Influential independence figure has been key in promoting Scottish nationalism, but will his efforts succeed?
Glasgow, Scotland – Few UK politicians have shaken the modern British state quite like Alex Salmond.
In persuading 45 percent of Scots to back his cause of Scottish independence in defiance of the British government during last September’s referendum, Salmond came closer than anybody before to bringing three centuries of union between Scotland and England to a shuddering halt.
Yet, no sooner had he experienced defeat at the hands of an impassioned electorate that he announced his resignation as Scotland’s first minister and leader of the Scottish National Party (SNP).
The consummate political risk-taker knew when his time was up.
For Salmond, however, the loss of the referendum was far from Scotland’s settled will. And, as the UK general election on May 7 approaches, the man who led the SNP to two successive victories in the Scottish Parliament is spying a new opportunity to press his case for a sovereign Scotland in the beating heart of Britain itself – London Westminster.
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In post-referendum Scotland, the SNP’s fortunes have soared, despite its plebiscite defeat. Membership of the party has grown from about 25,000 on referendum day to more than 100,000 today.
While it has dominated the Scottish Parliament since winning its first ever parliamentary election against bitter rivals Labour in 2007, the SNP has always lagged behind the powerful unionist party at a Westminster level.
Polls are currently predicting the SNP winning anything from 20 to 50 seats – up from a current tally of six – in Scotland’s 59 constituencies with many coming at the expense of Labour.
Salmond is contesting a seat in Scotland’s northeast, and planning for an explosive third stint at Westminster, where the 60-year-old first began his political career in 1987.
“He’ll almost certainly be elected as an MP,” David Torrance, author of the biography Salmond: Against the Odds, told Al Jazeera.
“And whatever his status in the group of SNP MPs he’ll be the one everyone goes to. He’ll be the face of the new enlarged group of SNP MPs at Westminster – whether formally or informally. And he relishes that – because one of the many ironies about Salmond is that he really liked the House of Commons, and I suspect he’s really missed it in the past few years, so he’ll be relishing getting back into that.”
‘Off the leash’
Salmond’s seven years as Scotland’s first minister saw him make the leap from domestic statesman to global figure.
What drives Alex Salmond is not things like money, but what he loves is the 'mix' and politics. He just lives for that.
Two years after securing victory for the SNP in the 2007 Scottish Parliament election by a solitary seat, he caused an international storm when he released the only man convicted of the Lockerbie bombing, Libyan Abdel Baset al-Megrahi, from a Scottish jail on compassionate grounds.
Far from damaging his domestic credibility, the Megrahi affair barely registered in 2011 when he guided the SNP to a majority victory, gaining the required numbers to force through an independence referendum.
Inspiring 1.6 million Scots to vote for independence was not enough to see the Yes campaign over the finishing line – but defeat (and his subsequent resignation from office) has done little to dampen his appetite for the political cut and thrust.
“Salmond has enjoyed an element of being off the leash,” said Scottish political commentator and author Gerry Hassan.
“He definitely feels a bigger sense of freedom in how he talks about things and how he does politics… Some did think that he might go away [after his referendum defeat] and earn money – but in actual fact what drives Alex Salmond is not things like money, but what he loves is the ‘mix’ and politics. He just lives for that.”
As the leader who transformed the SNP from a party of protest to one of power, Salmond’s departure could have ushered in a period of crisis for Scotland’s ruling nationalists, but the truth has been the reverse.
Salmond’s deputy and protégé Nicola Sturgeon became SNP leader and Scotland’s first ever female first minister at the end of 2014. According to Hassan, she has given the SNP a fresh impetus towards its ultimate goal of Scottish independence.
“The transition from Salmond to Sturgeon was one of those things that gave the SNP a fillip after the referendum,” Hassan told Al Jazeera.
“It’s allowed the SNP to carry the Salmond message [for the Westminster] election with a different tone in Scotland that’s more serious. They’re thus talking in two distinct messages that, at the moment, compliment each other.”
Yet, Salmond’s return to front line British politics is entirely predicated on his ability to claim the constituency seat of Gordon in Scotland’s northeast.
Held by Liberal Democrat Malcolm Bruce for some three decades, Gordon became an SNP target seat when Bruce announced he was retiring in favour of new Liberal Democrat candidate Christine Jardine.
Yet, far from playing the underdog, Jardine told Al Jazeera she fully expects to fend off the challenge from the former first minister, who has been busy promoting his diary of the referendum campaign, The Dream Shall Never Die, across Scotland.
“People [in Gordon] have looked at the polls and the only two parties that can win are the Liberal Democrats or the SNP,” said Jardine.
“And given that choice people would much rather they had me as the local MP working on the issues that matter than Alex Salmond continuing to pursue an independence agenda that the people of Gordon have already rejected almost two-to-one.”
That said, most observers agree Jardine has a fight on her hands.
Not only does Salmond have the undisputed profile, say analysts, but he also has a political presence in northeast Scotland dating back to his maiden Westminster victory nearly 30 years ago.
David McKay, the Scottish political editor for The Press and Journal, a newspaper serving northern and highland Scotland, said anything less than a Salmond triumph in Gordon would be considered a major shock.
Noise things up
“Even allowing for the fact that the Liberal Democrats have a majority of just under 7,000 from the 2010 [Westminster] election … when you throw Alex Salmond into the mix and the fact that his [current] Scottish Parliament seat crosses over a large portion of the Gordon seat, it’s difficult to see anything other than an SNP gain,” he told Al Jazeera.
Such is Salmond’s UK-wide profile that the London-based Conservative Party of Prime Minister David Cameron has warned English voters of the prospect of Salmond and an enlarged band of Scottish nationalists holding the balance of power at Westminster – an outcome the former SNP leader himself publicly relishes.
Yet, should he re-enter the House of Commons with beefed up SNP representation, many expect the Salmond-Sturgeon double act that began in 2004 to thrive as the independence question continues to dominate Scotland’s political future.
“Salmond will generate the stories, he’ll noise things up [at Westminster], he’ll keep things interesting and colourful,” said Torrance, who is also the author of a recent biography on Sturgeon.
“Meanwhile, she’ll [Sturgeon] rise above it all and work hard at overall strategy… It worked very well for 10 years, so there’s no reason why it can’t carry on working.”
Follow Alasdair Soussi on Twitter: @AlasdairSoussi