IT has sometimes been said that governing men enjoy an ‘endless adventure’, a phrase that perfectly captures the career of Alex Salmond, perhaps the most significant politician to emerge from Scotland in the past three decades.
He will turn 60 at the end of this year, easily the most momentous of his long political career and indeed one of the most eventful in the modern history of Scotland. Although the Yes campaign recently made strenuous efforts to separate the man from its independence vision, the two are irredeemably linked in the minds of most Scots.
Testament indeed to what history will no doubt judge as his main achievement – delivering a consented referendum on Scottish independence – but also his ultimate failure. It was, however, a pretty noble one: nearly 45 per cent of Scots backed the idea of Scotland starting anew [or rather mostly anew] in Thursday’s referendum, a much higher level than would have seemed possible when Salmond was first elected SNP leader back in 1990.
At that point, when the National Movement appeared to the established parties as a small, insignificant force, even Salmond’s election [albeit without an overall majority] as First Minister in 2007 would have appeared unlikely. A Scottish Parliament was not yet an inevitability, as it became following New Labour’s landslide election victory, and subsequent constitutional reforms, in the late 1990s.
Yet Salmond would not excel as the Scottish Parliament’s first leader of the Opposition, and in a surprise move repeated several times over yesterday afternoon, he resigned as SNP leader in 2000, ironically spending the next four years at Westminster rather than in the fledgling devolved legislature in temporary accommodation in Edinburgh’s Old Town.
He returned, triumphantly, to save the SNP [as some saw it] four years later, taking trademark gambles in contesting a hitherto safe Liberal Democrat seat and also proclaiming his intention to become First Minister. It paid off, by a whisker, and after four successful years leading a minority administration Salmond pulled off a surprise majority win, something apparently impossible under Holyrood’s electoral system.
Salmond was a natural First Minister, a talented showman who certainly enjoyed the trappings of office but also worked phenomenally hard, expecting the same of his advisers, many of whom had worked alongside him for a decade or more. He inspired extraordinary loyalty among his staff, all the more remarkable given his occasionally volcanic temper. After two election victories his authority as SNP leader was unparalleled even at Westminster.
His political talents were more tactical and strategic than policy-orientated, although he had a formidable understanding of, and enthusiasm for, energy policy, something he made his personal project as First Minister. What of his legacy? Making independence not only credible but possible, indeed tantalisingly so when the opinion polls narrowed so dramatically two weeks ago. That he didn’t succeed almost doesn’t matter, for he has left so much for his successor to take forward.