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With summer showers turning the grass to mud among the tanks, artillery and other emblems of British military power, the field below the walled cliffs of Stirling castle on Armed Forces Day looked like tricky territory for a Nationalist first minister bent on tearing Scotland out of the UK.
But Alex Salmond is not the sort of politician to be put off by a bit of wet weather or the presence of thousands of UK ex-servicemen mostly hostile to the idea of Scottish independence. No matter that the decision to host the event in Stirling was a ploy by pro-union politicians to deflect attention from nearby events marking the Scottish victory at the 1314 Battle of Bannockburn; Mr Salmond could still seize the chance to charm visitors. Long after the UK prime minister David Cameron had left for home, he was still cheerfully posing for selfies – incongruously sporting on his lapel a Union Flag badge expressing support for British military personnel.
The blend of self confidence, dedication to the cause and pragmatic pursuit of tactical advantage on display that rainy afternoon has brought Mr Salmond a long way. The boy from the council house in Scotland’s central belt has led his nation to the brink of a vote that could end its three centuries of political union with England.
It has been an extraordinary journey, one that spans the Scottish National party’s rise from fringe group to government – and that now has the potential to transform the map of the UK and send shockwaves across Europe and beyond.
Yet on the threshold of this climactic vote, the fiercely private Mr Salmond still appears an enigmatic figure. Scottish voters hold sharply contrasting views of the man who has led their devolved government in Edinburgh as first minister for the past seven years. Though his popularity ratings are far higher than any of his UK rivals, a large section of the electorate sees him as arrogant and untrustworthy. Campaigners for a Yes vote on September 18 say that often one of the biggest obstacles to winning over new potential supporters to independence is their antipathy to Mr Salmond himself.
Now with Scotland a week away from its biggest constitutional decision in three centuries, it is not only Scottish voters seeking to take the measure of the man who, if a Yes vote prevails next Thursday, will direct his nation’s first steps into an independent future.
It is no insult to call Mr Salmond a “black bitch”. Citizens of Linlithgow, the Scottish town where Alexander Elliot Anderson Salmond was born on New Year’s eve in 1954, are traditionally proud to identify themselves with the mythical beast that features on its coat of arms. This is a royal burgh steeped in history – a ruined palace from the days when Scotland was an independent kingdom lies just off the high street. And it was here that Mr Salmond as a young boy sat on his grandfather’s knee to hear tales of local families joining the bloody 14th century resistance to English rule that had its climax at Bannockburn, where an army under Scots King Robert the Bruce destroyed a much larger invading force to secure his kingdom.
Mr Salmond says his grandfather’s stories “kindled a flame” of patriotism, but harking back to such stirring tales alone do not a Scottish Nationalist make. Many proud Scots also celebrate Bannockburn, while still seeing the 1707 union between the parliaments of Scotland and England as a good deal that paved the way for peace and prosperity as Great Britain.
Mr Salmond’s grandfather, a retired plumber, was himself a Liberal. His father was a strong socialist, his mother a Conservative. It was only after the future first minister became an undergraduate at St Andrews that he joined the SNP. He studied medieval history and economics, and says it was the confidence in the economic case that turned him into a supporter of independence.
He quickly showed the kind of determination to take on the British establishment that has marked his career. As a Scot from a working-class background he stood apart from the English and public school-educated Scots who made up much of St Andrews’ student body. But he was contemptuous of contemporaries who tried to polish their style to fit in with the social elite – instead he launched a surprise bid to become student president and only narrowly lost to a Conservative candidate.
After graduation in 1978, he worked first for the Scottish civil service before a successful early career as an energy economist at Royal Bank of Scotland. The experience left him with an assured way with statistics that has helped give him an edge over many opponents ever since. But his passion was politics. He established himself as one of the SNP’s rising stars, pushing for the party to make itself more electable in western and central Scotland by adopting more socialist policies. Briefly ejected from the party in 1982 for his role in a socialist and republican faction, he was a few years later selected to contest the Banff and Buchan constituency in northeast Aberdeenshire for the 1987 UK general election.
