Ian Swanson: Salm don't like it too hot, Alex
WHEN Alex Salmond addressed supporters in the grounds of Prestonfield House the day after the Scottish Parliament elections, he carefully avoided the temptation of triumphalism.
Despite the unpredicted and unprecedented overall majority the SNP had just won, he struck a statesmanlike tone, promising to govern "fairly and wisely" and announcing "we don't have a monopoly of wisdom".
The message went out that although the numbers meant the Nationalists could, in theory, push through whatever they wanted at Holyrood, they would, in fact, continue to seek consensus with other parties for the policies they brought to parliament.
It was an implicit recognition that with the SNP's ultimate prize of independence closer to its grasp than ever before, the party must keep a level head, carry on with the important day-to-day task of governing the country and not allow itself to become intoxicated with its own success.
But, six weeks later, the atmosphere suddenly changed. An interview with the First Minister appeared in Holyrood magazine in which he launched outspoken attacks on Lord Hope - one of two top Scottish judges to sit on the UK Supreme Court - and leading human rights lawyer Professor Tony Kelly.
Now he finds himself locked in a bitter and divisive dispute with Scotland's legal establishment. The spirit of consensus seems to have vanished and Mr Salmond's long-term strategy for advancing Scottish independence has been undermined.
The row over the "interference" of the UK Supreme Court in Scotland's justice system had already been bubbling for some time, but the interview changed the tenor of the debate from a feisty First Minister standing up for Scotland to an angry Alex Salmond making personal attacks on respected individuals.
His comments provoked uproar and even a threat to sue. Challenged in parliament to apologise, he repeatedly refused to do so.
Many people will feel some of the points made by Mr Salmond were perfectly valid. The problem was the extreme language he used in making them.
After being elected First Minister in 2007, everything Mr Salmond did was geared to proving the SNP could govern efficiently and responsibly, and he was rewarded with a massive vote of confidence on May 5.
The next stage in the SNP's journey towards its promised referendum is making the party's call for more powers seem as reasonable as possible and the case for independence as non-threatening as can be.
Scotland should have the "normal powers of a normal nation". If Northern Ireland is to get control of corporation tax, surely Scotland could not be denied the same. After independence, the Queen would still be head of state and the DVLA would still issue driving licences.
But winning the argument for further constitutional change depends on maintaining the public perception of a competent, capable and consensual administration.
In taking on the legal establishment, the First Minister seems unnecessarily to have alienated one of the most influential groups in Scotland and one which is not likely to forgive and forget in a hurry.
Some of those closest to the First Minister are said to be furious.
The episode seems to be in complete contrast to the SNP's slick and professional election campaign and its meticulous planning for power.
Faced with Labour's panicked attacks on the SNP's promise of a referendum on independence, Mr Salmond calmly insisted that was not his immediate priority and instead he outlined how he wanted to get some "economic teeth" into the Scotland Bill, naming earlier borrowing powers, devolution of the Crown Estates and control of corporation tax.
After the election, armed with his majority and re-elected as First Minister, he added to the list of extra powers - broadcasting, excise duty and a voice in Europe - but carefully chose ones for which at least one other party had declared support.
But this careful and considered political strategy may now have been jeopardised by the ill-chosen comments in an interview given when, as Labour leader Iain Gray suggested, the First Minister was "in a bad mood".
The newly-published Scottish Election Study shows the SNP has managed to build support among a wide variety of groups in Scottish society - men, women, middle class, working class, Catholic, Church of Scotland and non-religious.
They voted for Mr Salmond and the SNP, not for independence. But the scale of the Nationalist win does at least open the possibility that these voters could be persuaded to back independence. Not, however, if they are no longer impressed by the people asking for their support.
One political opponent said there was no doubt Mr Salmond would hold his promised referendum. "The question is whether it will be the sensible Alex Salmond we saw being very consensual at Prestonfield or the mad Alex Salmond of the Supreme Court row."
It could make all the difference.
Search for a job
Search for a car
Search for a house
Weather for Edinburgh
Friday 24 May 2013
Temperature: 2 C to 12 C
Wind Speed: 21 mph
Wind direction: North east
Temperature: 5 C to 17 C
Wind Speed: 13 mph
Wind direction: West