Status anxiety

My electrifying 'Führer Kontakt' with Alex Salmond

The SNP leader's magnetism could almost convert me to his cause

20 September 2014

9:00 AM

20 September 2014

9:00 AM

It was just after the Tory party conference last year that I met Alex Salmond. Not alone, obviously, but as one of a group of about 15 people. The group contained quite a few dignitaries, some of them Scottish, so he gave us the full court press. Lunch at his official residence, preceded by a 45-minute reception. The First Minister was there for the duration, ladling out the charm like heather honey.

I’ve met a few senior politicians in my time, including the last three British prime ministers, and Salmond was easily the most impressive. It’s customary on these sorts of occasions for the politician to work the room, spending a few moments with each person. It’s a well-established routine — you’re introduced by an assistant, eye contact is established, your hand is shaken, you’re asked a few questions that are supposed to indicate that the politician knows exactly who you are (they’ve usually just been briefed by the intermediary), and they end by saying ‘Nice to see you’ (never ‘Nice to meet you’ in case you’ve met before).

In Primary Colours, Joe Klein’s book about Bill Clinton, he describes this ritual as ‘the threshold act, the beginning of politics’. It’s not just about making the person feel like they’re the centre of the room, which is relatively easy. The tricky part is to do this while simultaneously letting them feel the full force of your magnetic personality. The most successful politicians project an aura of public power and then make people feel special by admitting them into their private sanctum, albeit for just 30 seconds. The aim is to make them feel like an individual, recognised for their personal worth, and then leave them dazzled by your personal charisma — empower them and enslave them at the same time. Alan Clark used the term ‘Führer Kontakt’ when describing Margaret Thatcher’s ability to do this, but it’s a skill that most successful democratic politicians possess, not just tyrants and dictators.

Alex Salmond, it soon became clear, is a true artist when it comes to this ‘threshold act’. As a unionist and a Tory, I wasn’t well disposed towards him, but after he’d fixed me with his political tractor beam I was almost ready to join the nationalist cause. Auberon Waugh said of his father that he had the effect on people of making them want to please him. That’s exactly how I felt after meeting the First Minister.

It wasn’t just the handshake. After he’d been introduced to everyone, he stood to one side and, without having to tap his spoon on his glass, the room just seemed to naturally settle into silence. He then spent the next 20 minutes or so delivering what must have been a set piece, although it contained so much warmth and apparent spontaneity it didn’t seem remotely rehearsed. He began by telling us about the portrait of Robert Burns above the door. No other paintings of Burns exist, yet we could be confident this was a good likeness because the forensics department of Dundee University had recreated his head from a mold of his skull.

He then moved to the next painting, which was of Tom Johnston, the secretary of state for Scotland during the second world war. With a twinkle in his eye, Salmond told us that Johnston was a socialist and an advocate of home rule who had written a book in 1909 attacking the Anglo-Scottish aristocracy called Our Scots Noble Families. However, after his appointment as Scottish secretary, Johnston went round painstakingly buying up every copy to demonstrate his willingness to put aside political differences in the face of the Nazi threat.

As Salmond continued to work his way around the room, talking about each painting in turn, it became clear we were being given a potted history of Scotland and Scottish nationalism. In his characteristically soft-spoken way, he was trying to explain how he’d arrived at his position and convey something of the romance of the SNP. The subtext was: this isn’t the crude, blood-and-soil nationalism that tore Europe asunder and that civilised people like you have come to fear. Rather, it’s a gentle movement rooted in history and tradition and with a distinguished literary heritage.

All hokum in my view, but hokum delivered with a skill and artistry that few other politicians can match. If a portrait of Salmond joins the others on the walls of the official residence, it will be due in no small part to his mastery of these elementary political rituals.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

Toby Young is associate editor of The Spectator.

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Show comments
  • taytelbaum

    Photo/ pic article: well, he is handsome. And as for warmth / political warmth… I’m not sure

    • Christopher Lennon

      taytelbaum What! he’s a horrible little nat
      and a bigger liar than Bliar. He and that obnoxious woman Nicola Sturgeon; what a pair they make.

  • Thomas William Dunlop

    Yawn. Salmond as Hitler smear again. Se it, heard it, done it. Next

    • CocklecarrotJ

      The chip on your shoulder is so bit it’s obscuring your view of the text! This isn’t a smear, it’s a compliment.