Stuart Pratt, an SNP veteran and still Mr Salmond’s election agent, was one of the local party organisers who reviewed the fresh-faced young politician as a candidate – and says his selection as candidate was controversial among some local members. Some thought his leftwing credentials were too much of a handicap in a rural Conservative-held constituency where the best chance of victory lay in rallying the anti-Tory vote rather than talking about independence or socialism. But Mr Pratt says Mr Salmond’s qualities outweighed the doubts.
“It was his confidence and his ability to speak to all sorts,” Mr Pratt recalls in an interview at his home among low hills dotted with livestock and barley farms, adding that Mr Salmond also had and retains an excellent memory for names and faces. Other natural skills include a sense of comic timing and an unforced bonhomie.
The selection gamble paid off. Mr Salmond defeated the Conservative incumbent by more than 2,000 votes. His ambition and his potential were clear, says Mr Pratt. “On the night of Alex’s first election, [one person there] turned to me and said: ‘You know you’ve just elected Scotland’s first prime minister, don’t you?’,” he says.
For Mr Salmond, getting to parliament was just the start – but making an impact in Westminster was not easy, not least since he was one of only three SNP members in parliament. But the novice MP found a way to establish himself as a presence with a move combining his tactical sense, self-belief and penchant for tweaking the establishment. This was a planned disruption of the Budget speech, a highlight of the UK calendar. In Scotland at the time there was widespread opposition to the imposition of the “poll tax” a flat local charge considered to favour the wealthy, and when then Tory chancellor Nigel Lawson unveiled his tax-cutting plan, Mr Salmond stood up to denounce it as an “obscenity” and then refused to sit down – a breach of protocol that earned him a suspension – and the SNP widespread publicity.
It is the kind of cheeky tactic that remains a trademark. The first minister still likes to defy convention, even “photo-bombing” UK Prime Minister David Cameron with a Saltire after Scottish tennis player Andy Murray’s victory at Wimbledon last year.
Yet the 1988 budget disruption also fitted into Mr Salmond’s long-term strategy, to raise the SNP’s profile and align it more closely with Scottish majority opinion. Elected party leader from 1990, he pursued a more pragmatic approach to independence aimed at minimising nervousness among voters about the risk of leaving the UK, an approach aided by his abandonment of previous opposition to EU membership in favour of calls for “independence within Europe”.
If this month’s referendum has proved anything, it is Mr Salmond’s long standing belief – maintained against fierce opposition from SNP “fundamentalists” – that Scotland was unlikely to achieve independence in one fell swoop and that the party’s best option was an incremental approach of supporting devolution from London.
A Labour government’s creation of the Edinburgh parliament in 1999 transformed Scottish politics and gave the Nationalists a stage on which they could play a bigger role than was ever possible in Westminster.
Ironically, Mr Salmond at first struggled to take advantage. In 2000 he stunned SNP supporters by stepping down as leader. The next year he left the Scottish parliament.
But Labour’s grip on Scotland was slipping. With a refreshed Mr Salmond back in command, the SNP in 2007 became the largest party in the Scottish government – and formed a minority administration of impressive competence and discipline.
The victory put Mr Salmond in a political sweet spot – still able to act as opposition when it came to battling London over policies or resources, but also enjoying the power and prestige that comes with control of the Scottish government.
Like many successful politicians, he has also been lucky in his enemies. Out of office, Labour in Scotland has crumbled. In 2011, the party scored a stunning election victory that has paved this way for this month’s referendum. The pledge to hold an independence referendum had not been a manifesto priority, but Westminster agreed the SNP now had a democratic mandate for a vote.
It says a great deal about Mr Salmond’s political style that even many people who have been watching him for decades struggle to say what – beyond independence for Scotland – he stands for. Under him the SNP has cast itself as left-of-centre, but Mr Salmond has also cheerfully cultivated such right-leaning international figures as Rupert Murdoch and – until a falling out over wind power – Donald Trump.
