Chilcot, Corbyn and Britain's constitutional crisis - Alex Salmond in conversation

In this exclusive collaboration between Novara Media and CommonSpace, journalist Liam O'Hare sits down with former first minister of Scotland Alex Salmond to talk about Iraq, Scottish independence, Brexit and Jeremy Corbyn

THE US secretary of state Dean Acheson famously once said that Britain had lost an empire and not yet found a role. Fast forward 60 years and Alex Salmond reckons that "we’ve lost a continent, but never mind we still have the bomb" just about sums up the attitude of today’s British government.

We meet in the former first minister’s Westminster office two days after the House of Commons voted by a whopping majority to renew the Trident missile system. The last month in British politics has been so tumultuous that a, potentially, £200bn, 50-year decision about weapons of mass destruction hardly made it on to the front pages.

Perhaps that has something to do with the uniformity of parliament’s response to it. Opposition to nuclear weapons may be part of the SNP’s DNA, but with the exception of the small band of MPs around Jeremy Corbyn they found few allies on the issue.

"The fact there was only one Tory rebel gives you an indication that in the atmosphere of Brexit ... of losing the continent ... the very last thing they wanted was the disorienting effect of withdrawing as a nuclear power," says Salmond.

"The ultimate reason for having nuclear weapons is not to protect the country from Russia, still less North Korea or Daesh, but actually to maintain Britain’s place on the United Nations Security Council as one of the big nuclear players. 

"So I think there was a real anxiety to hang onto the nuclear deterrent after the dislocation of Brexit withdrawal."

The most memorable moment of the Trident debate came when Prime Minister Theresa May was asked if she would be prepared to press the button "to kill 100,000 innocent men, women and children". "Yes," came the emphatic answer from Britain’s new prime minister.

"What you’re actually talking about here is the extent to which Tony Blair misled parliament and therefore the public. He was planning war. He was giving unshakeable guarantees to Bush that he would be with him 'whatever'.” Alex Salmond

For Salmond, that belied a weakness inherent in May’s position.

"That answer was a great mistake," he says. "The classic answer you give if you are pro-nuclear weapons is that the essence of deterrence is not answering that question. The essence of deterrence is that your opponent doesn’t know, but the capability is there. It portrays a certain wish to portray strength out of a position which actually portrays weakness."

The chaos at Westminster caused by the Brexit vote engulfed all the major parties. Except the SNP. While Tory leadership candidates ruthlessly undercut each other, and Labour plotters attempted to topple Jeremy Corbyn, the SNP remained a remarkably disciplined force.

But that hasn’t always been the case. In 1982, Salmond was kicked out of the party for being part of the 79 Group, an internal SNP faction. The group wanted a socialist and republican independent Scotland, ideas very much at odds with the party establishment’s more conservative approach.

Does that experience make him sympathise with the situation Jeremy Corbyn, for instance, finds himself in?

"If parliament declares itself to have been misled and therefore holds the former prime minister in contempt, symbolism it might be but it’s very, very powerful symbolism.” Alex Salmond

"I do to an extent," he says. "The only time in my life I ever slept walked was the period when I was expelled from the SNP. I really was very cut up about it. For people who are not passionately involved in politics, that must seem a strange thing. The period of their lives when they are most worried are probably over things much more substantial. 

"I never lost a night’s sleep as first minister of Scotland because I was reasonably convinced that the things I was doing were on the right course and I was doing my best for the country and all the rest of it. 

"But internal battles within a political party can cause a much, much greater degree of stress for people. I think the 79 Group were hard done by ... I think they were largely a group of radical young people who should have been treated better by their elders in the party. 

"But if I had my time again I would perhaps have urged people not to behave in the way that we did as young and rather brash political activists. Luckily for me, I learnt some pretty hard lessons from it - primarily that you should not allow the internal battles to totally dislocate your ability to make progress or achieve your goals. 

"You musn’t get absorbed in the internal battles at the expense of trying to pursue the public benefit that you’re trying to achieve."

The last comment seems like a dig at the Labour parliamentarians who are waging civil war at a time when the need for a real opposition has hardly been more urgent. He may be a veteran of the corridors of Westminster but this particular situation is a new one to Salmond.

"The only time in my life I ever slept walked was the period when I was expelled from the SNP. I really was very cut up about it.” Alex Salmond

"I’ve never seen a position where the leader and his immediate associations are connected with the activist base and sitting somewhere uncomfortably in the middle are the parliamentary party, opposed to the activists and the leadership simultaneously," he explains.

Many of the dividing lines within the Labour party can be traced back to that fateful period in the spring of 2003 when former prime minister and Labour leader Tony Blair led the country to war against the backdrop of mass public opposition. 

After the invasion of Iraq, when the assurances about weapons of mass destruction - the alleged existence of which in Iraq was key in the US-UK case for war - began to unravel, Salmond helped to draft a parliamentary motion seeking to impeach Tony Blair on charges of gross misconduct in his advocacy of the case for war. 

It was never selected for debate, but 13 years on, he hopes to finally see Blair held accountable. The publication of the Chilcot Report and its damning verdict on Blair’s conduct leading up to the war has given fresh impetus to attempts put the former prime minister in the dock. 

For a criminal trial, it would likely need a specific parliamentary instrument, similar to the 1991 War Crimes Act which gave English and Welsh courts jurisdiction to try people for war crimes committed in Nazi Germany. Salmond says he supports moves to bring Blair to trial but admits that the process of doing so would be "challenging and difficult".

“I think the 79 Group were hard done by ... I think they were largely a group of radical young people who should have been treated better by their elders in the [SNP].” Alex Salmond

Instead, the man who returned to Westminster as MP for Gordon last year is focusing on a motion of contempt, signed by representatives from seven different Westminster parties, that accuses Blair of misleading parliament. 

The SNP has dedicated one of their supply days to ensure that this is debated when MPs return in September after parliamentary recess. But would this not just be a merely symbolic move? Perhaps, but it doesn’t make it unimportant, argues Salmond.

"If parliament declares itself to have been misled and therefore holds the former prime minister in contempt, symbolism it might be but it’s very, very powerful symbolism. 

"What you’re actually talking about here is the extent to which Tony Blair misled parliament and therefore the public. He was planning war. He was giving unshakeable guarantees to Bush that he would be with him 'whatever'. 

"In the meantime he was telling parliament that there was still a road to peace, that a peaceful solution could be found. These are two entirely different things and they constitute the misleading of parliament.

"Any parliament worth its salt should do something about it, and this parliament should."

“If I had my time again I would perhaps have urged people not to behave in the way that we did as young and rather brash political activists. Luckily for me, I learnt some pretty hard lessons from it.” Alex Salmond

Vladimir Lenin said that decades pass and nothing happens, and weeks pass and decades happen. These are definitely those weeks. At this moment, British politics is moving at breakneck speed. The Brexit vote has put a second independence referendum on Scottish independence in sight. 

Unless his successor, Nicola Sturgeon, can agree an unlikely deal to keep Scotland in the EU as the rest of the UK exits, then a second vote is an "inevitability", according to Salmond.

"(It) would have to take place within the Brexit timetable," he explains, "and the Article 50 timetable is probably six months before the invocation of Article 50 and then two years of negotiations. So you’re talking about an independence referendum within that period of time."

Salmond isn’t keen to hang around. Scottish independence has been the driving force of his life and he knows it is closer than ever before, even if these are circumstances are not of his nor the SNP’s making.

"I thought it would have been better for the UK to remain in the EU ... but given that this is the stage in which this play is taking place ... then bring it on."

Very soon, it could be more than a continent that the United Kingdom has lost. It could be Scotland as well.

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