A sad case of the measles of mankind

Scots have their own equivalent of Jewish "chutzpah". It is called "smeddum" - and Alex Salmond has had it in spades.

Note the past tense, of which more later. The Scottish National Party leader's resignation, which stunned colleagues, the Scottish media and the nation, was loaded with smeddum. Not only for his tongue-in-cheek "why is everyone so surprised?" delight in pulling off a political coup de theatre that bounced Gordon Brown's comprehensive spending re-view off the Scottish front pages, but more for the bare-faced claims he made about its significance for the SNP.

While everyone else was puzzling over why the party's most successful leader ever would quit when he is still only 45, Salmond added to the mystification by claiming he was getting out because the SNP was about to achieve its ultimate aim of independence.

He gave as his reason a convoluted calculation that the SNP would win the next Scottish election and an independence referendum, which would lock him into the leadership for a second decade. In other words, he could be on the verge of his long-cherished dream of leading Scotland out of the Union - but is giving someone else the privilege.

Not surprisingly, the general reaction was "Pull the other one, Eck". The consensus is that he is not exactly leaving a sinking ship, but one that is stuck fast on the rocks of unionism and is going nowhere.

The racing tipster for the Herald newspaper (a job he inherited from Robin Cook) has calculated the odds. After ten years, Salmond is still the leader of a party of no-hopers in terms of achieving power. And he must know that, by quitting, he is making their chances even worse.

Salmond's resignation shows the realism behind the puffed-up posturing of Scottish nationalism. No one was better than "Smart Alex" at gesture politics and headline- or picture-grabbing - who can forget his appearance in a floppy tartan topper, Jimmy wig and pot-bellied Scotland strip at the World Cup in France two years ago?

His "Free by '93" slogan was followed by "Heaven in '97", and he still claims that "the Union will not see its 300th anniversary". Salmond knows that, barring a cataclysmic earthquake opening up a fault line from the Solway Firth to Berwick, 2007 will come and go and the Union will still be intact.

Braveheart blethering is the stock-in-trade of a leader seeking to give a single-issue protest party the semblance of a government-in-waiting. Salmond managed to keep the illusion going right up to devolution and the creation of the Scottish Parliament. His performance in the first year of devolution, however, has betrayed the weary truth that his personal dream was fading.

His resignation was rich in the rhetoric of "passing on the torch while it is burning brightly" and laden with opinion-poll and by-election evidence that the gap between the SNP and Labour in Scotland is at its lowest for a generation.

Yet at elections, the party has never broken through and, at last year's Scottish Parliament poll, won only seven of the 73 constituency seats. The SNP's position as official opposition is due to its 28 regional seats under proportional representation.

From close quarters, that election was when Salmond took his worst battering, and lost his cheeky-chappie charisma. His resignation then became inevitable. Labour's "breaking up Britain" on-slaught was relentless. The "penny for Scotland" tax and the "budget for independence" that did not add up proved to be vote-losers. And Salmond's condemnation of Nato's air strikes on Kosovo rebounded on him as, in his own words, "an act of unpardonable folly".

The stock description of the once-pugnacious Salmond's performance in the Scottish Parliament since then has been "lacklustre". Failing to land a glove on Donald Dewar was bad enough, but when even the feeble Deputy First Minister, Jim Wallace, was able to shrug him off, it was too humiliating.

The SNP is struggling with a £400,000 overdraft, and hard questions are being asked about Salmond's financial stewardship. In addition to reports of health problems, there has been a whispering campaign about his personal finances - but he tartly told inquirers: "You can make all the inquiries you wish. You will find nothing."

He also discounted rumours that, as a former oil economist, he is being lined up for a job with one of the major Scottish financial institutions - although his resignation letter said tantalisingly: "I hope to serve Scotland in the future in some other capacity."

The leadership contest that he has precipitated will be on the lines that have riven the party almost since its inception. The standing joke in SNP circles is: "When did the party have its first split? When it signed its second member." It will be between "Salmondista" gradualists who favour a step-by-step, don't-scare-the-voters strategy, and flat-out fundamentalists who want independence or nothing.

Salmond knew that fight was coming anyway. He was being openly defied by back-bench "fundies" such as the redoubtable Margo MacDonald, and faced a damaging duel with the party's former treasurer Ian Blackford, whom he had sacked, while others were queuing up to put the knife in. He appears to have decided it was not worth the bother.

He will not admit it, but a life of permanent and frustrating opposition cannot have much appeal. He may even have been reminded of Albert Einstein's description of nationalism as "an infantile disease, the measles of mankind".

At 45, Alex Salmond may just have grown out of it.

This article first appeared in the 24 July 2000 issue of the New Statesman, Miserable small-mindedness