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David Maddox: Salmond's U-turn over Diageo

WHAT a difference a couple of years makes. Just over two years ago First Minister Alex Salmond was standing on a platform in Kilmarnock bellowing anguish at the whisky giant Diageo, one of Scotland’s biggest employers, for having the temerity to close its Johnnie Walker bottling plant, ending the brand’s 189-year-old association with the Ayrshire town.

"Let’s make sure this is heard away down in the London boardrooms," he cried to the thousands gathered that day.

It was a performance which led business figures to question whether Scotland was a good place to invest in, especially as Diageo was building a new plant in Fife.

Mr Salmond’s image was not helped by the way he decided it was more important to draw the prize ticket on Andrew Neil’s afternoon television show Daily Politics, rather than meet the chief executive of Diageo.

It was one of the first moments where Mr Salmond’s apparent infallibility post the 2007 victory for the SNP came into question.

Notably that year MSPs, led by the First Minister, collectively snubbed the Johnnie Walker Classic that year with the exception of Tricia Marwick, now the presiding officer, who was having the new whisky plant built in her Central Fife constituency.

It seems, though, that time is a great healer. Yesterday it was announced that the First Minister will be a guest of honour at the Johnnie Walker Classic at the Gleneagles Course and hotel that Diageo own. He will even be part of the prize-giving committee.

So why this sudden turn around? Could it be that the boardroom members from London, who he will be wining and dining with, are now somehow less objectionable?

Cynics might suggest that the hurt of the people of Kilmarnock is less of an issue now that the 2010 UK and 2011 Scottish elections are out of the way?

In truth though the reality is that this is a perfect example of how politics moves on and the fact remains that Diageo is a company with a £2 billion turnover which employs around 4,000 people in Scotland and owns 28 whisky distilleries amongst its large portfolio north of the Border.

But even more important is that the agenda now for Alex Salmond is to ensure maximum success in his party’s independence referendum. Part of the strategy in winning it is to have a hugely successful Homecoming Year in 2014 which, as the 700th anniversary of Bannockburn, will be designed to maximise the feeling of Scottishness as opposed to Britishness as much as possible.

One of the key events to make that year a success will be the Ryder Cup which will be hosted at Gleneagles and sponsored by Diageo.

So really Mr Salmond could not afford to continue to snub the company or its golf tournament.

Posted by David Maddox

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