If there’s one figure that anyone anywhere would associate with the Scottish referendum campaign it’s Alex Salmond, first minister of Scotland, leader of the Scottish National Party (SNP), and the man who could be responsible for the break-up of the United Kingdom. But who is he, where did this political whirlwind begin and where will it take the man and his party?
His political opponents may label him everything from “driven” to “smug” but among them a common theme is that Alex Salmond is intensely private; a man “difficult to know”, and about whose private life very little is known. Many in Scotland could probably not confirm if he is even married. He is, although his wife Moira is 17 years older than him, they have no children, and she rarely appears in public. He likes the horses and gambles on races, likes his golf too, and knows his history. He is considered a natural politician by many, although some dismiss him as cold and calculating, but he is certainly the face of Scottish nationalism today.
With wife Moira in 2009 David Cheskin/PA
When Alex Salmond became active in politics while studying economics and medieval Scottish history at St Andrews university in the early 1970s, it was a conservative institution, and the SNP had remained a fringe party for most of the period since its formation in 1973. Yet it was to the SNP Salmond immediately flocked, becoming vocal, very active, and honing his skills for the future.
Interestingly, the story of how he came to join the SNP illustrates his propensity for controlling his public image. It is habitually said that he did so after an argument with his Labour-supporting English girlfriend, although his biographer, David Torrance, notes that this story is “not exactly solid”. Whatever the impetus, his passion for the nationalist cause has remained strong; strong enough to fuel a constitutional revolution in a country where such things just don’t happen.
After leaving university Salmond worked as an economist for the government and then the Royal Bank of Scotland but remained active in the SNP. As the party went through turmoil in the late 1970s, as the first fight for a Scottish legislature was fought and lost, he became a leading figure in the “79 group”, advocating a more active, left-wing approach. This led to him being expelled, briefly, in 1982.
Returning a few months later, he would be elected to the Westminster parliament in 1987, and leading the party within three years. After devolution he retired as leader, only to return in 2004 after the party suffered losses in the Scottish elections. Nor did it take him long to turn the party around, becoming the first minister of Scotland in 2007, and leading the SNP to form the first majority Scottish government in 2011.
This journey from expelled rebel to triumphant leader only illustrates his political capacity for winning battles others might abandon or avoid. In a few short years he first brought an end to internal feuding within the SNP, then united the party behind a more gradualist approach, leading it to supporting a less idealistic form of independence within the EU. His tenacity is clearly effective.
Yet he is often criticised for that tenacity. It has been claimed that there is no “lightness of touch” in his debate. Considered a skilled debater, he is fierce and relentless, but perhaps better in the rough and tumble of the parliamentary chamber than in the light of a TV studio. After performing badly in the first head-to-head debate in the referendum campaign he returned to what many see as a solid win against Alistair Darling, leader of the Better Together campaign.
Salmond was seen to have won the second TV debate David Cheskin/PA
Salmond never actually achieved the knockout blow many expected. All the same, he has brought the SNP to the brink of their ultimate goal, and in doing so, clearly divided a nation. With opinion polls showing Yes neck and neck with Better Together, he has had to fight to overcome some of the personal dislike he clearly raises among many Scots. The Yes campaign has often felt the need to emphasise that a Yes vote is not support for the SNP or even one man, even though we all know who the man and his party are.
But where now?
Any vote could be seen as a win for Salmond and the SNP. If not independence, more powers have been promised by the other parties. And with a reported registration rate of over 97% the people of Scotland have engaged with politics and could be voting in numbers most western democracies have not seen in over a generation.
Salmond has said he will not resign as first minister should he lose, and the next elections for Holyrood are not scheduled until May 2016. It seems unlikely he will disappear from the Scottish political scene anytime soon. But one thing about Alex Salmond: he often does not do what is expected. And even when he moves on, his legacy certainly will not.
Murray Leith does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.