Interview

FROM THE ARCHIVES: In Conversation with Alex Salmond

8 Apr 2018 at 09:00

This was the first In Conversation interview I did for Total Politics, back in July 2008, nearly ten years ago. I met Alex Salmond in his House of Commons office and talked for close on two hours. It was a strange experience as he twice had to go to vote, which meant that we continued the conversation walking through the Commons corridors with me holding my recording machine under his mouth. We finished off the interview in full public view just off Central Lobby. Alex Salmond is a politician’s politician. He’s deeply tribal, yet maintains genial relations with many people who don’t share his views. He’s got a very well-developed sense of humour and this shines through here. The interview created quite a storm when it was published, mainly because he committed the treasonous act of maintaining that Margaret Thatcher wasn’t all bad. The Scottish media went into full ‘outrage mode’ and the story led the Scottish news agenda for a couple of days. It was difficult for Salmond to maintain he had been misquoted because the interview is a verbatim transcript. When I saw what was happening I almost doubted my own recording so I went back and checked that the transcript was 100% accurate. Luckily – for me – it was.

When was the last time you said sorry for something?
Personally, I said to my wife on Saturday morning, the holiday we’ve just booked, may well have to been unbooked. I didn’t say sorry once. I said it a hundred times. When you’re First Minister you probably don’t find it wise to own up to mistake after mistake…

But people quite like a politician who has the guts to say sorry, don’t they?
That’s right. If you do change your mind on something it’s best to admit it. I haven’t had many disagreements… Macmillan once got into some dreadful trouble with the Tory Party and kept losing the Conservative whip until he became leader. After that, things became considerably easier. People didn’t try to expel him any more.

It didn’t quite work for Iain Duncan Smith.
Well, it’s been my experience in the SNP. I was always getting into trouble before I became leader. And then my troubles stopped! I got expelled from the SNP in 1982 as a rather brash young man, and probably rather insensitive to other people’s opinion. I’ve often reflected that there was a considerable amount of fault on my side. In 1988 I was given a seven day suspension from the House of Commons and all I was doing was intervening in the budget speech. I thought I was hard done by and it was very unfair…but I just got on with it. I lived to fight another day.

You are probably more forgiving now than others were to you at the time, possibly?
Yes, I’ve often reflected that you should avoid political disciplinary action for political reasons. Fine, if people run off with the church funds, you’ve got no choice in the matter, but wherever you can you should avoid using procedures of the party as a means of suppressing political dissent.

Why were you expelled?
The formal reason was for forming a political group within the SNP. This was called the ’79 Group. We tried to get round a ban on this group by forming the Scottish Socialist Society. Seven of us were expelled – most of them have done well since! Being expelled can be no bad thing. It didn’t stop me becoming leader.

Let’s talk about leadership. When you decided to return to the leadership, did you really think you could end up as First Minister?
Oh yes, absolutely. I certainly thought it wasn’t odds on but I thought we had a fair chance of winning.

How do you think you have changed as a leader second time around? You seem a lot calmer, a lot more at ease with yourself. You’ve shed the chat show Charlie image. You had a reputation for enjoying life, being the life and soul of the party, whereas now we see a slightly different Alex Salmond.
Older and wiser. Certainly not sadder! Things could not have worked out better, but this was not calculated. Nobody calculates “I shall resign”. I resigned when we were ahead in the polls, but I felt ten years was long enough. With the press reaction to the SNP, I was becoming the issue – they weren’t seeing past me. Despite the fact that every newspaper was fiercely anti SNP, they had never quite managed to stop me and I got the feeling that I had become a block on the SNP getting a fair shout. I thought someone else might get a fair shout. Actually, I was quite wrong because John [Swinney] got treated far worse than I was. Even Neil Kinnock used to moan about the papers but at least he had the Mirror and the FT on his side. We had nothing. I thought someone else would get a honeymoon, get a better press and it would be better for the party. I didn’t calculate “I’ll resign, come back again, win the 2007 election”, nobody can calculate like that.

You came back and stood for a seat for the Scottish parliament which you might easily not have won. That, if I read it rightly, has given you far more of a mandate than you might have dreamt of.
I said I’d stand for a seat in the North East of Scotland – so it’s very familiar but it was the kind of seat we had to win to win the election. I thought we could win the whole thing and if I won my seat we’d do just that. I thought the party needed a fillip. We’d lost a lot of elections and we needed a boost. Winning Gordon would give us that boost. If I stood there it would encourage everyone else to believe we could win overall. I started from third place, after all.

