Alex Salmond : My Part in his Downfall
The Cochrane Diaries
London: Biteback, 2014
Hardcover. xviii+ 324 p. ISBN 978-1849548267. £18.99
Reviewed by Edwige Camp-Pietrain
Université de Valenciennes
Alan Cochrane drafted his account of the campaign leading to the referendum on Scotland's independence. He was unmistakably against independence and he focused on Alex Salmond, who was a key figure in the Yes campaign as he was then the First Minister and the leader of the SNP. Alan Cochrane even boasted that he contributed to Alex Salmond's downfall, i.e. both the victory of the No vote and the First Minister's resignation.
He had many opportunities during the campaign to voice his opinion. Indeed he is Scottish editor and political columnist for the Daily Telegraph. In addition he wrote half of a book in order to advocate a No vote while George Kerevan was defending the opposite view.(1) He underlined the adverse consequences of independence in various fields such as defence and the economy.
Yet this book is different as it is a diary. Alan Cochrane was not the only journalist who took sides in this campaign, then went on to publish his narrative.(2) But his account is by far the most ferocious. He contends that he was ‘on a personal mission to save the United Kingdom’ as this campaign was ‘easily the most important event [he]'d covered’ [ix] and the battle was not merely about politics or about journalism but about, as he puts it, ‘who [he was]’ .
Alan Cochrane deals with a selection of events that occurred in 2012, 2013 and 2014, during the very long campaign which began even before the Edinburgh agreement was signed by Alex Salmond and David Cameron. This book is about the way Alan Cochrane reacts to various political statements, and reports his meetings with senior politicians across the political spectrum and fellow journalists from all sorts of papers. He often quotes supposedly off-the-record conversations. As he has worked in London and in Edinburgh, he has a long list of contacts who inform him and who reportedly get some advice from him as well. His personal life is intertwined with his professional life as the reader is provided with details on his family (in particular his daughters' schooling), his health, his meals. In the conclusion he is finally ‘delighted’ that his family and he were eventually ‘allowed to remain British’ .
Alan Cochrane has two targets: first, the SNP, described as ‘the Nats’ whereas other members of the Yes Scotland campaign and its allies hardly get any comment. When they do, the words are even more derogatory: the ‘trots’ for the SSP and the ‘Iron Age Appreciation Society’ for the Greens . Secondly, Alex Salmond, who is disparagingly referred to as ‘Eck’ or as ‘our Great Leader’. He is much nicer with other senior members of the party such as John Swinney, or Nicola Sturgeon to a lesser extent. Conversely Alan Cochrane is not even mentioned in Alex Salmond's own diary although the former First Minister repeatedly argues that his paper, the Daily Telegraph, was part of a ‘conspiracy’ to discredit the Yes campaign.(3)
Alan Cochrane is a staunch – though not a lifelong(4) – unionist but he is not subservient to a political party. He is quite ambiguous about his ties with the Scottish Conservatives . On the one hand, he was offered high-ranking office within the party. On the other, he prefers claiming that other people assume that he is a member of the party. In addition, he is prepared to lambast Tory politicians in no uncertain terms. Philip Hammond is thus depicted as a ‘complete idiot’  for saying that everything was negotiable after independence. As for Ruth Davidson, the leader of the Scottish Conservatives, he is at best doubtful  but very often critical, describing her appearances as failures – except, maybe when she hinted that the Conservatives may not win the 2015 General Election in order to counter one of the arguments of the Yes Scotland campaign, who contended that only a Yes vote would enable the Scots to get rid of Tory governments .
Meanwhile, he pays tribute to the commitment and to the impact of senior Labour politicians. First, Alistair Darling is praised throughout the book. Alan Cochrane was obviously relieved when he was appointed to lead Better Together  and he admires his behaviour, his performance during the first TV debate,(5) his caution in spite of opinion polls pointing to a decisive No victory and his quiet confidence after the publication of the YouGov poll on September 7th – which put the Yes vote ahead – even though many other unionists were panicking-Cochrane himself was ‘dishing out No leaflets’ . Cochrane also appreciated Jim Murphy, who ‘served brilliantly’  over the summer when he toured 100 Scottish towns in 100 days and was a target for many Nationalists. As for Gordon Brown, he produced a ‘magnificent effort’, bringing ‘passion, emotion’, sounding ‘renewed and trusty’  especially in the final days when he set a clear timetable for further devolution, offering a positive vision of Scotland's future in the UK.
Even though this book was written during the referendum campaign, it is also about devolution. And Alan Cochrane is not enamoured of the Scottish Parliament either. According to him devolution has been a ‘disaster’ as it has led to the emergence of ‘second-rate’ politicians . The unionists' attempts to improve the devolution settlement, such as the Scotland Act 2012, are equally despised . This is probably due to the fact that he had long thought that devolution would lead to complete separation.(6)
As a diary, this book is teeming with personal views, often with no hindsight – the words ‘stupid’ and ‘hate’ are common. Yet once the reader gets used to this tone, the book becomes interesting. Footnotes provide essential references – such as the full names of the individuals and their jobs – for those who might not have an insider's knowledge of Scottish politics. Moreover the book does contain valuable pieces of information on the referendum campaign as the writer is well-acquainted both amongst journalists, columnists as well as leading politicians. Indeed he mentions some of the personal tensions within the Scottish Labour Party, both when it came to selecting the politician who would lead Better Together and throughout the campaign, especially when Gordon Brown decided to get more involved. He also deals with the position of Scotland's two main tabloids, the Scottish Sun (which eventually refused to come out in favour of a Yes vote) and the Daily Record (which published the ‘vow’ made by the three British leaders as a ‘second Magna Carta’ ). As for the strong opinions which are conveyed, Alan Cochrane admits from the very first pages that he ‘often turned out to be spectacularly wrong’ [x]. Nevertheless, beyond the diverging publicly voiced political views of the individuals quoted in the book, the reader gets the impression that Scotland's ‘chattering classes’ form a close-knit community.
As to his impact on the outcome, claimed in the title, Alan Cochrane has to conclude that evidence based on the polls conducted by Lord Ashcroft on referendum day showed that most No voters had made up their minds long before the referendum, which somehow weakened the influence that he could have. Alex Salmond's resignation after the referendum could not be regarded as a defeat either, as not only had he managed to hold his referendum but he had achieved a very high Yes vote (45%). In addition he soon announced that he intended to recover a seat in the House of Commons in order to play a leading role in case of a hung parliament.
(1) George Kerevan & Alan Cochrane, Scottish Independence : Yes/No. Stroud: History Press, 2014.
(2) Indeed one may also refer to Iain McWhirter (Disunited Kingdom : How Westminster Won a Referendum but Lost Scotland. Glasgow: Cargo, 2014) and to David Torrance (100 Days of Hope and Fear. Edinburgh: Luath Press, 2014).
(3) Alex Salmond, The Dream Shall Never Die : 100 Days that Changed Scotland Forever. London: William Collins, 2015.
(4) He reports that when he came back to Scotland in the 1990s he realised that he was proud to be Scottish and British. But in his early years as a political journalist in London he was an SNP supporter. See Kerevan & Cochrane, Scottish Independence : 101-102.
(5) Cochrane is more sceptical about his performance in the second debate but this was the dominant view.
(6) Kerevan & Cochrane, Scottish Independence : 103.
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