On the day of Alex Salmond’s final First Minister’s Questions at Holyrood, Derek Bateman considers his legacy.
What was the pinnacle? After 20 years in leadership and seven as First Minister, Alex Salmond would be entitled to reply that longevity was his ultimate achievement.
More correctly, he could point to consistency, the true hallmark of success and one that contrasts sharply with the ebb and flow of personalities among his many opponents.
He himself points to the SNP’s record in office as the real prize and, outside the chamber, tells journalists the legacy is public engagement with politics.
But, since the referendum was lost, there is a case for making the Edinburgh Agreement the jewel in Salmond’s accomplishments. We forget now what a mirage independence appeared only a decade or so ago and how opaque seemed the process it would involve. What would Britain permit? How far could Edinburgh go? Could Scots demand anything to help make it happen…
In boldly pushing ahead with a self-operated referendum plan, Salmond scared the daylights out of a London administrationwhich foresaw a trap after an overwhelming Yes, even one delivered in a consultative, non-binding plebiscite. (More Scots were likely to vote Yes given it would have had no legal status.)
The truly intelligent option was for Cameron to seek face-to-face talks with the Scottish leader and ascertain just what he did want and how much could be ceded without disruption and, potentially, without a referendum. But, just as a televised confrontation was more than he could handle, so Cameron flunked that too.
Instead, in order to secure what he was advised was a guaranteed victory if Devo Max was excluded, he came to Edinburgh and gave legal status to a straight independence choice. He came to our government in our capital and shook the hand of our First Minister. The symbolism was all.
This was further than any British government had gone before and is now the precedent for all future constitutional disputes. After the Agreement, there was what history will regard as relative failure – in defeat and resignation. But its doubtful if any leader – Lamont included – has departed the immediate scene with a bushfire blazing along the horizon.
Defeat – and a dignified exit – ignited the dried brush and it is driving all before it in panic. We don’t know where and when it will dim and what waste it will leave behind but when it does burn out and the landscape is changed, we will look back and attribute it to Salmond. It is a legacy still in the making.
Many of us tired of the media cartoon version of a man who always much bigger than his critics. Despite his honours, I don’t think of him as special but as one of us. His conversation with me in Kilmarnock before the vote allowed him to reminisce about childhood and political derring-do and how he was open-eyed at his grandfather’s gory history stories. He twinkles at the thought of outwitting opponents, be they politicians or, as a child, English generals.
He developed without knowing it, a fierce loyalty to a country that has always had to fight in order to stand, one that got beaten but which always got up again. It’s that idea of the man who never quits, who believes in something so deeply that only others of like-mind can understand, that Scots find easy to embrace. He is, in many ways, the Scot they themselves would like to be…and if they can’t do it, he’ll do just fine.
Every one of us has a view. Mine is this: He is the best Scottish politician of the age. He deserves the accolade of Great Scot. His place in history is assured. But more than any of that, I’m proud just to know him. He never really was Alex Salmond, First Minister. He was always Alex Salmond, Scot.