When you walked into the First Minister’s office for the first time what did you think? When Boris walked into the London Mayor’s office for the first time, there was this slight sense of disbelief that he had done it. Did you have any of that or did you immediately sit down and start barking out orders?
It was a bit different because it’s not until 12 days later than you’re elected by the chamber. That moment of saying “my goodness, we’ve done it” doesn’t come till some time later. Even though I knew there was no combination to stop us, it’s not until you get the vote read out that is the defining moment. That’s the equivalent of Boris going into the Mayor’s office.

Emotionally, how did you feel? Euphoric? Tearful? A proud moment in the Salmond family…
My family were up the gallery.

If it was me, I wouldn’t have been able to look up to them as it would start me off…
My wife, my wee sister and my Dad were there. My Dad had never seen me speak in a parliamentary chamber. He didn’t really approve of me setting foot in the House of Commons. My mother often came down, but it was the first time my Dad had seen me in the Scottish parliament chamber.

So proud on two counts.
Oh yes, very. It was a hell of a moment.

Were you daunted at all by the job? Most politicians, although outwardly self confident, have elements of self doubt. They think: “I’ve got the job now. Am I up to it?”
I don’t do daunted. The one moment I would say in my year in office that I did feel a bit daunted was the terrorist attack on Glasgow Airport. It was the day of the Royal opening of the Parliament on 1 July. I had gone back to Bute House with a few friends, with Sean Connery actually, and was watching TV coverage when it came on. The daunting bit is, you might watch events but with this it wasn’t just about watching, I was expected to do something about it. The civil service are very good at telling you ‘what happens now, this is what you need to coordinate’. You don’t have too much time to fret about being daunted. The decisions you have to make are quite interesting. You have to think about the consequences of what happened and how the rest of society is going to feel about it. So you take decisions like going to the airport the next day – something which wasn’t universally applauded, but nevertheless you have to go, and then going from the airport to the central mosque in Glasgow with leaders of every religious group in Scotland and Strathclyde Police, making sure society doesn’t fracture as a result of a terrorist assault. That’s the daunting bit, when you realise it’s not some other person that’s behind the eight ball, it’s you. It’s not really a moment you can go and consult your special advisers, you’ve just got to get on with it. I suspect if you asked the present Prime Minister, or his predecessor, or his predecessor’s predecessor [John Major] who was a nice guy, I suspect their ‘daunted’ moment was to do with war, deploying troops.

I suspect with Tony Blair it was Princess Diana’s death, because if he had got one word wrong he would have been characterised by that for the rest of his term in office.
Quite. On the Glasgow attack, I did interviews at the airport and I wanted to get points across as carefully as I could without prejudicing the investigation that the perpetrators were not part of the fabric of our Asian community in Scotland. It was a vital message to get across as early as possible to prevent any stories of ‘the enemy within’ developing.

The SNP gets quite a lot of support from Asian community, doesn’t it?
We get huge support from them, but whether we did or not, that message had to be put. It was the duty and responsibility of the First Minister to communicate it in the interest of public order and the fabric and community of the realm of Scotland, regardless of what any junior Minister in London might think.

Is there any kind of turf war in these circumstances between Edinburgh and London? Gordon Brown was seen to have reacted well to the incident, but it was on your territory.
None whatsoever. The transfer of the suspects south of the border was a law officers’; decision, nothing to do with politics.

Did you and Gordon Brown talk?
Within seconds of it happening. He was literally just in office, his first few days. He arranged the COBRA meeting. I arranged our equivalent meeting in what we now call the Resilience Room. It was called the Emergency Room but it’s very difficult if you are trying to be calm to do an interview in a room in front of a bloody big notice which says EMERGENCY! We now have a Scottish Government Resilience Room!

How much contact do you have with Gordon Brown and how do you get on with him?
Quite a lot. Most recently during the fuel dispute at Grangemouth, but initially we had quite a lot of contact. More than I had with his predecessor. If you remember, he didn’t phone or write when we took power.

You must have found that quite insulting.
No, I found it great. Another miscalculation. I thought for the master of presentation it was an extremely foolish thing to do. Maybe it was because he was demob happy so he didn’t care any more.

