Friday, 19 September 2014
In 1997 I was a cub reporter sent by the NUS to interview all the party political leaders ahead of the general election. Only John Major refused. I spoke to Dafydd Wigley, Paddy Ashdown, Tony Blair and Alex Salmond.
I met all of them at Westminster. Paddy Ashdown was terrible. A real let down. Tony Blair was charismatic, surrounded by twitchy advisors.
Alex Salmond was different. Rather than a politician, he had the air of an exiled foreign general.
It really is hard to believe, because in his television appearances he looks and sounds like everyone else. But in person, in that place, he seemed to be the living embodiment of a leader without a land, detained by an occupying power.
It was also clear in his own mind he knew, better than his hosts, exactly what was happening north of the border. Something was building in his absence. He was therefore perfectly happy to be in exile, pacing the halls of the Palace of Westminster. Listening, plotting and biding his time.
That he had no doubt his moment would come, seemed to me extraordinary. This was, don't forget, before Scotland even had a parliament, let alone one led by a Scottish Nationalist.
To call him a wily operator would be an understatement. Salmond is a political giant. Scots nats had a bad name before he came along. To take the movement to the very cusp of independence, forcing those of us within the union to re-examine exactly what the United Kingdom means, and more importantly, who we really are, is a unique achievement.
When our interview had finished, the photographer asked if we could have a posed photo.
"Of course!" said Salmond, and he looked at me. "Did you say your name was Wallis?"
"Then I know just the spot."
He walked us down the corridors until we reached Westminster Hall. "We'll do it here." he announced, pointing to the plaque on the floor.
"This" he said, with a meaningful stare, "is where your ancestor William Wallace was sentenced to death by the English."
Salmond put his arm round my shoulder and we both stood on the plaque as the photographer snapped away.
The implication was clear. Don't forget the blood in your veins. Don't forget, deep down, you're one of us.
It was the single most impressive piece of emotional manipulation I have ever been subjected to by a politician, and it will stay with me until I die.