This is a guest post by Tom Gallagher, Professor of Ethnic Conflict and Peace, University of Bradford
Next Sunday is the tenth anniversary of the election broadcast delivered by Scotland’s First Minister Alex Salmond, in which he condemned NATO’s air strikes against Yugoslavia as ‘an unpardonable folly’. After nearly a decade of wars provoked by Slobodan Milosevic in order to demolish Yugoslavia and re-arrange it around a dominant Serbian core, by now all the other South Slav entities had broken away from his regime (with the exception of Montenegro which accomplished this step in 2006). The Kosovar Albanians had particular reason for wishing to escape. The Yugoslav crisis had begun when Milosevic abolished their autonomy in 1989 and dismissed Albanians from all public employment. He established a police state which continued even after the US-led NATO intervention of 1995 brought an end to the horrific conflict in Bosnia, one mainly directed against civilians.
The North Atlantic Treaty Organization, in its first military action since being created in 1949, was bombing mainly military targets in the spring of 1999. This was in order to compel Slobodan Milosevic to (1) end his oppression of the Kosovar Albanians two-thirds of whom he had driven from Kosovo at the point of a gun in early 1999 and (2) to agree to a solution which would restore their autonomy and give them a chance to decide if they wished for full independence. When Salmond took to the airwaves, NATO had not yet turned its attention to the non-military infrastructure in Serbia proper. Civilian casualties there and also in Kosovo later produced sharp criticism of the way it was conducting its operation.
As for Scotland, it was in the midst of the campaign to elect the first Scottish Parliament under the devolution legislation which the House of Commons had passed in 1998. Early opinion polls made the Scottish National Party (SNP) a strong challenger to Labour. As the choice of the most suitable politician to head the home rule parliament, Alex Salmond had been level with Donald Dewar, the architect of Scottish devolution, only a short time before.
Instead of outlining a vision of a fully independent Scotland, something which the SNP has always struggled to effectively articulate, Salmond devoted his broadcast on 29 March 1999 to the Balkans. Comparisons were made between the NATO raids on Yugoslav military targets with those of the Luftwaffe , Salmond mentioning the wartime London blitz and the bombings of Clydebank. His comparison of NATO’s pilots with Hitler’s prompted the then Foreign Secretary, the late Robin Cook, to call him ‘a disgrace’ who would be ‘the toast of Belgrade’. Salmond’s message was that peace talks must be arranged with the Milosevic regime under the auspices of the United Nations.
No other West European party leader would speak in such terms even during the latter stages of the ten week conflict when a NATO bomb hit the Chinese embassy in Belgrade and many shoppers were killed by an exploding shell on the Serbian city of Nis. It was clear that Milosevic was banking on voices like Salmond’s to shatter trans-Atlantic political unity so that peace talks could be arranged by which time most of the Albanians would be living in refugee camps far away from their homeland. The impetus for continuing the NATO operation came from Western Europe not the USA, President Bill Clinton facing a hostile Republican-led Congress which regarded Kosovo as an irrelevant side-show. But the resolve of the NATO states held and it was Milosevic who, within six weeks of the broadcast, was suing for peace.
The SNP thereafter ignored Kosovo and the only other international issue which the party has become similarly exercised over has been the recent conflict in Gaza. This is no coincidence. As in 1999, the Nationalist leadership in Scotland arguably is not interested in the rights and wrongs of a foreign conflict but in its own electoral agenda and how manipulating an emotive headline –grabbing crisis can give it traction.
Back in 1999, Salmond’s attempt to exploit an international issue for his own party ends blew up in his face. Labour swept to victory, a quarter of Scots saying that Salmond’s condemnation of NATO’s action in Yugoslavia had made them less likely to vote SNP. To his credit, in 2001 Salmond would express his regret about the language he had used. By now, he had time to reflect since he was a mere Westminster backbencher. He gave someone else a shot at leading the party which he had led since 1990 but by the time of the 2007 elections for the Scottish Parliament, he was back in charge. The SNP obtained a 1-seat majority after fighting a populist campaign in which Alex Salmond was depicted as a Braveheart-style hero capable of liberating Scotland from its numerous ills. But during the past two years, Scotland appears to be no better governed than it was under the colourless Labour Party and one by one the SNP has abandoned or diluted many of its manifesto promises.
