Listen to this article
When Alex Salmond, Scotland’s first minister, announced he would step down as leader of the Scottish National party, he showed little of the humility that might be expected of a politician taking responsibility for defeat in a historic referendum.
Indeed, the way Mr Salmond told it, the rejection by Scottish voters of independence sounded more like a success.
Mr Salmond, who has led Scotland for seven years and the SNP for 10, said the referendum had left his nation “at a moment of great political opportunity” – though not one that he would be seizing.
“I believe this is a new exciting situation that is redolent with possibility, but in that situation I think the party, parliament and country would benefit from new leadership,” he told a press conference at his elegant Edinburgh official residence.
Mr Salmond’s announcement came as a particular surprise because early on Friday morning, a relaxed first minister had delivered a markedly upbeat – and carefully conditional – referendum concession speech.
“Scotland has by a majority decided, at this stage, not to become an independent country. I accept that verdict of the people and I call on all of Scotland to follow suit,” he said then.
Mr Salmond has repeatedly stated that an independence referendum is a once-in-a-generation political event, although when he announced his resignation he made clear that was a personal view rather than a position that might bind the SNP indefinitely.
Mr Salmond’s upbeat view of the situation was not merely a manifestation of the extraordinary self-confidence that has sustained him through a roller-coaster political career that took the former economist and his party from the political fringes to Scottish government.
Even critics acknowledge that the 45 per cent of voters who backed independence on Thursday marked a fresh peak in nationalist support in Scotland’s modern political history.
A referendum which pro-union parties originally expected to win at a stroll turned into a nail-biting battle that left the No campaign scrambling in the campaign’s final days to promise rapid devolution of new powers to the Scottish parliament in a desperate attempt to shore up support for the Union.
Mr Salmond said he was taking responsibility for any failings in the referendum campaign, though he gave little hint that he felt it had come up short. Instead he insisted the poll had left Scotland well placed to secure greater powers from the UK government in Westminster – and that it thus marked a step forward toward the ultimate goal of full independence.
The Yes campaign’s success in winning the support of 1.6m Scottish voters would give it great leverage in negotiations on a new balance of constitutional authority between London and Edinburgh, said Mr Salmond, who indicated he would continue as a member of the Scottish parliament.
“We have the opportunity to hold Westminster’s feet to the fire on the vow that they have made to devolve further meaningful power to Scotland. This places Scotland in a very strong position,” the first minister said.
“For me as leader, my time is nearly over, but for Scotland the campaign continues and the dream shall never die.” The process of selecting a new leader would be “energising” for the party, he added.
Though Mr Salmond declined to name a preferred successor, his deputy as first minister Nicola Sturgeon is now the clear favourite to become the first female leader of the devolved Scottish government.
Ms Sturgeon, a former lawyer who has played the part of loyal lieutenant to near perfection, was a leading figure in the referendum campaign and has high public approval ratings.
An advantage Ms Sturgeon enjoys over her boss is that she is a less divisive figure. Although Mr Salmond’s personal popularity exceeds that of other Scottish politicians, he registers negative ratings on issues such as trust.
“I’ve no doubt it will be Nicola Sturgeon – the only question is who will fill her position,” Gordon Wilson, a former SNP leader, told the BBC.
Mr Salmond’s announcement prompted immediate tributes from his political rivals – some of whom may have been cheered by the impending departure from the political front line of a man who was for decades a thorn in the side of the Westminster establishment.
Ed Miliband, UK Labour leader, praised him as formidable in standing up for his beliefs. David Cameron, UK prime minister hailed his “huge talent and passion”.
Speaking before Mr Salmond’s announcement, Michael Keating, professor of politics at Aberdeen university, said that if he did decide to step down it would be as the SNP’s most successful leader rather than as a humbled one.
“The SNP is extremely cohesive, they are still in power and they have a very good prospect of winning the next Scottish election,” Prof Keating said.
While the referendum defeat left many Yes campaigners disappointed to the point of near despair, SNP veterans said the fact that support for independence fell just 5 percentage points short of a majority was a stunning achievement. In the past support for leaving the UK has usually run at around a third or less of Scottish voters.
“If you had offered me 45 per cent six weeks ago . . . I would bitten your right and left hands off, plus your arms and most of your shoulder,” says Andrew Wilson, Nationalist columnist and former member of the Scottish parliament.
Yet even the highly assured Ms Sturgeon, whose politics lie on the left of the SNP’s broad political spectrum, may struggle to have the impact of her current boss, who has led the SNP in two stints for a total of 20 years and is widely considered one of the most accomplished politicians of his generation.