Your relationship with Brown is presumably businesslike rather than particularly friendly?
You wouldn’t expect us to be bosom buddies, walking arm in arm to the pub for a wee snifter. Let’s put it that way. You wouldn’t expect us to be bosom friends when we both have high stakes to play for. On national emergencies there’s no question you have to operate together. There has never been any suggestion that I have noticed north or south of the border that – well, maybe the odd junior minister in the Scotland Office, but for everybody serious, political differences get put to one side. Secondly, there are genuine political differences. I believe in independence for Scotland, clearly the Prime Minister doesn’t. No amount of words or meetings or rapprochements will bring us together on that issue. And that applies to a range of other issues too. We have a genuine political disagreement. The best we can do is let the people decide that. There is also a third area, which is why I have been keen to get the join ministerial committees back, which is policies which are not essential to the ethos of either government. An example is the Marine Bill. Both governments believe in environmental control, clean seas. No one argues it is a bad idea, so for these things you need an institution which gets agreement where agreement can be got. I am anxious to avoid unnecessary disagreements as they are a complete waste of time. The Joint Ministerial Committee hasn’t met for six years but it met again recently under Jack Straw’s chairmanship and it was a good meeting. I am not expecting great things but I am hoping for progress in a range of areas.

If he loses the Glasgow East by election, do you think he’s toast?
I think there are people in the Labour Party who will be less than supportive of him in these circumstances.

I’ll take that as a ‘yes’ then…
I have seen many people carry on under the same circumstances and even recovered so I am very wary about being certain. I think the problem is not so much, is Gordon close to his party, it’s whether he’s close to the electorate. That’s his underlying problem. There are aspects of Labour just now which look to me like John Major in the 1990s, and for some of the same reasons. I don’t want to put words into his mouth, but I suspect that Gordon is very aware of the problem he’s got, with a track record stretching over eleven years. When Major came in at first, although he had been Chancellor of the Exchequer and Foreign Secretary nobody seriously believed he had been at the epicentre of the Thatcher project so he was almost there without form.

How many seats are you aiming to win in the next Westminster election?
A minimum of 20.

That’s a fairly high bar, as you have never got more than half way there.
Not quite true. We got 11 in 1974. As an economist I am good with figures. I think that is a reasonable objective.

From your agenda of independence for Scotland, what is the best result of the next election?
A hung Parliament. Absolutely. Let’s call it a balanced Parliament.

It seems to me that the Conservatives are cosying up to SNP in quite an overt manner in many ways and that you are showing a bit of ankle yourselves. Would I be correct?
[affects to look affronted] Showing a bit of ankle?! We don’t use such terms in Scotland!

I’m sure you have your own phrase!
It is certainly true that of the other parties in the Scottish Parliament the Greens – who have been very constructive – and the Conservatives have been the opposition parties who have understood best the advantages for opposition of minority government and they have got most out of the political situation in my opinion. The Labour Party have just been heads down and charging and usually missing, bypassing the matador and heading into the crowd somewhere. And the Liberals? I just cannot fathom the Liberal Party, but that may be a statement which can be applied generally. But in the Scottish Parliament I have no idea what they are doing. I don’t think they do either. In politics you are either believe for good reasons that circumstances will change in your favour at some point in the future and that principled opposition will get you whatever reward you are looking for or alternatively you take the opportunity for administration because you believe you can help change things for the better. The Liberal Democrats actually managed to turn down administration in three Parliaments in the space of a few weeks.

Some sort of record.
They turned it down in Scotland, they turned it down in Wales, and depending on how you interpret the Ming Campbell/Gordon Brown meeting, they turned it down in Westminster as well. It would tend for me to indicate some sort of psychosis going on within the Liberal Democrats.

Your party has traditionally been very antagonistic towards the Conservatives but there has definitely been a change of mood. Is this because you can see David Cameron, to quote the famous phrase, as someone “you can do business with”?
I have spoken about the Tories in the Scottish Parliament, where they have been more constructive than other opposition parties, but I think you wouldn’t have to scratch very hard in London to see real anti-Scottish antagonism from many elements of the Conservative Party – there’s a whole range of quotations, so I don’t think the leopard has changed his spots.

Cameron has been very pro Scottish in some of the comments he has made.
Maybe the wrapping has changed somewhat but I think the leopard is still there.

But if there is a hung Parliament where the Conservatives are the largest party, is there any conceivable circumstance where you could see SNP MPs going into coalition with the Conservatives?
None at all

So you completely rule that out.
We have a policy on that. We don’t have a policy preventing a formal coalition with the Labour Party but I don’t see circumstances where we would be in a formal coalition with the Labour Party either, right now. In a hung Parliament we wouldn’t be trying to enter a coalition, we’d be trying to exert influence. Believe me, the best way to exert influence in Westminster is not to be in a formal coalition.

