8 November 2010

Review: Salmond: Against the Odds (2010)

Review
"De minimis non curat Eck..."

 David Torrance (2010) Salmond: Against the Odds (Birlinn) 

Convening the tribunal of history must be a difficult affair. The judges are always late. Their mouldering papers reach up to brush the flyblown ceiling. A gavel bangs and dusty, moth-gnawed old men and women hurry for the best seats, tripping over their own feet. Having settled they scrutinise the paper submissions of all parties with close-sighted eyes, hardly recognising the figures they're discussing, whose dry bones are mute. Those careless enough not to reduce their testimony to writing receive no hearing at all. Not so with David Torrance's new biography of Alex Salmond, whose subject is not only alive, but a full-fleshed and vocal mover and shaker in the “community of the realm”, in a favourite Eckly phrase. So too are a great many of his contemporaries, close colleagues and fellow travellers over the years, able to be discreetly petitioned by the author for an insightful quote or two on their experiences of his subject. In terms of his access to sources, Torrance has much over any future alienated and half-befuddled historical Bench convened to review Salmond's case - but it strikes me that access is not without its issues. In office, fighting an election next year, Salmond's stature, character, significance remains a profoundly active political issue. I’m not suggesting that one shouldn't take a biographical interest until the career of your political subject has finally reclined on its bed of death. Yet the problems of a presentist emphasis ought to be plain enough. The political scene you are sketching is laid – perhaps for the political dénouement of a man, perhaps for fortune to smile again – and is immeasurably contested ground. With the SNP hoping to make the motif of an uncharismatic Gray, an albatross hung at the throat of Scottish Labour, central to the 2011 Holyrood election, biographising Salmond is a political intervention of sorts.

Torrance lays his scene in medias res, in the watches of the election night of the 3rd of May 2007 – envisioned as Salmond’s apotheosis. The narrative trajectory of the chapters which follow follows the boy launched into life on Hogmanay of 1954 and how, many years later, he came not only to lead the Scottish National Party, but into office as Scotland's First Minister. For clarity, I should add at this early stage that I have never met Salmond myself, so can offer no independent word of direct insight on Torrance's analysis. For me, this biography is at its most interesting when it is exploring Salmond’s origins, from his early years in Linlithgow, subsequently at St Andrews University and his early travails in the ’79 group – to his dominant position in the party. From scruffy, lanky St Andrews tyke to the besuited form of the professional Nationalist politician we’re all so familiar with. To Torrance's credit, he doesn't make the quasi-Freudian slip up of reading ancient Eck into his earlier self and so make the man the father of the child.

There is Salmond’s political history in the institutions of British and then Scottish representative democracy, which Torrance races through in clear, journalistic prose – with only the occasional analytic aside. I was surprised by how minimally Iraq registers in the account, not even warranting an index mention, but in such a work I recognise that questions of emphasis and compression present real difficulties for an author. Curiously, the character which is most sharply delineated in the central sections of the book is not Salmond, nor his biographer – but Jim Sillars. Appearing as a sort of troglodytic grinch – Torrance’s Sillars keeps his fingers warm by endlessly hammering away at his typewriter, prodding the still glowing embers of his apparently unquenchable sense of grievance and superior insight. While Torrance largely reproduces Sillars’ commentary without comment, in this biography Sillars is Salmond’s articulate and highly critical companion. By my reckoning, reflected in the index, he appears more often and is allowed to speak at more length than any other character save Salmond himself. Like a caustic Virgil to the Eckly Dante, Sillars isn’t so intent on leading his charge through the inferno as pointing out how deeply into the bad fire of unreason, illogicality and political disaster Salmond has descended. Generally, one gets the impression that Torrance is more sympathetic to Dante’s counter-arguments than Virgil’s critique, suggesting that Sillars ‘often conflated genuine tactical disagreements with animosity’ but also resentment stoked by the fact that his:

“contribution to the creation of Salmond’s public persona was seldom acknowledged. Indeed, Salmond remains a product of Sillars – in terms of speaking style, turn of phrase and political confidence – perhaps more than either would care to admit. Once they were close; not it seems that hell hath no fury like a mentor scorned” (p. 283).

If the biographer hopes to make windows into men’s souls, then Salmond is a subject keen to keep the shutters closed and the blinds down. He’s a man whose persona invites the critic to speculate in terms of masked authenticity, not least because his subject so sharply partitions different parts of his life. Torrance takes his cue from the analysis of a former aide who identified three dimensions of the Maximum Eck’s triune personality ‘the deeply private and non-political Alex, Alex Salmond the politician and Alex Salmond’s public persona’. Torrance argues that ‘the real Mr Salmond, of course, does exist; he is just largely hidden from view’ (p. 290).

