Newsmaker: Alex Salmond

The Scottish first minister is entering the most important week of his career, ahead of his country’s independence referendum on Thursday. Will the politician’s ‘Yes’ campaign prevail or does a chastening defeat await him?

Kagan McLeod for The National
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When Alex Salmond was asked about returning to lead the Scottish National Party (SNP), shortly after the resignation of its then-leader John Swinney in June 2004, he evoked the words of the American Civil War General William Sherman: “If nominated, I’ll decline. If drafted, I’ll defer. And if elected, I’ll resign.”

It may have been a typically stylish response from a man who had already spent 1990 to 2000 leading the SNP – and espousing his and his party’s dreams of Scottish independence – but it was also short-lived. The following month, he announced his decision to stand for the post again – and, in September, he was re-elected. Salmond was back in charge. The reason for this about-face was simple: “I changed my mind.”

Today, and as the first minister of Scotland, the man described by both friends and foes alike as one of the most talented Scottish politicians of his (or any) generation in modern British political history is leading the charge for an independent Scotland – a decision that will be made by the Scottish electorate on Thursday in a referendum. His political colleagues and supporters see him as a fiery political genius determined to see his country take its rightful place on the world stage as a bona fide nation-state; his opponents see him as nothing but a reckless bully intent on ripping apart 307 years of political union.

With a week left until Scots make their biggest political decision in three centuries, Scotland is in referendum fever. It has been through the 59-year-old Salmond’s sheer force of will – and spectacular electoral successes at the Scottish parliament – that the country’s 5.2 million residents find themselves staring at a proposition that has been shaking the very timbers of the Union for three years. Indeed, it was only after Salmond’s SNP won an unprecedented majority at the Scottish parliament in May 2011 that the prospect of a referendum became real. But, up until very recently, independence opinion polls remained stubbornly unchanging for the party. A notable – but not overwhelming – number of Scots pined for independence, yet not enough to scare the might of the British establishment. But, today, and as polls put the result as too close to call – with one this week putting the pro-independence forces ahead for the first time – Salmond’s referendum has not only put the future of the United Kingdom in doubt, but also the career and legacy of Britain’s prime minister, David Cameron, who was once so sure of a pro-union victory, on the line like never before.

So who is this man who might change the course of Scotland’s (and Britain’s) history? Alexander Elliot Anderson Salmond was born on December 31 (Hogmanay), 1954, in the ancient and royal burgh of Linlithgow in the central lowlands of Scotland. The SNP had been established 20 years before his birth – but in the 1950s Scotland was at the height of its political Unionism. There was no Scottish parliament – and wouldn’t be until the end of the century – and the UK was still in the era of Britain’s wartime prime minister, Winston Churchill. Salmond’s mother loved Churchill; his father not so much. “My mother thought Churchill was the greatest man who ever lived,” Salmond recalled. “And my dad wanted to hang him because of what he did to the miners.”

In 1955, however, and after Churchill’s retirement from politics, his successor Anthony Eden called an immediate general election. His Conservative Party triumphed, and in doing so took the popular vote in Scotland – an outcome that, because of the party’s poor reputation in the country today, would now seem unthinkable. By contrast, the SNP barely made a ripple in the election. It not only failed to win any seats, but it gained little of the vote across Scotland. For post-war Scotland, the SNP was irrelevant – a romantic movement that had perhaps overachieved when it won its first seat in Westminster just a decade earlier.

Salmond’s family had been resident in Linlithgow since at least the 18th century – and were of modest stock. Salmond’s paternal grandfather, Sandy, was a plumber and Salmond’s father, Robert, became a civil servant, securing a job as an executive officer at the Ministry of Pensions and National Insurance. It was there that Robert met Salmond’s mother Mary. They soon married and eventually had four children, the second of whom was Salmond. It was Sandy who, by all accounts, seemed to infuse within his young grandson the seeds of what would become a passion for Scotland, through his tales of the country’s wars of independence; of William Wallace and Robert the Bruce.

After Salmond graduated from one of Scotland’s ancient seats of learning, the University of St Andrews, he began a career in economics, working for the Scottish Office and the Royal Bank of Scotland. By this stage, Salmond had already enjoyed the cut-and-thrust of student politics, having joined the SNP in 1973. The 1970s were an entirely different beast to the 1950s, however, and Scottish nationalism had gained traction in the nation’s political consciousness. Yet, in the 1979 general election, the SNP’s trajectory was dealt a severe blow when Margaret Thatcher’s Conservatives swept to power – seeing the number of Nationalist MPs slashed from 11 to two in the process. In 1982, his prominent role in the breakaway 79 Group, which looked to appeal to dissident Labour Party voters, led to his brief expulsion from the SNP. Such high jinks did him no harm in the long run, though, and in 1987, he was elected to Westminster, securing a seat in Scotland’s north.

As an MP, Salmond’s penchant for creating political mischief became apparent when he interrupted the UK chancellor’s budget speech in protest at the introduction of the much-hated poll tax in Scotland, leading to a week’s suspension from the House of Commons. Yet, as before, it did little to dampen his drive for the top and when the vacancy of leader came up in 1990, he grabbed the post with both hands.

The decade that passed between 1990 and 2000 was to become one of the most important periods of his political life. In 1997, he teamed up with his pro-unionist, but pro-devolutionist, political opponents to deliver a Scottish parliament – securing the nation’s first elected assembly since its dissolution in 1707 – on the back of a referendum in which a heavy majority of Scottish voters gave their consent. Here, finally, was an elected body in which Salmond’s SNP could pitch for independence to the people of Scotland in Scotland. The party failed to win the first Scottish parliamentary election in 1999, but won enough seats to become the official opposition to a Labour-led coalition government. By the following year, however, he’d had enough and resigned.

The Salmond that returned to the Scottish parliament – after his stint back at Westminster – was of a slightly different breed. A little less aggressive and more sprightly, the returning leader teamed up with his loyal friend Nicola Sturgeon (now Scotland’s deputy first minister), targeting victory at the 2007 Scottish parliament election. Scotland’s Labour Party had a tight grip over most aspects of Scottish political life – and critics said that it couldn’t be done. But win he did, gaining one more seat than Labour and forming the SNP’s first (minority) government. Four years later, after coming from behind – with polls giving Labour as much as a 15-point lead – he secured a majority.

The independence referendum was born out of that majority victory – Salmond finally had the numbers to push through what was once thought fantastical. Love him or loathe him (very few Scots are indifferent on the subject), the Scotland that stands ready to vote on its future is almost single-handedly down to him and his actions. For his advocates, Salmond’s dreams of an independent Scotland – for which he has set out a largely positive vision of the future, more socially democratic and bolstered by its natural resources of oil and gas – is viable. For his opponents, his dreams are the stuff of nightmares – a Scotland that would struggle to sustain its current productivity without the support of the London treasury.

Recently, and with the momentum appearing to suggest a surge for a “Yes” vote, Salmond was asked whether he was now the favourite after so long as the underdog. He was, he responded, still “the underdog”, a position that perhaps owes equally to the enormity of his task and his fondness for the odd gamble in his political life. Should he fail next week, then he will have to console himself with having shaken the very foundations of a UK in which Scotland’s standing will surely never be the same again. Should he prevail, then he will have achieved what few others have ever achieved in modern politics: triumph over centuries of history against the odds.

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