So it would be on an issue by issue basis.
Yeah, you would maximise your influence. A good example of what is possible is to look at the DUP on the 42 day vote. The SNP could not have done a deal on this because we had a principled objection. You can’t mortgage your political soul but the DUP weren’t in that position. They could make a good argument for being in favour of 42 days detention. But without the engagement they wouldn’t have been in favour of it as they turned out to be. Even in a Parliament with a majority of 66 circumstances can arise where a small party can be extremely powerful in a vote to save the Prime Minister’s bacon. In a Parliament with a much smaller majority or no majority at all it is going to happen more often, and that’s what we would do.

I perceive that the SNP has changed a lot in the last ten years. The Conservatives were seen as a terrible enemy by you and the SNP was seen to be a very left wing party by the Conservatives. It seems to me that you have copied Bill Clinton – I’ll be careful where I go with this analogy – and tried to create a big tent for the SNP, so you can attract ex Conservative voters who had previously felt put off by some of the more left wing ideas of the SNP.
I suppose I have tried to bring the SNP into the mainstream of Scotland. We have a very competitive economic agenda. Many businesspeople have warmed towards the SNP. We need a competitive edge, a competitive advantage. That side of SNP politics – get on with it, get things done, speed up decision making, reduce bureaucracy. The SNP has a strong, beating social conscience, which is very Scottish in itself. One of the reasons Scotland didn’t take to Lady Thatcher was because of that. It didn’t mind the economic side so much. We could see the sense in some of that. But we didn’t like the social side at all. One of the most famous phrases in Scottish history is the ‘Community of the realm’ – I used it earlier. This idea that there is a community of interest stretching across the population. It’s a very Scottish concept and Scotland doesn’t like people who regale against it.

Doesn’t that illustrate the problem that Scotland is seen as having quite a big public sector, a bit too much of the Nanny State, and as the country of Adam Smith it is no longer seen as the country of enterprise. Or am I betraying English prejudices by even daring to suggest such a thing?
I think you are betraying Adam Smith. He was not just a friend of economics. He was a moral philosopher. Margaret Thatcher had only ever read the Penguin edition of Wealth of Nations and she missed out the moral sentiments. I would absolutely defend the reputation of Adam Smith against the Adam Smith Institute.

You’re a better man than I am.
I said to Eamonn Butler [Deputy Director of the ASI], if Adam Smith could sue, you’d be in real trouble.

*What can you do as a government to ram home the message that Scotland wants the world’s business? We only ever see in London, mainly because the London media rarely reports anything about Scotland unless it’s bad, things like the Donald Trump incident where it seems he wants to take his bat and ball home because he can’t get planning permission for a £2 billion golf project.
He hasn’t quite taken his bat and ball home but I am conflicted from commenting on it because it’s in my constituency and I am “cup-tied”. I can’t prejudice the results of the public inquiry. But on the broader point I don’t think Scotland has an international projection problem welcoming business. We’ve had a very good reception in the US. Against a very difficult investor climate we have done spectacularly well in key sectors. That will be exemplified even more in our Year of Homecoming, and we expect you to take part in this, Iain. This is for first, second, third, fourth, fifth generation Scots.

I am a quarter Scottish.
There we are, we’ve got you. There are 100 million Scots around the planet.

I am a descendant of one of Robbie Burns’ bastard children…
Iain, you are perfectly positioned to celebrate the 250th anniversary of your ancestor. That only happens every 250 years!

Indeed.
Therefore I am instructing, nay commandeering 100 million people to come back to Scotland at some point during 2009 to enjoy the festivities.

Preferably not all at once.
No, because we have stretched the events from Burns Night to St Andrews Day. We have five themes. Burns himself, Scottish history of enterprise and innovation, the enlightenment, Adam Smith, Golf, Scottish history, genealogy, the gathering of the clans to Edinburgh. All the transatlantic flights have already been booked.

It’s all becoming clear to me now. That’s why you want the referendum in 2010 so you can sweep to victory on the back of this tide of nationalist euphoria which you will unleash in 2009.
You’ve got it. You’ve seen through me again.

That’s why Wendy Alexander wanted it now. Now I get it!
I didn’t get to the fifth theme, whisky.

