Alex Salmond: The Rise and Demise of a Chameleon Politician

By David Thomson

Alex Salmond may have lost the vote for independence and stood down as  leader of the SNP and Scotland’s First Minister, but there’s still widespread respect for him as a politician.

Conservative leader David Cameron and his Labour counterpart reacted to him stepping down with similar expressions of cautious admiration, both praising him for “fighting his corner” while carefully distancing themselves from his stance on independence. “Whatever our disagreements, he always spoke his mind and he has always stood up for what he believed in,” Miliband said.

Salmond’s successor Nicola Sturgeon said he has been a “friend, mentor and colleague for more than 20 years”, giving the country a “renewed self confidence” since he took up the position of First Minister in ’04, adding that “the reason why he has lasted is that as long as he has become a chameleon First Minister”.

But for many people outside Scotland he didn’t enter the public eye until the debate on independence came to prominence. So how did Salmond come to be Scotland’s 21st century  William Wallace?

The Salmond Story 

The Salmond story started in 79 when he was part of the ’79 group’ that was formed by Roseanna Cunningham, now Cabinet Secretary in Nicola Sturgeon’s Government. It was set up under the ethos that the SNP would try to capitalise on the working class vote who wanted a Scottish Assembly in 79. Even though Salmond was expelled from the group during the 80s he reformed as a Social Democrat, then in the 90s as center-right politician.

Along with his experience as an economist with the Royal Bank of Scotland and as a politician both in Westminister and Holyrood, he has developed a worldly persona. Aides, journalist and fellow politician have all experienced his personal charm and kindness, but also his bully side, with occasional volcanic temper and patronising manner that has had an effect on his closest advisers. Then again, he is a big political beast at Holyrood, but a small beast at Westminister.

During his first spell in leading the SNP (1990-2000) there was always suspicious that he was a closet evolutionist. By the time Salmond became leader in 2004, after the failed leadership of the now Deputy First Minister John Swinney, his authority increased with each election victory. A skilful media performer, by the time the SNP went into Government in 2007 the party was a well oiled machine that used the media to its advantage, headed up by its communications chief, Kevin Pringle. This is part of a Salmond’s strategy for the SNP to become the “mainstream” of Scottish politics.

Making SNP Mainstream 

Just as Tony Blair managed to cultivate Middle England to defeat the conservatives, Salmond wooed Middle Scotland in order to dispense Labour as the party in Scotland. The different personalities of Salmond was brought into Government with his economic prowess shining through, not only balancing the books but cutting business rates and introducing a council tax freeze. During this period, Middle Scotland has benefited from free prescriptions, free bus passes and free tuition fees.

By the time they have been re-elected in 2011, Salmond’s left wing/Social Democrat was on show when they brought in Gay Marriage and the Children and Young Person Act, which includes the ‘named person’. But Salmond’s main focus was on the big prize – Scottish Independence.

Salmond’s approach to Scottish Independence has been a gradual approach, by using gradual devolution as a way of getting independence.  Salmond’s persona that had once been an advantage for the SNP turned into a disadvantage for the Yes campaign. It did not attract the women’s vote, which is evident when Nicola Sturgeon hosted a Women Cabinet event in Edinburgh to mark 100 days until the referendum.

He was lucky that his opponents in the Scottish Parliament – particularly from the Labour benches – have not only underestimated him but underestimated his ideas on what an independent Scotland should be. He has become renowned as the wee man who is willing to fight his corner, a modern politician with traditional values.

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