    • Diggery Whiggery

      I just read a compliment, but you read a smear?

      I think that explains a lot.

    • EricHobsbawmtwit

      I don’t think you read the piece, did you?

      Naughty Thomas.

  • Nick Harman

    I missed the bit where Salmond was compared to Hitler. More worrying for Salmond, I’d have thought was the link to Clinton’s trained ability to manipulate.

  • CrashDive

    Second hand car salesman is more like it…

  • rtj1211

    Perhaps you’d like to summarise what ISN’T hokey to you?

    1. Regionalisation of the UK to be subsumed into the EU state?
    2. Leaving our entire financial wellbeing in the hands of utterly unaccountable people who will run to anywhere else in the world in five minutes if you don’t kiss their backside morning, noon and night?
    3. A London-based Press whose entire raison d’etre is smearing, scaring, manipulating, lying and insulting?
    4. A Westminster Parliament whose representatives in no way represent the true nature of the UK?
    5. A country of 60 million being deluded enough to think it should rule the world and a ruling elite arrogant enough and ignorant enough to think that they can?
    6. Hating the people of this country so much that an absolute priority is selling everything we can to companies in tax havens owned by foreigners??

    Now I realise you’d get about 10 votes in the whole country if you stood on that platform.

    But I’d challenge you to deny that that’s not what you are supporting in your current colours……..

  • Mick Norris

    hehe you must be kidding Toby. In that case you would have probably found Adolf Hitler charming.

    No wonder the UK is so screwed up.

    • Curnonsky

      By all accounts Hitler was charming in person, especially to ladies and journalists. It is a gift of sociopaths.

  • sfin

    And here, in one article, is a huge part of what is broken in British politics today.

    It is the MSM’s fawning adoration of snake oil salesmen like Salmond.

    It must be something to do with operating on the periphery of power and only exercising it indirectly. You, the media, actually admire politicians who sell completely false prospectuses to the electorate.

    Most of you still giddily swoon when Blair walks into the room, Toby, Long after the rest of us knew him for the oily shyster he is.

    • Ken

      maybe you prefer G Brown? or Miliband – likely to be yr next PM…Enjoy. The Scots could have escaped but half of them were cowards…

      • Richard

        So YES were brave, NO were cowards. I believe I see the next generation of debate in Scotland.

      • sfin

        Milliband, Cameron or Clegg are one and the same – an institutional social democracy, hell bent on subsuming the UK into a European superstate. I couldn’t care less.

        I respect your opinion re the ‘cowards’ remark…

        …I prefer to think that more than half the Scots displayed that uniquely scottish trait ‘canniness’. Depressingly, nearly half the Scots still cling to the ‘something for nothing’, dependant, whinging, welfarism, sold by the shyster Salmond which they’ve clung to, ever since Labour sold it to them in the 40’s and which has been the tragedy of Scotland – destroying it as a nation of educated, enlightened, thinkers, inventors and leaders.

  • RadioJockhadistan

    Another representative of the Westminster elite has a last minute change of heart.
    Toby, you need to stop talking and join UKIP. It’s where you belong.

    Support UKIP for a Free England.

  • Salmondnet

    Once met Salmond at the Bar in St. Stevens Tavern. Drinking by himself (I couldn’t possibly comment). The “second hand car salesman” comment below captures the essence.

  • Kaine

    It’s not magnetism, it’s gravity.

  • edlancey

    A fawning little slaphead starstuck by a snake oil salesman.

  • rjbh

    Not only is Alex Salmond a brilliant politician He will go down as one of Scotlands greatest heros, His name will rank along side of Wallace and Bruce.

  • metic

    I’ve met Salmond in small groups on three occasions and once, admittedly over twenty years ago, in a one to one discussion (with one of his minders present). He struck me from the outset as ruthless, manipulative, but curiously uninterested in policies or principles. Machiavelli would have admired his combination of single-mindedness and duplicity – he could hide at will behind a spiral staircase – but the charm was rather too obviously learned rather than instinctive behaviour.

  • rjbh

    When they come to write the History books in a hundred or a thousand year time.. The name of Alex Salmond will feature promminatley, he is William Wallance without the the sword…he is a true hero…furthermore.. When we dohave independence the English will wonder who brought it about… The real answer was Margret Thatcher..without her the rise of Alex Salmond. Might never have happened.