I’m not terribly convinced this is a helpful way of understanding the personality, where the neutral, universal psychoanalytic standard is taken to be the less authentic public persona, while the rich, inward life of the self finds truer expression in an intimate sphere. It strikes me as psychologically important to know where in their life an individual locates their particular sense of densest authenticity. We all have our ideas about this. At work I behave in this way, but that isn’t really me, I’m at my most real when I’m writing poetry, or musing on high and abstract matters philosophical and theological, or having anonymous trysts with strangers. During the day, I may play at being a bureaucrat, but within that arid husk of unsympathy, I'm a splendid, decent fellow. Others will insist they find their truest articulation in their  work's labours. The crucial point is that authenticity can be located in many different places and the division between public and private is not an innocent aid here. As Brian Taylor put it, betimes Salmond can appear “possessed by politics”. We should not assume, as Torrance largely assumes, that the Eck we see is an attenuated or painted version of some concealed self. Some have criticised Torrance’s focus on Moira and her relationship with her husband. In part, I suspect this impression is fostered by a structural feature of the book – which offers a narrative account, book-ended with a chapter entitled Will the real Alex Salmond please stand up? Actually, in its meaty middle, Torrance hardly mentions Mrs Salmond at all. After the succession of political skirmishes, triumphs, routs – the marches and counter-marches of the Maximum Eck’s career – in the final chapter he tries to pull the strands of a life together and perhaps inevitably comes to focus on Salmond off-stage, at ease and unperforming. Moira is clearly a dominant spirit in those scenes of quotidian domesticity. Being the last chapter, it can leave a lasting impression. Save for his domestic quarrels with Dame Britannia, and without presumptuously imputing a preference for either, the mysterious Moira is surely the most significant relationship of Salmond’s life. For those unfamiliar with the facts of his home life, Salmond can readily appear like a merry bachelor, wedded to politics, probably rather relishing Westminster’s all night sittings of days gone by and always pleased to appear on television at any hour of the day or night. Not so. Or at least, not exactly.

Recently, I heard a wee rumour that Salmond responded rather badly to polling indicating that he was less popular among better off, bourgeois Scots than amongst less prosperous fellow citizens. This certainly implies that a former aide  may be on to something when they suggested that ‘lurking in Salmond “was something of the chippy working-class boy who made it to St Andrews and has been determined to show how much cleverer he was than everyone else” ever since’ (p. 291).This is just one of the many paradoxes of Salmond- his virtues and limitations, confidence and insecurity, fury and compassion - which the biography explores. It is to Torrance’s credit that he doesn’t attempt to artificially deny or shut out these elements, but tries to map them faithfully, side by side,  as operating variables. His observations on how these ambivalent facets of Salmond's self might interact, their genesis, their dynamic are not particularly insightful, but represents an interesting resource for other people to make up their own minds about the man and his principles of motion. Self-confidence and shyness; jocularity wedded to a lack of spontaneous warmth; a good conceit of himself, but animated by vulnerabilities. To all of these, we might well ask - when does one tendency overcome the others? Why might confidence or doubt form in response to some situations and not others? What prompts old ghosts to talk and old uncertainties to reappear? What doubts are casually able to be smoothed over? Why?

Another reviewer suggested that Torrance hadn't captured Salmond's "inner fire". For me, the remark could equally well attach to the biography itself. While well-researched and in many ways an enjoyable and informative read - the unpassionate objectivity of Torrance's passive, receptive biographic prose leaves the piece feeling uncommitted, rather lukewarm, unnecessarily anodyne. Torrance notably  doesn’t go for the jugular on some other points of interpretation. For example, for a man feted as a talent head and shoulders over the rest of the parliament, formidable, bright, sparky - all true in their way, I'd suggest - there is some room for ambivalence on the Salmond smarts. It is clearly an overstatement to claim that Salmond was the ‘best student in the class’, graduating as he did with a respectable but hardly dazzling 2:2 from university. Torrance more or less argues that de minimis non curat Eck – and that with certain notable exceptions, policy doesn't particularly interest Salmond. We can talk in terms of interest, but surely capacity is also relevant. He quotes John MacLeod's suggestion that Salmond has "an air that is determinedly anti-intellectual". How do these elements interact? Can't we be more specific about Salmond's intellect, what he has talent for, and where he might lack flair or natural facility? There are probably no conclusive answers to these questions - uncertainty and inconsistency being the torment and the pleasure of narrativised biography - but I'd have been interested to see how they might be more concertedly analysed, rather than listed.  This isn't a partisan book, it is balanced, the virtues of reference and sourcing are highly valued and Salmond is given credit and subject to critique in equal measure. But for me, it lacks spirit. I suspect it will make up for it by allowing a range of readers to make up their own minds. For this alone, we should be grateful that Torrance has taken to heart Whitman's lines which all wise biographers and all biographical subjects should keep in mind, without apology:

Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)

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