“I find him the most pragmatic politician that I have ever met,” says Peter de Vink, a financier and libertarian local councillor who is a strong admirer. “He talks left of centre, but he hasn’t acted left of centre.”
James Mitchell, a politics expert at Edinburgh university and author of The Scottish Question who has known Mr Salmond since he was at RBS, says the first minister should be understood as an “old fashioned social democrat” who supports redistribution but respects the power of markets.
“Like all social democrats he can be accused of not having very clear ideological positions,” Prof Mitchell says. “When you’re in government you can’t be an ideologue and he’s always had ambitions to govern.”
The growing possibility that Mr Salmond might indeed be Scotland’s first prime minister means increased scrutiny of his personal character. His reputation for arrogance is such that even he jokes about it. Some who have dealt with him say he can be a bully, happy to browbeat critics into silence. Even admirers acknowledge he can be a hard and sometimes bad-tempered taskmaster to his staff.
But it is Mr Salmond’s adept use of spin – effortlessly gliding over gaps in his arguments, selectively quoting opponents and stretching statistics to breaking point to make his case – that really enrages his rivals.
Even Mr Salmond can take spin too far, however. In 2012 he appeared to claim that the Scottish government had legal advice supporting its position on EU membership. When it later emerged there was no such advice, many felt betrayed. The Scottish Sun, which backed the SNP in 2011, ran a front-page headline reading: “EU Liar”. Asked in a recent YouGov poll whether they trusted Mr Salmond, 58 per cent of voters said no. Yet even fewer trusted Mr Cameron and Mr Salmond still enjoys approval rates impressive for a seven-year incumbent.
Still, trust could yet be a big issue if Scotland votes for independence next week. Many Yes supporters stress that the referendum is not about the first minister or dependent on his arguments. But the picture he paints of a smooth transition and rosy fiscal future has been at the centre of the campaign, as has his insistence that Scotland will be able to continue to use the Bank of England and the pound.
This has been a gamble much bigger than the bets Mr Salmond loves to place on horses. Any serious set backs in post-vote negotiations could shake confidence in him and sour the early days of independence.
Mr Salmond no doubt thinks it a gamble worth taking. The onetime history student loves quotes from the past, and one of his favourites is from James Graham, Marquis of Montrose, who in the 17th century wrote a poetic defence of living dangerously that runs: “He either fears his fate too much/Or his deserts are small/That puts it not unto the touch/To win or lose it all”.
It is no surprise that Mr Salmond appears convinced independence is well worth the risks and costs. Next week he will find out if the people of Scotland agree.
Politician craves quiet life away from the cameras
Mr Salmond’s insistence on maintaining his privacy has long encouraged curiosity among journalists and associates used to leaders more willing to share their personal lives to the public. His marriage at 26 was unusual in that his wife Moira, a senior official in the Scottish civil service where he worked briefly in the late 1970s, is 17 years his senior – although to many the couple say the age gap was hardly apparent.
“Alex has always been older than his age. I always think he was probably born middle-aged and has always been middle-aged, but Moira’s always been the opposite, much younger at heart,” says one person who has known the couple for many years and who describes Mrs Salmond as very private, intelligent, witty and a “huge support” for her husband.
Such is the divide between Mr Salmond’s political life and his weekend retreats home to the elegantly restored Mill of Strichen in his northeastern constituency that some longstanding observers wonder aloud whether he even has any real friends.
But Dennis MacLeod, a Scottish gold industry entrepreneur and SNP supporter now based in Canada, says the childless Mr Salmond is actually a “very ordinary, affable and down to earth person”. He portrays the politician as a warm friend who frequently stayed at his home when he lived in Scotland and who would always bring toys and end up playing with them in the garden with his children.
Mr MacLeod says during a visit to northern Ullapool in the late 1990s, Mr Salmond once instructed one of his daughters to go ahead of him down a street telling voters the SNP leader would be arriving shortly, then followed behind in a hastily-purchased gorilla mask to general amusement. “That’s very typical of the man,” Mr MacLeod says.