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Election 2021: Alex Salmond talks about his hopes for making the Highlands a renewables powerhouse, the poetry of his Holyrood 'numpties' comment, preparing Scotland for Independence and what is 'probably' his biggest political mistake as First Minister

By Scott Maclennan

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Former First Minister Alex Salmond has launched the Highlands and Islands campaign for his new Alba party alongside the party's four candidates.

Aiming to secure a super-majority for the independence movement, the party was set up to target list seats where he felt electoral maths had passed by other pro-independence parties.

Standing for the Highlands and Islands' regional seats are Kirk Torrance, Craig Berry, Josh Robertson and Judith Reid.

The party was launched in March 2021 and quickly saw a number of high profile defections from the SNP, including two MPs.

At the event in Inverness we asked Mr Salmond whether the country was ready for independence and if not what needs to be done if it were to choose that path.

He also spoke about restoring optimism, saying that the Alba Party brought back memories of the "high summer of 2014" right before the referendum and his "biggest mistake."

In a wide-ranging we started by asking Mr Salmond how the Alba Party would serve the Highlands and Islands.

"Looking upon the Highlands and Islands as the powerhouse of Scotland not just the powerhouse of Scotland but in many senses the powerhouse of Europe.

"We are moving into another era for Scotland, where thanks to the decisions that I made as First Minister with the Beauly-Denny spine running down Scotland.

"There were a lot of people opposed to that at time but nonetheless it was exactly the right thing to do because it has enabled the power of the Highlands and Islands to be available and the development that is taking place.

"That means that Scotland is now 100 per cent self-sufficient in renewables, so I see no reason why we shouldn't treble or quadruple renewable production and what we're going to export that power? We are going to have to bring super grid connections not just to England but to the continent, we're gonna have to bring industry to the power.

"If you have vast quantities of cheap renewable energy and one thing is to bring industry to the power and as these great structures are built, we're going to have to make sure that built at Nigg and other places around the Highlands and Islands – that's where they should be built, that's where they have got the deep water facilities and it just takes the determination.

"That's why we're setting up the Scottish National Renewables Corporation and regard the renewables industry, centred in the Highlands and Islands, as a bit like oil and gas was in the 1970s.

"There were lots of people who wanted to put in lots of investment, particularly offshore but nothing particularly has been done yet to make sure that the public, the people, the communities benefit.

"That's why we need a National Renewables Corporation which will take at least the five percent share of every offshore wind field. That will do two things – one, it'll make sure that the equipment, the turbines, the pillars and the other structures are built in Scotland, there’s no reason why they shouldn't be in Nigg and elsewhere.

"And secondly, make sure that the benefits that five percent of each of these great fields don't just accrue to multinational companies but accrue to the people of Scotland and the people of Scotland."

Has enough been accomplished in the last five years in parliament and why does he think there are 'numpties in the Scottish Parliament?

Mr Salmond: "Two things, one that devolution has been a success, most people would judge it to have been a success. I would argue that the government I led between 2007 and 2014 structurally changed Scotland in a number of respects. It did so during a time of austerity imposed by Westminster and did a good job doing it.

"Now, I do think that more could have been done and I made a few comments in Holyrood not that long ago when I talked about the leadership not Scotland failing, not even institutions feeling but the leadership failing.

"Every so often you need a bit of renewal and refresh in politics. To get rid of the numpties that was a reference, of course, to the Edwin Morgan poem for the inauguration of the parliament, when it was recited for him because he couldn’t come and I was there to hear it.

"What he wrote was – “A nest of fearties is what they do not want”. Scotland doesn’t want a people who just toe the line, we want independent spirits, we want more Margot MacDonalds and less anonymous backbenchers.

"As the SNP leader who brought Margo MacDonald back into the party as opposed to expel her, I have a reasonable track record of wanting free spirits because I know how important they are to a parliament and to a people."

Is Scotland ready for Independence? Shouldn't more work be done to establish as far as possible the structures any independent country would need, such as central bank or a diplomacy, before a referendum?

Mr Salmond: "So, I think we could have made more progress and recent years and but that's no reason for not getting on with it now and the structural changes that we are suggesting in our manifesto, things we are urging to happen like the independence commission to prepare Scotland in terms of statecraft and nation building.

"However, having said that very few countries have become independent have done so from their building block that Scotland now has. Very few countries have become independent from virtually nothing in terms of democratic institutions.

"Scotland already has established its democratic parliament. I think there are additions are required, I mean, I think there should be a second chamber for an independent Scotland. And we make some proposals of how that could be radically different, certainly from the House of Lords but even from other second chambers.

"You know, we're talking about a people's second chamber, a citizens’ assembly second chamber sitting in the old Royal High School building.

"Luckily Scotland has many fine diplomats working in the Foreign Office and I don’t think I am talking out of turn to say that in the preparations for 2014 a former permanent secretary of the Foreign Office was advising me and he recommended that we send a memo out around the Foreign Office to say to people – look this may well be happening, volunteers, please come forward.

"And he was very confident that we wouldn't be short of volunteers because of the number of extremely patriotic Scots in the Foreign Office.

"So I think there's state building to be done but I think people have the talent and ability to do it and the last thing I'd say unlike 2014, where in essence the campaign and the politicians were ahead of the people, we're launched referendum campaign in 2012 when independence support at 28 per cent and if anything now many of the independence parties are behind the people.

"I think people are in front so it's time for a bit of urgency, a bit of catch up."

There is a lot determination for independence among large sections of the public but do you think there is the same sense of optimism as 2014?

Mr Salmond: "My biggest mistake as First Minister of Scotland, leader of the Yes Campaign better to say, I had been leading the SNP for 20 years, I've been in it for 40 years. I loved the SNP and I still do.

"Understandably this was wrong, but I began to see independence as an SNP project, the SNP were spectacularly successful in 2011 an absolute majority and so on but we didn't move the dial on independence until the high summer 2014.

"That is when the Yes Campaign became multifarious groupings of people from all sorts of points of view, like Doctors for Independence, Nurses for Independence, Women for Independence, New Scots for Independence, Asians for Independence.

"That whole range of groupings emerging in a genuine grassroots campaign and that is what got the momentum behind the Yes Campaign and that got the dial to move from 30 per cent to 50 percent in a couple of months in the period after the Commonwealth Games.

"So how do you apply that lesson today? If I was to describe Alba as a political party then more than anything else I think of it as the independence campaign of the high summer of 2014 reborn as a political party.

"I think it'll be a strength for the independence movement to have it not the project of one political party but a number of political parties with different emphasis because people, if they are attracted to independence, you want them to see independence as a project for the whole nation, for our people with a number of points of view. And I think that's a stronger position.

"It's strange it hasn't happened before but it's happening now and if we make this breakthrough in a couple of weeks time then I think it’ll lead to the strengthening and the breadth of independence and maybe that sense of optimism.

"There are more ideas in that Alba manifesto than I have heard in Scotland for the last five years and they are not my ideas, they are a grouping of ideas but crammed full of good stuff and reinstill that sense of optimism."

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