Glasgow, United Kingdom – Alex Salmond, Scotland’s former first minister, and a man who shook the very foundations of the 300-year-old union with England, has rarely shunned the political limelight.
But the former leader of the pro-independence Scottish National Party (SNP) finds himself the subject of a very different kind of attention on trial in Edinburgh on attempted rape and sexual assault charges.
The 65-year-old, who led the Scottish independence campaign that came close to victory in 2014, has strenuously denied all allegations of criminality – but the trial, which begins on March 9, is shaping up to be one of the most anticipated court cases in recent British history.
Intense media interest in the expected four-week trial is largely down to Salmond’s seven headline-grabbing years at the helm of the Scottish government from 2007 to 2014, during which, say many observers, he changed the face of the Scottish political scene.
“He gave the SNP credibility, which is what people always had doubts and criticisms about,” said Simon Pia, a former Scottish Labour Party press adviser.
Salmond’s 2007 Scottish Parliament election victory saw the SNP secure power for the first time.
“But he established that for them as first minister and as the dominant political figure in Scotland,” added Pia.
Salmond was born in 1954, when any talk of a Scottish parliament was fanciful.
After he graduated from the University of St Andrews, he began a career in economics. In 1987, he was elected to Westminster as an SNP MP, where he cut his political teeth.
SNP electoral success at the Scottish Parliament – which opened in 1999 – came for the then-party leader in 2007, and again in 2011, when Salmond secured an unprecedented majority. This, despite an international outcry two years earlier when his government freed Libyan Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi, the only man convicted of the 1988 bombing of Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie, from his Scottish jail on compassionate grounds.
In 2014, he took Scotland to the brink of independence, but resigned that same year as SNP leader and Scotland’s first minister after Scots rejected statehood by 55-45 percent in a referendum.
“Alex Salmond, along with Nigel Farage, may, from a historical perspective, be able to claim to be one of the early 21st century’s most influential UK politicians,” argues Tim Bale, a professor of politics at the Queen Mary University of London.
“By banging the drum for independence and by taking advantage of the bully pulpit provided by the setting up of the Scottish Parliament, [Salmond] turned independence from a pipe-dream into a serious possibility – one that doesn’t look as if it’s going away anytime soon.”
Yet talk of comparing Europhile Salmond and right-wing Eurosceptic Farage, who, as a member of the European Parliament (MEP), was seen as instrumental in securing Britain’s recent departure from the European Union, does not add up for many pro-Scottish independence supporters.
“I think the only valid comparison between Salmond and Farage is that they both changed the political weather over the course of their careers,” pro-independence blogger James Kelly told Al Jazeera. “But in every other sense, the two are poles apart. Salmond is a mainstream social democrat … [who] was elected to lead a national government twice.”
A fiery debater – who showed little mercy to his political opponents – he was nevertheless criticised for his handling of Scotland’s economic case for independence during the 2014 campaign.
“Probably his greatest [failure] was his lack of attention to detail on the currency question,” Pia tells Al Jazeera, of Salmond’s widely ridiculed pledge that Scotland would retain the UK pound after independence.
Out of office, Salmond, who is married to a woman 17 years his senior, again secured a seat at Westminster in 2015, but sensationally lost it in the 2017 general election. Since then, he has courted controversy by hosting a talk show on the Kremlin-backed Russian broadcaster RT.
But, while his political legacy is secured, his personal legacy will now be decided in a court of law.
Follow Alasdair Soussi on Twitter: @AlasdairSoussi