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Alex Salmond, Scotland’s longest serving First Minister

7 November 2012

So Alex Salmond has achieved the feat of becoming Scotland’s longest serving First Minister. This is a notable achievement. After all, he has avoided the fate of one of his predecessors – resigning in disgrace – and another: being defeated at the ballot box.

Salmond has just served as Scotland’s First Minister for 2001 days, or five and half years, just eclipsing the term served by Jack McConnell between 2001 and 2007.

But even he would agree that the field to contest this landmark is not a large one. Scotland has only had four first ministers since 1999. The first, Donald Dewar, lasted just a year before his death in 2000. The second, Henry McLeish, also lasted a year before resigning over an office expenses scandal. McConnell was the third and he steadied the devolution project, bringing some much-needed calmness to the enterprise and serving a largely unremarkable five and half years before election defeat to Salmond in 2007.

It seems likely that Salmond will go on to at least 2016 and the next Scottish Parliament elections, becoming the first First Minister to see out two complete terms. But Salmond has had to work hard to get this far.

He became SNP leader way back in 1990 – 22 years ago. He led the party for ten years before stepping down in favour of John Swinney in 2000. But he returned in 2004, the SNP’s own ‘king over the water’ to lead the party out of the wilderness and into power for the first time in 2007.

Much of the SNP’s success in the 2011 election – when it thumped the Labour Party and secured the only majority in Scottish devolution history, a feat many think will never be repeated – is down to his leadership. Salmond decided that the only way the SNP was going to be able to break through in Labour heartlands was to be seen as a competent party of government. He made sure the impression was created that he stood up for Scottish interests, didn’t try anything too flashy and was rewarded with that majority in 2011.

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Since then, everything in Scottish politics has become consumed by the debate over the independence referendum. The work of the Scottish Government appears almost exclusively devoted to that end and, again, Salmond is doing very little else in government except drive forward towards autumn 2014. However, that in itself is a momentous achievement. Whether he wins or loses the referendum, Salmond will have achieved something few Nationalists thought possible – he has actually managed to secure a referendum on Scottish independence and put the break-up of the UK at the top of the country’s political agenda.

Separation is now a real possibility and, even if the Nationalists lose in two years’ time, the issue will never go away again.

So there is no doubt that, in the rather limited pantheon of Scottish devolutionary politics, Salmond’s achievements rank far higher than any of his predecessors (although Dewar comes a close second courtesy of founding the parliament in the first place).

Salmond’s politics have always been hard to pin down. He used to be a left-leaning firebrand, and was even expelled from the SNP in 1982. He is strongly anti-nuclear (both weapons and power stations) but, then again, so is his party so this strident stance may be more to appease his activists than anything else.

But he is also an economist by training and is keen to keep business on board on the march towards the referendum – which is why he has been stressing his plans for a low business tax environment in Scotland after independence.

Also, his SNP administration’s first moves were to freeze council tax and reduce business rates – both measures designed to appeal to the conservative middle classes in Scotland. Salmond, therefore, is not afraid to shift with the political sands and take advantage where he can get it, all in the cause of strengthening the independence case.

A horse tipster and noted gambler, he has always been astute at parliamentary politics and was brilliant in the House of Commons as a sniper and small-party antagonist. Many thought this would not translate well to leading a government but Salmond has used his rhetorical skills to flatten and bludgeon most of those who have come up against him.

He does, though, suffer from a short temper and working for him can be difficult, as some of those who have done so in the last few years attest in private. Also, his desire to ‘wing it’ by taking a brazen route to political problems has already got him into trouble and may lead to much more as the unionists turn their attention to the detail (or lack of it) of the independence case.

But, after five and half years, not only is Mr Salmond not finished yet, but his greatest moment is yet to come, when the referendum on independence actually happens.

And all in Scottish politics – friends or foes – would agree, not only that it has been an interesting journey, but it is quite clearly not over yet.

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  • terregles2

    It has been great that for the first time ever Scotland has a Minister who speaks up for our country. For so long we have endured the dreary negative BritNatz career politicians talking down our country. It does not matter whether the Referendum vote is a NO the Independence issue will not go away. People will still campaign for it and eventually there will be another Referendum. If Scots vote NO in 2014 the Tories will finish Scotland where Thatcher left off. That would make another referendum a big YES.

  • martin

    Opinion piece from Alex Salmond, First Minister for Scotland on scottish independence.

  • MichtyMe

    I don’t think that a failed referendum would necessarily damage the SNP. The “nationalist” part of the electorate would continue to vote for the party, who else would they switch to? Much of the rest, who want good competent government and who were doubtful about this untested party before 2007 but thereafter reassured enough to give it a majority in an proportional parliament would probably do the same, unless there was an unexpected and miraculous transformation in the ranks of the opposition.

