Alex Salmond: A winner despite losing Scottish referendum

September 19, 2014 12:03 pm | Updated November 16, 2021 05:46 pm IST - Edinburgh

Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond

Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond

Despite failing to win independence in the referendum he brought about, Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond has nevertheless emerged a winner.

Even before voting began, the three main parties in Westminster had already made a last-minute promise to hand over more powers to the devolved Parliament in Edinburgh, Holyrood, if Scots rejected independence.

In his speech conceding defeat, Mr. Salmond said that the Scottish people — whether they voted Yes or No — would expect promised moves towards more devolution to be carried out “in rapid course.”

“He’s without question the shrewdest political client I’ve ever had,” said Peter Kellner, president of the You Gov opinion polling company.

In his time as leader, Mr. Salmond has dragged his Scottish National Party (SNP) from the fringes of politics to the governing power in Edinburgh, ridding it of the feuding that had weakened it and building support for a more gradualist approach to winning independence.

A troublemaker

But he has also been criticised as a bully and a troublemaker.

He first came to national attention when as a young parliamentarian he interrupted then-Chancellor Nigel Lawson’s delivery of the budget in 1988, and had to be ejected from the House of Commons.

For a long time he was also one of NATO loudest critics, attacking the 1999 bombing of Serbia as being of “dubious legality” and “unpardonable folly.” He is also firmly against nuclear weapons, and had he won independence he intended to have Britain’s arsenal removed promptly from their base on the Clyde in western Scotland.

But such is his political skill that despite all that he managed to reassure many Scots and argue convincingly that NATO would welcome an independent Scotland with open arms.

It was while studying at the University of St Andrews that he first became a member of the Scottish National Party, then very much a minority party. After university he became an economist, working among other places for the government and at the Royal Bank of Scotland where he specialised in the oil industry.

Like many of his countrymen, Mr. Salmond is known to be a keen golfer and enjoys a flutter on the horses. Otherwise he has kept his private life just that. His wife Moira, whom he married when he was 26 and she 43, has only been spotted in public with him on a handful of occasions. They have no children.

First elected to Westminster in 1987, he became SNP leader three years later, and was also elected to Holyrood, after its establishment in 1999.

He stepped down from the SNP leadership in 2000 but made a comeback when the SNP did badly in the 2004 Scottish elections.

He then sealed his political reputation by leading the party to new heights — he became First Minister in 2007 and led the SNP to form the first majority Scottish government four years later.

Nevertheless, when he signed a deal on holding a referendum on Scottish independence in 2012 with British Prime Minister David Cameron, few thought Mr. Salmond could win it, as opinion polls showed Scots consistently preferred devolution to outright independence.

Mr. Cameron had refused to allow devolution as a third option on the ballot paper in the belief that Scots would reject independence and that that would then kill off any more demands for further transfer of powers.

But thanks largely to Mr. Salmond’s skill as a campaigner, the pro-unionists lost a commanding lead over the pro-independence camp in the final weeks before the referendum, forcing Westminster to make a last-minute devolution offer if Scots rejected independence.

They will now have to stick to that promise, while Mr. Salmond has built up a much bigger grassroots movement in support of independence and the SNP. When he finally retires, he will leave the party a force to be reckoned with.

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