Salmond Steps Down As SNP Leader

14 November 2014, 06:10 | Updated: 14 November 2014, 06:27

He is the SNP's most successful leader, but also the man who failed to deliver on nationalist dreams of independence when the referendum resulted in a No vote.

Alex Salmond steps down as SNP leader today - a job he has held for some 20 years, taking the party from the opposition benches to majority government.

His greatest achievement in that time, he has said, is the restoration of free university education for Scottish students.

But that landmark would have paled into insignificance if Scots had voted to leave the UK two months ago.

The referendum, which has dominated politics north of the border for much of the last three years, saw 1.6 million people - 45% of those who voted - back the creation of a separate Scotland.

Gordon Wilson, the man who preceded Mr Salmond in the post of SNP leader, said he had not been surprised that voters opted to stay in the UK, but added that the level of public energy the campaign created was "nothing short of miraculous''.

Mr Wilson, the SNP leader from 1979 to 1990, said: "For Alex Salmond the referendum campaign was a rocky road. In a career which was brilliant, there had been lapses.''

Many were left surprised when the charismatic and confident Mr Salmond was defeated by Better Together leader Alistair Darling in their first live TV debate, with the former chancellor putting his SNP rival under pressure over the currency of an independent Scotland.

While the momentum appeared to be with independence supporters in the last few frenetic weeks of the campaign, ultimately Mr Salmond will be the man who won the right to stage the referendum, but failed to win the historic vote.

He joined the party in 1973 while at St Andrews University, where he studied economics and history.

Within a few years his left-wing views saw him play a prominent role in the breakaway faction known as the "79 Group'' - with Mr Salmond expelled by nationalists for a short while for his involvement.

In 1987 he was elected as the MP for Banff and Buchan, gaining prominence when he was suspended for a week for disrupting the chancellor's budget speech the following year.

He said later that the incident - in which business in the Commons was suspended while Mr Salmond was expelled from the chamber - took him from "total nonentity to notoriety''.

He went on to take over the leadership of the SNP for the first time in 1990, when Mr Wilson stood down.

Mr Salmond was still at the helm in 1997 when Scottish politics changed forever.

Tony Blair's Labour Party enjoyed a landslide win, wiping out the Tories north of the border, in an election which saw the SNP increase its tally of MPs to six.

After getting into Downing Street, Labour made good on its pledge to hold a referendum establishing a new Scottish Parliament - and the campaign for a Yes-Yes vote - with people being asked to back the creation of a new parliament and giving it limited tax-raising powers - began, with the SNP involved alongside Labour and the Liberal Democrats.

Following an emphatic vote for the devolved parliament, the first Holyrood elections took place in 1999, with Mr Salmond becoming MSP for Banff and Buchan.

The SNP, with 35 seats, were the second-largest party at Holyrood and formed the opposition to the Labour-Liberal Democrat Scottish Executive.

But Mr Salmond's first spell at Holyrood did not last long. He stood down as SNP leader in 2000 and left the Scottish Parliament the following year.

John Swinney took over the helm but quit himself four years later, resulting in speculation that Mr Salmond could return.

He refused at first, stating: "If nominated, I'll decline; if drafted, I'll defer; and if elected, I'll resign.''

After SNP members pleaded with him to reconsider, he threw his hat into the ring, saying: "I am not just launching a campaign to be SNP leader, I am launching my candidacy to be First Minister of Scotland.''

Nicola Sturgeon, who had been a leadership candidate, withdrew and stood on a joint ticket with him, marking the start of a decade-long partnership at the helm of the SNP.

With Mr Salmond having no seat at Holyrood, it was his new deputy who led the party there. But in 2007 the name of Alexander Elliot Anderson Salmond was back on the ballot paper again and he returned to the Edinburgh parliament not just as the MSP for Gordon but as the new First Minister.

The SNP had emerged as the largest party at Holyrood by the narrowest of margins, with 47 MSPs to Labour's 46.

For the next four years - for the most part - the party managed to operate as a minority administration. In January 2009, however, Mr Salmond threatened to resign after his government failed to get its budget through the Parliament.

"The government can't stay in office unless it can put the budget through,'' he said.

The budget did go through at the second time of asking, with the SNP successfully seeing out four years as a minority government - an impressive achievement for Mr Salmond and his team.

However, without a majority of MSPs, plans to hold a referendum on independence had to be put on hold.

In 2011 that changed when the SNP won an unprecedented overall majority at Holyrood, in defiance of the parliament's system of proportional representation.

Nationalists secured a total of 69 of the 129 seats in the Scottish Parliament - a result which made September's vote on Scotland's place in the UK a certainty.

Mr Salmond has become Scotland's longest-serving First Minister, holding the top job for more than seven years.

In that time his government has pursued a raft of popular policies, such as the council-tax freeze, the abolition of prescription charges and the restoration of free university education.

His administration has also passed legislation to bring in a minimum pricing for alcohol - though implementation of this has been delayed by a legal challenge - and changed the law to allow same-sex couples to wed.

But there have also been controversies too - the decision by his Justice Secretary, Kenny MacAskill, to free the Lockerbie bomber, Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, on compassionate grounds, his handling of planning for Donald Trump's Scottish golf course, and his dealings with newspaper boss Rupert Murdoch to name a few.

While his dream of an independent Scotland has not yet come true for Mr Salmond, there is a chance that the referendum - and the newly-energised electorate it has created - could still see that come to pass.