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.
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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