To satisfy the appetite of restless Scots for spectacle, Salmond has sought to project the country as a growing force on the world stage. He has pursued a two-pronged strategy, involving courting powerful people in the United States on the one hand, and making alignments with forces keen to usher in a multi-polar world with greatly diminished US influence, one in which most of the rival hegemons are likely to disparage liberal ideas and their application.
It is a tribute to Salmond’s chutzpah that he has come so far in his courtship of the great and the good in Washington. James Webb, once Ronald Reagan’s Navy Secretary, and now the Democratic majority Senator for Virginia, has persuaded no less than 30 Democratic and Republican members of the Senate to form a Friends of Scotland caucus which appears to be working in close tandem with the SNP government . It has just been entertained by Sean Connery, the Scottish film star exiled to the Caribbean, who is prepared to act as the SNP’s roving ambassador on such occasions. Many members of this caucus are probably totally unaware that Salmond heads the wing of his party adamantly opposed to an independent Scotland belonging to NATO. Republican members of this Caledonian caucus might be surprised to read the broadside he delivered against George W. Bush at his party conference in 2004 at which he called for the impeachment of Tony Blair.
Salmond hopes to acquire leverage on Capitol Hill that will prove useful in any power-struggle with London over the terms of independence if the SNP’s vision blossoms despite the current polar economic climate. At the same time, he is reaching out to regimes in the Muslim world and looking for an injection of cash for infrastructure projects that will enable him to bypass Whitehall. First Qatar was approached in the hope that an investment fund controlled by its rulers could be persuaded to build bridges and schools in Scotland on a supposedly not-for-profit basis. In the last year, visits by Salmond to Qatar have been described as imminent but they have fallen through perhaps owing to the economic problems now faced by the United Arab emirates. Malaysia is now in the Nationalists’ sights. The Scotsman newspaper on 16 March reported that Osama Saeed, the First Minister’s chief adviser on Islamic issues had made contacts with sovereign wealth funds in Malaysia in the hope that they could be lured to Scotland. He is only recently back from the World Economic Islamic Forum in Jakarta which he attended with other luminaries of his pressure group, the Scottish Islamic Foundation. Osama Saeed does not bother to hide his contacts with Muslim Brotherhood organizations and personalities based in Britain. He has convinced not a few movers and shakers in the tight Scottish political establishment that as someone who disavows violence, he is the acceptable face of radical Islam.
It is not clear whether Osama Saeed and his colleagues were in Jakarta in a private capacity or whether the trip was subsidised by the Scottish Islamic Foundation. Newly-formed in 2007, it was not long before SIF received a grant of £419,000 from the Scottish government while simultaneously more moderate Muslim groups were left empty-handed. This is nearly one-third of the funding issued by the government’s Equalities Unit to religious bodies since 2007. Ever since, the disproportional nature of the funding allocation has fuelled criticism from Members of the Scottish Parliament (MSP) in other parties.
Qatar and Malaysia are not quite everyone’s idea of sturdy democracies. But adherents of the austere Salafist version of Islam are usually able to feel at home there. It is reasonable to ask why Alex Salmond is not encouraging Osama Saeed to visit cash-rich Libya. On 19 March, the Financial Times reported that Colonel Gadaffi’s regime was keen to strengthen its economic ties with Western Europe. But the Tripoli regime’s current alignment with the West and its harsh disapproval of Islamist forces which might challenge its monopoly of power may perhaps explain the reticence of a man like Alex Salmond, normally never slow to seize any advantage to power his cause.
SNP radicals have tried to make common ground with Muslims by emphasising that like the Scots they have been a plucky group often in a minority situation who have struggled against tyranny and injustice. The Scottish education system is starting to rewrite history and downplay the role Scots played in powering forward the British Empire, emphasising instead their real anti-imperialist vocation. If the Scottish Islamic Foundation manages to translate Salmond’s support for state-funded Islamic schools into the creation of pious academies where they learn of their enduring underdog status, then perhaps the mood of what is still one of the most secular Muslim communities in Britain might also start to alter. If younger Scottish Muslims become preoccupied, just like nationalist Scots, with their collective identity, it will mirror the intention of the SNP government to ensure that Scots in general become more introspective and cast off their remaining British allegiances.