  • GUBU

    Salmond is undoubtedly a very skilled politician, and he has been able to exploit the centrifugal forces created by devolution more skillfully that those tied to major parties at Westminster.

    Perhaps his greatest skill has been built on separating, in many voters minds, support for the SNP as a party and support for Scottish independence as an issue: paradoxically, you can vote for Salmond as the person best placed to fight for Scottish interests within the Union, and as the principle proponent of independence.

    It will be interesting to see if he can continue to have his cake and eat it after the referendum, because I don’t think, as you suggest, he will be able to keep the issue of independence to the fore in Scottish politics over a prolonged period without conceding some of the electoral ground the SNP have won in recent years.

  • HooksLaw

    He has also avoided the fate of another … dying. On such vagaries, death, do the best laid plans go awry. As the poet said.

  • wrinkledweasel

    Hamish says: “Salmond is doing very little else in government except drive forward towards autumn 2014”

    I beg to differ. Here is an example.

    Here in Scotland, NHS policy-makers are generally allowed to get on with what they are doing. Down South, those who run it are always looking over their shoulder. Reports have to come up with “the right” answer. The frequent change of ministers leads to stasis and inhibition. In Scotland those who are rightly considered to be experts in their fields are left to get on with it.

    My evidence is based on first hand accounts from those who are in a position to know, and perhaps more importantly for Hamish, have no allegiance with the SNP.

    Allowing the experts to do their job without interference is liberating in any field. It’s a case where “doing very little” pays handsome rewards and ultimately drives forward public services into the realms of innovation and initiative.

    The downside of this is the dire state of NHS management in general, which has resulted in several major scandals recently, including the manipulation of waiting lists, but at least the chief executive responsible was replaced and as a result of a searing and critical report that was instigated by one Nicola Sturgeon.

    The Scottish Government is not without its problems, but in this instance, it found a major one and dealt with it. Hardly “doing very little else” is it?

    • HooksLaw

      The waiting list scandal that you refer to was certainly major and the bloke left on his own to perpetuate it has also taken a nice golden goodbye. Pity Sturgeon could not prevent that. I think the SNP had to be dragged kicking and screaming into a national report.

      • wrinkledweasel

        Where is your evidence that the SNP “had to be dragged kicking and screaming” ? The only reference I could find was some mouthy Labour woman who got in on the act after the fact.

        The first references i found to the Lothian waiting list scandal are related to the announcement of the inquiry. If you can give details of when the problem reached the Scottish Government and when they started the inquiry, we should all benefit from your wisdom.

        The Scottish Government has no say in employment law and neither can it wiggle out of contractual obligations which were undertaken by another administration. The nice “golden goodbye” is a function of UK and EU legislation and nothing to do with the SNP. Technically, the guy retired early, before he was pushed. Hardly a novelty in this cowardly and corrupt age.

        • HooksLaw

          Admittedly I was relying on the BBC

          Ms Baillie said: “This is a hugely positive development and comes in
          sharp contrast to Nicola Sturgeon’s attempts at Holyrood to block an
          inquiry into the SNP’s hidden waiting times scandal.
          “Scottish Labour has been pressing the government to hold a
          full, independent, Scotland-wide investigation for months now. But at
          every turn the SNP seemed desperate to brush our concerns under the carpet.”

          • wrinkledweasel

            Relying on the BBC is not a good idea. You have merely re-cycled the words of a yakking Labour hag, as yakked verbatim to the propaganda arm of the Labour Party long after the report commissioned by Sturgeon had been published. You have had the opportunity to back up your borrowed opinion failed. Give up.

            I am not “sanctifying” Sturgeon. I initially responded to the OPs gross generalisation and cited an example from an area that I am in touch with.

            I suggest you cease and desist until you can demonstrate some kind of argument that has a connection with the facts. You certainly won’t get any more indulgence from me.

            • Newmains Jimmy

              Ah those “experts” we have in Scotland. What great guys.

              Funnily enough, and what apparently escapes your notice, it would appear from published data that the NHS in Scotland spends much more per capita than the NHS in England and it would seem that the health outcomes in many areas here are inferior to those in England. Now one can put forward all kinds of reasons as to why this might be the case and the interpretation of the data on outcomes is problematic but still.

          • Maidmarrion

            Your mistake was in relying on BBBC Scotland.
            It is a sad ,despicable organisation which spends its time pretending it was voted into power as the Labour party.
            Had you watched the Newsnight Scotland piece on Mr Salmond becoming the longest serving FM you might possibly have detected the poison which they feed to the Scottish public.
            The one good thing which may emerge from the revolting Saville affair may be the clipping of the Beebs arrogant wings ,That said ,if we are waiting for the BBBC Trust to do anything we will wait forever.

  • L’Arse

    ‘Even if the Nationalists lose in two years’ time, the issue will never go away again… ’

    Not sure what this remark is supposed to mean, as there surely won’t be another referendum in our lifetimes.

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