ALEX Salmond said he was filled with “optimism and confidence” for Scotland’s future as he bade farewell to Holyrood yesterday for the last time as First Minister.
The longest and arguably most remarkable First Ministerial career came to an end with Mr Salmond’s valedictory statement to parliament. It had been the “privilege of my life” to be First Minister for the past seven-and-a-half years, he said, promising that “more change” and “better days” were on their way for Scotland.
His speech to a packed chamber also contained yet another hint that his next move in politics would be to leave Holyrood and return to the House of Commons.
Today, Nicola Sturgeon will take over as First Minister to become Holyrood’s fifth leader, following in the footsteps of Donald Dewar, Henry McLeish, Jack (now Lord) McConnell and Mr Salmond.
Mr Salmond’s final remarks before leaving the chamber last night were to wish MSPs of all political persuasions well, signing off with the words: “Good- bye and good luck.”
But like his rambunctious political career, Mr Salmond’s swansong proved controversial. His opponents were unable to mark his departure without making barbed comments about his record in government.
Opposition leaders praised his stamina, willpower, discipline and commitment to his country. But they were critical of the divisive nature of the referendum and reminded Mr Salmond that it had ended in his defeat.
The tributes were effusive from his long-standing friend, Stewart Stevenson MSP, who sent the outgoing First Minister a message of love from the SNP benches and likened him to John F Kennedy.
But for Labour, Jackie Baillie’s admiration of Mr Salmond’s political gifts was tempered with references to some of the controversies that have dogged his spell in Bute House.
With his wife Moira looking on from the public gallery, Mr Salmond addressed MSPs, saying: “Any parting is tinged with some sorrow, but in this case it is vastly outweighed by a sense of optimism and confidence. Confidence that we will have an outstanding new First Minister. Confidence in the standing and the capability of this chamber, and most of all confidence in the wisdom, talent and potential of the people of Scotland.
“Scotland has changed, changed utterly and much for the better over the 15 years of this parliament and over the seven years of this government. But I am happy to say with every degree of certainty that more change and better days lie ahead for this parliament and for
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He added: “Scotland now has the most energised, empowered and informed electorate of any country in Europe. We have a new generation of citizens who understand that their opinion matters, who believe that their voice will be heard and who know that their vote can shape the society they live in.”
Amid intense speculation that he intends to fight the Gordon seat at May’s general election, Mr Salmond did nothing to discourage it.
Looking back on his time in charge of a government without a parliamentary majority between 2007 and 2011, he said: “I have no idea if that experience of minority government will ever again come in handy.”
It was a mischievous reference to previous assertions that the rise of the SNP could see it hold the balance of power in a hung Westminster parliament.
He also said that all parties and MSPs could take pride in the development of the Holyrood parliament, and took time to remember departed members.
Donald Dewar, Margaret Ewing, Bashir Ahmed, Phil Gallie, Donald Gorrie, David McLetchie, Brian Adam, Helen Eadie, John Farquhar Munro, Margo Macdonald and Sam Galbraith were all mentioned by the First Minister.
SNP MSPs gave the outgoing First Minister a standing ovation after his speech, but Labour, Conservative and Lib Dem MSPs remained in their seats.
Mr Salmond’s last day as First Minister began with him unveiling a monument to what he regards as his administration’s greatest achievement.
A standing stone engraved with the First Minister’s own words was installed at Edinburgh’s Heriot-Watt University.
“The rocks will melt with the sun before I allow tuition fees to be imposed on Scottish students,” said the inscription, which reflected Mr Salmond’s love of quoting Robert Burns and the SNP government’s policy of free university education for Scottish students.
Mr Salmond’s free tuition fees pledge, however, is likely to be overshadowed by his achievement in securing a referendum and the subsequent defeat of independence at the polls.
Mr Salmond was adamant the referendum had been a positive experience, even though voters’ rejection of independence prompted his decision to resign.
Ms Baillie said she had “sparred, disagreed and fallen out” with Mr Salmond, but she recognised his commitment to the parliament and to public service, describing him as “a towering figure in Scottish politics”.
Scottish Conservatives leader Ruth Davidson described Mr Salmond’s record in government as “mixed”.
The Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie compared Mr Salmond to Margaret Thatcher. “A Marmite figure, with his supporters as passionate as his detractors,” he said.
The Scottish Greens MSP Patrick Harvie criticised Mr Salmond over his government’s dealings with business tycoon Donald Trump, before going on to highlight the First Minister’s work on the environment.
The most glowing tribute came from Mr Stevenson, who said: “In May 1961, John F Kennedy committed his country to land a man on the Moon before the decade was out and return them safely to Earth.
“It wasn’t known that it could be done. It was known how it could be done, but he knew that it had to be done. And Alex comes from that mould – a formidable leader, a formidable challenger of the status quo – a man who sets the rest of us formidable challenges.
“He is the toughest boss I have ever worked for or with. And the fairest and a team builder. But however tough he has been on me or tough on the rest of us, he has always been tougher on himself.”
George Kerevan: Salmond has transformed the SNP into a formidable, disciplined machine
I RAN into Alex Salmond charging his frugal official entourage through the crowded corridors of the Salutation Hotel at last weekend’s SNP conference. He paused at the entreaties of some party stalwarts to have his picture taken with them. He was happy to oblige and share banter – one reason he is notorious for bad punctuality. He spied me out of the corner of his eye and marched over. He had read a piece I had written on corporation tax and wanted to take issue.
From this snapshot we learn that Alex Salmond loves being the hands-on leader of the sackful of ferrets that is the SNP. In return, even if they don’t always like him, SNP activists would deliver leaflets in Hades if The Boss asked. This is the secret of his unique contribution to British post-war politics: the transformation of a chaotic, largely unsuccessful nationalist movement into a formidable and disciplined machine for winning elections.
It is a machine that has delivered the SNP an absolute majority at Holyrood and made Alex Salmond Scotland’s longest-serving First Minister – and a machine that almost scuppered the United Kingdom on 18 September.
Most senior politicians I have known in the mainstream Westminster parties despise their often dotty rank and file. Not so Salmond, despite his economics degree from St Andrews. Salmond is usually the smartest guy in the room.
A mite often he lets his political foes know it. First Minister’s Questions have not always benefited.
He is also good at delegating and gets the best out of civil servants and ministers. Which may explain why he leaves office with the SNP still massively popular after seven years in power, and on course to win a third consecutive election – a rare feat in the democratic world.
Opponents say there have been no great Salmond reforms. He believes that returning free university access in a time of austerity is his legacy.
The definition of a historically important politician is not that they used the system to effect change but that they changed the system. By this yardstick, Salmond is in the top echelon.
He may not have secured independence but he has certainly ensured the death of unitary, centralised Britain.
Writing Salmond’s valediction is a dangerous game – in 2004, he resumed the SNP leadership, four years after handing over to John Swinney. Restless Alex could easily see a third act in his career, if he returns to Westminster next year.
Alex Salmond at the Cabinet table in a coalition with Labour? Salmond has always played the odds.
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