It is likely that given the SNP’s success in making diverse forms of separatism respectable, Osama Saeed and his allies have long forgiven Salmond for his ill-judged broadcast on Kosovo a decade ago. But this is to assume that those Muslims who adhered to a Salafist world view, were themselves up in arms about Milosevic’s rampage through an overwhelmingly Muslim European country. This could well be a mistaken assumption. Charity officials from Muslim countries like Pakistan and Saudi Arabia were appalled by the moderate version of Islam practised by so many of the Bosnians and Kosovars. In their ordeal at the hands of ex-communists who mobilised the dregs of society as well as bigoted members of the Orthodox church, the pragmatic Muslims of the Balkans in fact had few friends in the Muslim world. Perhaps the strongest ones were Shia Iran and secular Turkey.
It is clear that Alex Salmond also viewed them as losers. As a Westminster MP during the years of the Yugoslav wars, rarely if at all did he register his concern about the rights of small nations being violated and the tragic toll in killings and destruction. Unfortunately he was not alone in this respect. At an address which he gave at Edinburgh University at the height of the Bosnian war, I heard Tom Nairn, ex-luminary of the New Left Review and the chief intellectual mainstay of Scottish Nationalism adhere to a Darwinian view that there were nations which had the wherewithal to prosper and others that were bound to disappear and that it was pointless to try and foil the role history had pre-ordained for them.
Salmond and his government do not share that chilly view of the Palestinians, especially those in Gaza. His deputy and likely successor, Nicola Sturgeon has been outspoken in her criticism of Israeli actions during the conflict and has added aid from Scotland to the huge amount that is now being channelled to Gaza. The powerful Palestine cross-party committee at the Parliament cited at Holyrood ensures that it is easier to obtain a debate there on the Palestine issue than on Scotland’s broken economy.
It is increasingly dawning on Salmond that the aspirational Scots, previously content with the British link but radicalised by the economic success enjoyed by a small country like Ireland, will not stay with him on the independence journey. Ireland is once more, alas, an economic basket case. The low-regulation, reckless credit policies which Salmond and his banking allies have been advocating until last autumn have devastated the Irish economy.
But Salmond does not want to end his career as a frustrated politician living a twilight existence on quiz and chat shows. He yearns for power and is not fastidious about how he acquires it. There are mounting signs that he sees the ultra-Left as a force that could allow him to snatch the keys of the kingdom.
The nationalist blogosphere contains many converts from Trotskyisim inspired by Salmond’s wish to quit NATO, evict nuclear warheads from the Clyde, and pursue a neutralist foreign policy. Arguably, cultural and educational changes, and the retreat of mainstream social groups from participation in politics has boosted the influence of the far-Left in Scotland . There are few other West European states where a party like the Scottish Socialist Party would be able to win 7 seats (in the 2003 Holyrood election). It later underwent a messy split and there is evidence that it was far-Left voters who gave the SNP its narrow victory in 2007. It is likely that the far-Left will return to Holyrood in a future election, especially due to anger among younger Labour-voting Scots about the Middle East and Gordon Brown’s record at home. It could challenge Labour even in currently safe Glasgow seats if an outspoken figure like George Galloway carries out his threat to relocate to the city if Michael Martin defies convention and contests his seat after standing down as House of Common Speaker. Galloway has made pro-Union noises but it is not hard to see this mercurial figure suddenly announcing that a revelation now convinces him that the Union’s days are finished .
The cratering of Labour support in Glasgow could prove crucial in paving the way for an independence challenge even in this cold economic climate. Alex Salmond may assist any radical Left challenge to Labour perhaps by withdrawing SNP candidates from seats where its enemy stands a good chance of being defeated by a Trotskyite.
Slobodan Milosevic juggled opportunist forms of socialism and nationalism for a decade. Alex Salmond never criticised his conduct nor the wasteland he made of much of the Balkans, nor the stain that European nationalism acquired as a result. Milosevic was ultimately a nihilist whose only concern appears to have been to maximise the power and wealth of his family. The SNP is also attracting power-hungry people from unlikely quarters such as the world of finance, people relieved to find that it is an ideas free zone.
Alex Salmond’s conduct in office shows that Anglophobia is the only consistent arrow in the Scottish nationalist quiver. Last year, David Trimble, one of the architects of the 1998 peace process in Northern Ireland accused him of trying to do all he could to break up the United Kingdom. Milosevic tried and succeeded to break up Yugoslavia which otherwise stood an excellent chance of joining the European Union in the 1990s if he and others like him had not come along. Salmond hopes to provoke the English by a range of insensitive gestures in the hope that they will march the Scots to the exit. His 1999 broadcast was one of the first clues of how low he was prepared to stoop in order to realise his objectives.