REUTERS/Russell Cheyne

Who is Scotland’s Alex Salmond?

Influential independence figure has been key in promoting Scottish nationalism, but will his efforts succeed?

GLASGOW, Scotland — Scotland's First Minister Alex Salmond is often depicted by his opponents as a bully, a showman and schmoozer who gambles recklessly with other people's money.

With just days to go before Thursday's independence referendum, the stakes are higher than in any casino. Instead of breaking the bank, Salmond is aiming to break 300 years of political union between Scotland and England. The polls suggest that he might just succeed.

Derek Bateman, a journalist who has followed Salmond throughout his career, says there is much more to him than the facile caricature sometimes painted by the press.

"[The press] ignores his strengths — a plotter's pragmatism with oriental patience, a restless inner drive, a lifetime's mental filing system of useful information and an acute sense of voters' motivations."

Rise to fame

Salmond made his name in the 1980s as a left-wing firebrand whose radical ideas briefly got him expelled from his party, the Scottish National Party (SNP).

When he was first elected in 1987, the main business of Scottish politics was the battle between Labour and the Conservatives. The SNP was almost irrelevant. Salmond was one of just three SNP MPs out of 72 Scots at Westminster, their poll rating was stuck below 20 percent, and membership had crashed from 28,091 in 1979 to just 12,115.

His main challenge was simply to get noticed. How did he do it? Through a glaring breach of parliamentary convention, getting himself thrown out of Parliament for interrupting Chancellor Nigel Lawson during his budget speech.

Salmond later claimed that his protest "took me from obscurity to prominence." Within three years, he was standing for the leadership of his party.

Bateman, who was then a reporter for The Scotsman, describes how almost every member of the SNP's national executive opposed him because they thought he was too brash, in too much of a hurry and too left wing.

"On the morning of the election announcement he was walking to the conference hall in Perth with Moira, his wife, when he saw me across the road. I asked if he was confident, and he gave me that look that has become a hallmark, somewhere between conspiratorial and self-satisfied. He knew."

Lasting impact

It is still possible to see the influence of strategic decisions he made in the 1980s and '90s to the referendum campaign today. Specifically, the movement of traditional Labour voters to yes could happen only because Salmond made the SNP a party of the left.

The real game changer was the creation of the Scottish Parliament in 1999. When the focus of Scottish politics moved from Westminster to Edinburgh, the SNP became the alternative government.

Initially, Salmond struggled with the new politics of devolution.

Andrew Wilson, a close political ally and a former member of the Scottish Parliament (MSP), says he missed the theater of Westminster.

"What frustrated him in the early days of the Parliament was it got dragged down by fleabite politics."

Damaging rows over issues such as MSPs' office expenses and the spiraling cost of the new Parliament building were hyped by a hostile press to such an extent that they damaged the credibility of the new institution.

Salmond stepped down with the explanation that he was "scunnered," a Scottish word that means sick and tired.

The SNP struggled in his absence, which didn't last long. In 2004, after four years away, he made a remarkable comeback. Wilson describes how, back in charge, Salmond engaged people who moved the Nationalists from a party of protest to a party of government.

"The culture of the party completely changed from the one which he first led," Wilson said. "There was a world of difference. It was much more positive in its culture, much more professional and supportive of one another."

He adds, "The way in which successful companies like Google or Innocent drinks work, where you feel that everyone is pulling together, the SNP has got that."

The yes team's confidence to win the campaign stems largely from the experience of 2011, when the SNP overturned a 15-point Labour lead in the final few weeks before polling day and ended up with an overall majority.

Vote bigger than Salmond

It is impossible to imagine them coming so far, so fast without Salmond. His deputy for the past 10 years, Nicola Sturgeon, describes his achievements as remarkable.

"Alex has been both a friend and a political partner for a very long time. He is the most adept and respected politician of his generation — something which is shown in his consistently high popularity ratings. I don't think anyone is imagining Scottish politics without Alex Salmond just yet."

Salmond has dominated his party, with one short break, for almost a quarter of a century, and he may well earn his place in the history books, but despite all he has done, the referendum is no longer about him. Politics has moved on.

In the past month alone, an extra 118,640 people have registered to vote. From Lockerbie to Lerwick, people who haven't taken part in an election for years are talking in cafes and bars and packed public meetings.

Whatever the result, more votes will likely be cast than ever before. Politics has been reclaimed by the people, and they will decide.

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