John McLellan: A day is a long time in politics

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NOBODY at Ingliston early yesterday thought the referendum had one more drama to play out.

From a predictably bullish speech as he accepted defeat, it looked clear that First Minster Alex Salmond would surely carry on with the fight to ensure the Westminster leaders honoured their promise to deliver more power to the Scottish Parliament.

Surely he’d see the job through to the 2015 General Election so he could claim he was leaving on his terms, not in the wake of disappointment?

While there were plenty theories about when he would stand down, not one predicted it would be within 12 hours. So why has he done it?

There will be a number of factors, not least of which could be that this might well be the high-water-mark of support for independence, because conditions were never better.

Look at the circumstances; an unpopular Tory government in London, a Labour opposition torn by factionalism with a leader utterly lacking in lustre, the spectre of debt and continued austerity, and total SNP dominance of a weak Scottish parliament so it could manipulate an entire governance programme to achieve its main aim.

On top of this, the SNP had total control of all aspects of the referendum process – the question, the timing, the franchise – yet they still fell ten points short of victory. Unless there is a complete failure to devolve more powers to Holyrood, and in senior Tory and Lib Dem circles there is no willingness to prevent this, the conditions might never be so favourable again.

Then there is the boredom factor, it is no secret in Holyrood that Mr Salmond was becoming tired of the day-to-day grind of being in charge and bored of the weekly chore of preparing for First Minister’s questions which could take up most of Wednesday, often late into the evening, for a weekly shouting match of which the general public were largely unaware.

Then there is the personal stuff. As he admitted at nearly 60 he’s not getting any younger and his wife Moira is well into her 70s. Enjoying life after 20 years in the hot seat must have been a factor.

But the biggest factor must be the future of the party. His well-documented lack of appeal to women might be a part of it, and with Nicola Sturgeon as leader this will certainly be addressed, but it is his deputy’s social democratic credentials which are a far more important factor.

The SNP is now in position to replace the Labour as the natural party of the Scottish working classes, and one with an unquestioned commitment to standing up for Scotland. After less than a day Labour looks uneasy about the transfer of power to Holyrood and the accusation that Labour is more interested in the party’s fortunes than the people’s will not be difficult to stick, however unfairly.

Nicola Sturgeon must be credited with much of the groundwork which produced the big slap in the face for Labour of the Glasgow result last night, not just because of her personal appeal, strategic intelligence and hard work but because her belief in social democracy is authentic.

For Mr Salmond it was never quite so simple. While he talked the socialist talk of fairness and tackling poverty, his cosiness with ultra-capitalists like Fred Goodwin, Martin Gilbert, Jim McColl, Brian Souter and, of course Rupert Murdoch, plus his obvious enjoyment of the finer things in life, constantly undermined his left-wing credentials.

Not so the much the more reserved Ms Sturgeon, who is perfectly placed to rip into the heart of Labour in the West of Scotland.

How does Labour respond? Johan Lamont has been badly damaged by this campaign and with so much unrest behind her it is hard to see her remaining in position for long. Who would replace her and how? Whatever happens, it’s unlikely to be pretty.

And then by contrast there is Tory leader Ruth Davidson, stabbed so often in the back by her parliamentary colleagues in the early part of her tenure she made teabags look like Goretex. After rousing referendum performances she is the unquestioned master of her party and the Scottish right has a real champion whose personal appeal cuts through the baggage of the party she represents.

Who’d have predicted all this last summer?