ALEX Salmond has resigned as Scotland’s First Minister after his lifelong dream of an independent Scotland was rejected by the people.
At a hastily convened press conference at his official Edinburgh residence, he ended a remarkable career in front-line politics that saw his Scottish National Party evolve from a minority movement into an election-winning political machine.
Having fallen at the final hurdle on the long road to independence, the First Minister said he would not accept the nomination for the SNP leadership at his party’s November conference.
After a leadership vote at the gathering in Perth, Mr Salmond will stand down as Scotland’s longest-serving First Minister.
In a statement read to journalists, Mr Salmond said he was “immensely proud” of the hard-fought campaign that secured 45 per cent of the vote in Thursday’s referendum.
“I am also proud of the 85 per cent turnout in the referendum and the remarkable response of all of the people of Scotland who participated in this great democratic, constitutional debate and of course the manner in which they conducted themselves,” he said. “We now have the opportunity to hold Westminster’s feet to the fire on the vow that they have made to devolve further meaningful power to Scotland; this places Scotland in a very strong position.”
Mr Salmond said his decision to quit had been influenced by a telephone conversation he had with the Prime Minister David Cameron yesterday morning to discuss the issue of more powers for Holyrood.
They spoke after Mr Cameron made a statement in Downing Street clarifying his offer and announcing that he would honour his pledge in full. He said new legislation would be drafted in January, and the proposed laws would include a plan to prevent Scottish MPs from voting on English-only issues.
But Mr Salmond was dissatisfied with the outcome of their conversation and queried whether Tory backbenchers would allow Mr Cameron to keep his promise to rejig the constitution.
“I spoke to the Prime Minister today and, although he reiterated his intention to proceed as he has now outlined, he would not commit to a second reading vote on 27 March on a new Scotland Bill,” Mr Salmond said.
“That was a clear promise laid out by Gordon Brown during the campaign. The Prime Minister says such a vote would be meaningless; I suspect he cannot guarantee the support of his party.”
Mr Salmond’s decision to quit will trigger a race for the succession. But there is little doubt his deputy, Nicola Sturgeon, is firm favourite to take over as the leader of the Scottish Government as well as the SNP.
Last night, she indicated she would be prepared to stand, but she could face a challenge from others, such as the veteran Alex Neil, the health secretary, or even one of the younger generation of SNP MSPs.
Mr Salmond declined to endorse anyone as his heir apparent, but it has long been assumed within the party that Ms Sturgeon would step into his shoes.
Mr Salmond said he intended to continue in his role as MSP for Aberdeenshire East but that he was no longer the person in the best position to lead the SNP after the referendum defeat.
Although he has repeatedly said it is “his own view” that a second independence referendum should not be held for another generation, he raised the prospect of the issue coming to a head in the near future.
He signed off his statement, saying: “The position is this. We lost the referendum vote but can still carry the political initiative. More importantly, Scotland can still emerge as the real winner. For me as leader, my time is nearly over but for Scotland, the campaign continues and the dream shall never die.”
He suggested the record turnout and unprecedented political activity seen on Scotland’s streets during the past few weeks signalled the birth of a new type of grassroots politics. “I think the guardians of Scotland in this process are now the tens of thousands of people actively in politics,” he said.
“I don’t think we any longer depend on words and deeds of Westminster politicians or even Holyrood politicians. I think that’s now where the centre of gravity lies and it is on that basis that I am confident about the future, as opposed to the words of Westminster politicians.”
Mr Salmond indicated he wanted to be involved in that but would not lead a movement that, by definition, relied on grassroots activity rather than top-down leadership.
He went on: “I think it was one of the underlying, amazing stories of this political campaign. Those who didn’t see that huge story because they were concerned about relatively minor incidents from either side on the corner of politics, they missed this extraordinary development in this modern age of political activism on a scale which Scotland has never seen. That is one of the underlying wonderful stories of the campaign.”
Politicians from the SNP and rival parties paid tribute to Mr Salmond.
Ms Sturgeon praised him in a statement that suggested she could take over. She said: “Alex Salmond’s achievements as SNP leader and Scotland’s First Minister are second to none.
“The personal debt of gratitude I owe Alex is immeasurable. He has been my friend, mentor and colleague for more than 20 years.
“Quite simply, I would not have been able to do what I have in politics without his constant advice, guidance and support through all these years.
“Alex’s announcement today inevitably raises the question of whether I will be a candidate to succeed him as SNP leader.
“I can think of no greater privilege than to seek to lead the party I joined when I was just 16. However, that decision is not for today.”
Mr Cameron and Better Together leader Alistair Darling, who delivered the blow that effectively ended Mr Salmond’s career as First Minister, spoke of their admiration of him as a politician.
The Prime Minister said: “Alex is a politician of huge talent and passion. He has been an effective First Minister and always fights his corner. While we disagree profoundly about his goal of a separated Scotland, and many other things, I respect and admire his huge contribution to politics and public life.”
Mr Darling said: “Alex Salmond is a formidable political figure. He transformed the SNP into a party of government and delivered their referendum on independence, which they had craved so long.
“Today, he has accepted Scotland’s verdict, recognising that it is for others in his party to take the SNP forward.
“He has rightly said that the referendum was a once-in-a-lifetime event and that we all need to work to bring Scotland together.
“He can look back with pride on being the longest-serving First Minister and to the huge contribution he has made to public life in Scotland. I wish him well in the future.”