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The Scottish independence campaign has lasted a gruelling two years but Alex Salmond showed no sign of fatigue on its final day as he strode across the station car park in Stewarton and gave a startled Ashleigh Bell an enthusiastic hug and kiss.
Ms Bell, 27, screamed, but not in protest. “I was so excited,” the mother of four said of her first close encounter with the first minister and Scottish National party leader. “I think the man’s amazing. Standing up for what he believes in, that takes guts. He won’t let anyone tell him what to do.”
Mr Salmond has been the dominant figure in an independence campaign that many of his senior SNP colleagues thought would be impossible to win but which proved much closer than initially expected. Even opponents grudgingly admire his ability to survive intensely hostile media coverage and a barrage of criticism of his independence plans from business and academia.
In trim shape after more than a year on the 5:2 diet – which he often jokes gives him something in common with US singer Beyoncé – Mr Salmond has been a tireless campaigner. The warm welcome he receives around Scotland contrasts sharply with the heckling and jostling that has often greeted Labour leaders in the closing days of the campaign.
His appearance in Stewarton, a small town in southwestern Ayrshire, was a big morale boost to many of the dozens of Yes supporters who greeted him outside a local engineering firm.
But while the first minister has undoubtedly been the key player in bringing Scotland to a historic decision on whether to leave the UK, Yes campaigners have long known that a majority for independence required reaching well beyond the Salmond fan base.
After seven years running Scotland’s devolved government, Mr Salmond is a divisive figure, adored by many Scots, loathed by others and viewed with suspicion by still more. The fringes of social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter bristle with bitter and crudely expressed hostility.
Highlighting the contrasting views of the first minister, an Opinium poll for the Daily Telegraph found that 23 per cent of voters trusted him compared with 42 per cent who did not.
“There’s nae words I could [use to] describe him that you could publish,” says Matthew McQuade, an employee of a builders’ merchant in Kilmarnock, where the first minister spent part of his last day on the campaign trail on Wednesday.
“I think he’s just a liar out for his own self-interest,” Mr McQuade says.
A mechanic who lives near Mr Salmond’s home in northeastern Aberdeenshire makes a similar point in local dialect: “He’s just fillin’ his ain pooch [pocket].”
Some voters have been put off by what they term Mr Salmond’s often smug manner, and others by a belief that he and his administration can be overbearing and intolerant of dissent. That view has been reinforced by media reports such as a Daily Telegraph story this week that accused him of trying to silence a university leader who had highlighted the risks of independence. Mr Salmond dismissed the accusations.
An Ipsos Mori poll in June gave Mr Salmond the highest satisfaction ratings of any Scottish party leader, with 49 per cent satisfied and 44 per cent dissatisfied – although such measures fail to measure the depth of feeling on either side.
“He’s a bullying bastard,” says Leslie Anderson, a retired publican and farmer enjoying a quiet afternoon pint in the White Horse Hotel bar a few minutes’ walk from Mr Salmond’s elegant home.
Pro-union politicians and the Better Together campaign have sought to capitalise on the negative views of Mr Salmond among undecided voters by portraying independence as his personal project.
That view is reflected in much of the UK press, which routinely talks of “Alex Salmond’s Yes campaign”. That phrase upsets many in the Yes movement who are not fans of the first minister. They have responded by stressing that independence is not about the first minister.
“I hate Alex Salmond, too,” one Radical Independence campaigner found herself telling voters during a canvass of the Gorbals in Glasgow, before explaining that Scotland would have the chance to choose a new leader after independence.
In Fife, some Yes Scotland canvassers told voters that a Yes vote on Thursday might hasten Mr Salmond’s departure from the political stage, because after independence he would surely retire at the next Scottish election in 2016. A victory for the No campaign may prompt him to battle on.
Mr Salmond’s ratings are still better than those of pro-union rivals such as Alistair Darling, leader of the Better Together campaign, and even Gordon Brown, the former UK prime minister who emerged in the last few weeks as one of the most effective anti-independence campaigners.
And he is far more popular than senior UK Conservatives such as David Cameron, the prime minister, who has the trust of only 11 per cent of Scottish voters, according to an Opinium poll.
“I suppose Salmond is all right . . . put it like this, he’s better than what’s down in Westminster,” said Alex Barrowan, 65, a Kilmarnock gardener.
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