalans what to think and do. What initiative to take? That is for the Catalans to judge. But when you set out to do something, you have to deliver. Churchill, in 1956, at the time of the Suez Canal crisis, said to his successor: “I would never have started it, but if I had started it, I would have finished it”. If you prepare and mobilise people with the expectation of success, you have to finish it. You can’t start it and not finish it.
Some of those who organised 1-O have been in prison and others are outside Spain. What is your opinion?
I was delighted that they were released and that there was a change of approach by the new Spanish government. But I come from a state, the United Kingdom, which imprisons people, which agrees to deport Julian Assange because the United States orders it to; which imprisons a journalist in Scotland for telling the truth. I come from a state that is far from perfect.
After voting in 2014 and losing the chance for an independent Scotland, did you feel that Brexit was a stab in the back?
The no side in 2014 argued that if Scotland voted for independence, it would leave the European Union and then, obviously, Scotland did not vote for independence. Brexit caused many people in Scotland who were in favour of Europe to think: “We’ve been sold out, we’ve been duped, we’ve been lied to”. So it was more of a stab in the back than a stab in the face.