We’ll gloss over that one. I don’t drink.
Can I welcome the change in direction of the Conservative Party, but I have to say the Conservative affection for whisky was about its only redeeming feature.

Don’t take me as typical of the Conservative Party, in oh so many ways!
I think I had already worked that bit out, Iain.

What is the future of the bases under an independent Scotland?
One thing that never comes up when you talk about the Barnett Formula, in public expenditure terms, Scotland gets 7% of defence expenditure, so if you held defence expenditure at the same level, you could generate more jobs. We won’t have the next generation of nuclear missiles. Hans Blix wouldn’t have much trouble in coming to Scotland and finding Weapons of Mass Destruction. He’d have managed that in an afternoon. I don’t think it’s reasonable to have that for the next forty years or so.

Nuclear power?
We’re against any renewal of nuclear power for Scotland, but we’ll have it until 2020.

The UK government is going hell for leather for nuclear power.
We’re going hell for leather for renewables. We’ve also just signed a contract for £700 million with Scottish Coal. Scots coal will now be burnt in Scots power stations. We can get the clean power investment we’re looking for. And at this rate we can get down to zero carbon emissions using clean coal.

You’re not going to waste money on wind power, are you?
We’ll have comparative advantage in wind power, lots of wind. Offshore wind has a lot going for it. In the Murray Firth we have a utilisation of 53% – I don’t know of any land based wind turbines with more than 30%. But we also have a comparative advantage in wave energy and tidal energy. It’s going to be big in the future. The Pentland Firth is the Saudi Arabia or tidal power, potentially. I notice Gordon Brown has nicked that phrase – very naughty of him. I launched the world’s largest innovation prize in Washington in April, the Saltaire Prize, which will be judged by scientific luminaries throughout the world. You have to demonstrate the device in Scotland. You can enter yourself, Iain

Hmmm. I can demonstrate good use of wind, but let’s not go there.
The idea is to establish Scotland as the marine renewables centre of the universe. We had a full page headline in Fortune Magazine – Scotland Rules the Waves. I loved that! My view on energy is that you position yourself where you have a natural competitive advantage. We don’t have it in nuclear technology. We’d have to buy it from France or somewhere else. We’ll get to 30% renewable production, 50% by 2020 and bigger after that if the technology fits into place. It will because the economics are dictating it. And we have to address to the outrageous entry costs to connect to the grid.

Is it a frustration for you being First Minister than you only have powers over certain areas and not others. For example, you don’t have full control over economic policy. You have limited tax raising powers which you choose not to use…
Once upon a time they were called the Towering Heights of the economy…

You mean Commanding Heights…
Indeed. Yes, it is a frustration, of course it is. Can you do nothing about the economy, no I don’t agree with that, but you are boxed in to enterprise policy, business incentives and supply side initiatives. However, we have done something dramatic for small businesses with the elimination of business rates for example. But for Commanding Heights intervention on adjustment of tax then you are heavily restricted and that is a real frustration, of course it is.

Do you think you will ever use the tax raising powers you’ve got?
I don’t see that in the foreseeable future.

A subject dear to my heart is an English Parliament, which you presumably approve of…
I am right behind you. I’m surprised at Ken Clarke’s lily-livered report.

Are you? It’s a compromise, isn’t it?
I was being ironic. Certain compromises you can muddle through, but if I was producing a way to protect the essential integrity of the United Kingdom – which, I’m not – I wouldn’t produce that. This in and out rubbish is a lot of nonsense. You have to think about the whole constitutional structure and come up with something a bit more elegant.

Do you agree that there is a resurgence of an acceptable form of English nationalism and that a lot of English people feel disadvantaged?
I have huge sympathy with the political argument. As you know, by choice, SNP MPs have abstained from every vote on English legislation which dies not have an immediate Scottish consequence. And when we have intervened it’s usually on the side of the English majority. If you’re asking me should people in England be able to run their own Health Service, their education system and a variety of other pieces of legislation then my answer is yes. They should be able to do it without the bossy interference of Scots Labour MPs. We had this in reverse through the 1980s. Because I believe in independence for Scotland I also believe in independence for England. I know there are a lot of doom mongers who say that England couldn’t stand on its own two feet. I deprecate that sort of talk.[laughs]. I have great confidence in England’s ability to be self governing.

  • We are so grateful!*
    Sometimes it helps for people to see the wood from the trees to talk like that. Nothing makes me more angry than people who deprecate the abilities of their own country, their own people. You can’t deprecate a country’s abilities without having an effect on the people within the country. It’s insidious and damaging. Patriotism is said to be the last refuge of the scoundrel. The reverse is the last refuge of the scoundrel in politics.

Does it irritate you when you read things in the English newspapers – and I get it all the time on my blog – about what a miserable Scottish bastard Andy Murray is? How the English shouldn’t support him because he said he didn’t want England to win in the World Cup?
I don’t think that the plain people of England would think that. The sort of people who think that are the sort of people who go on your blog! [roars with laughter].

Thank you! But let me put the reverse point to you. I always want Scotland to win at any sport. It’s partly my country too. But there are plenty of Scots who revel in an English defeat of any sort – even against the Germans, for God’s sake!
I have form on this matter. You’re not talking to the First Minister who supports other teams against England in the world cup – that was my predecessor [Jack McConnell]. I think that individuals have every right to a bit of banter.

But it goes beyond banter.
When you become national leader you’re under a different set of rules. Anything I say can be interpreted as the view of the country. People should back your own country. No one is obligated to support anyone else, but I don’t think you should get your kicks and thrills by some proxy. It’s pathetic. I have never indulged in it. If you go into a TV room in the House of Commons when England is playing, all you have to do is look at the phalanx of Scottish Labour MPs cheering on whoever they are playing against. And you think to yourself, there’s the Scottish Unionist Party. These are the people who want to have their country run from somewhere else!

In May 2011 you will be up for re-election. What do you want the Scottish people to be thinking about your four years in government. What will guarantee you your re-election?
Remember we will be having a referendum in 2010. I want our record in government to reinforce the popularity and trust in the SNP. By our deeds we shall be known. People do not expect miracles. They do not expect a minority government to have transformed the country in the space of twelve months but most people seem to be happy with what they have seen so far. The trust in government as expressed in the Social Attitude Survey has risen by twenty points – from 50% to 70%.

It was important for you in the first year to display competence, I suppose, as none of you had any experience of running a government department!
The SNP Cabinet has people in it who have worked for Standard Life, the Royal Bank of Scotland, Scottish Amicable. They’ve done a few things.

It must be a relief to have got through the first year with a reputation for competence.
It was a desirable objective. As you probably have noticed, I am not short of confidence, so relief is the wrong phrase, but I was determined that that should be done. So much so that I banned their holidays last Summer and said look, you’re Cabinet Ministers, make your mark. And they did.

My point is that the Scottish media is against the SNP and apart from the Labour Party most other people in politics have said quite nice things about you.
If you get complimented by your critics then that is better than just being complimented by your friends. But we have a lot of achievements to be complimented on. We have a new style of government. We slashed business rates for small companies, freezing council tax, abolished tolls, saved the hospitals, reduced prescription charges. We’re now trying to get to some of the more underlying structural challenges – reshaping the relationship between central and local government. If we can do that, there will be a big gain. We’ve already abolished more than 60 ring fences. We are attacking on the binge drinking culture, which is an even bigger problem than it is in England. This is difficult because we are tilting against vested interested, the power of which you would not believe.

So how do you think you’ve done overall?
Well, I’m not going to do a Wendy Alexander and give myself ten out of ten [laughs].

QUICK FIRE

James McAvoy or Sean Connery
Has to be Sean Connery, but I would never pit two fantastic Scots against each other.

Oatcakes or Haggis
Oatcakes win, but only marginally.

Favourite View
Culloden Bay. If you haven’t seen it, you must. A couple of Tory MPs have holiday homes there. It’s fabulous.

Wendy or Douglas
Wendy

Last time you cried
[pauses] I shed a tear recently. There was an episode of Star Trek that was particularly poignant [collapses in giggles].

What music makes you dance?
My guilty secret is that I like country and western music. I am a devotee of Tammy Wynette. I went to Scottish Ballet recently. Wonderful, but in the interval I had to give a speech. I told them it was the first ballet I had ever been to so they were thinking I was a complete philistine. I then told them I was the only frontline politician who had once starred in an opera, and it’s true. I had a lead role in an operetta. My musical tastes are wide. I have also done a duet with Sandi Thom.

Favourite food
In the early part of June you can get Duke of York potatoes, fresh sea trout and Scottish asparagus. Usually they are out of sync, but sometimes you can get them all in season together.

Favourite comedian
Elaine C Smith, the wife of Rab C Nesbitt.

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