How the uncrowned king of Scotland lost his way

The Scottish National Party, under the clever leadership of Alex Salmond, is likely to retain power

"The only question ye have tae ask yersel', son, is this. Dae ye trust me?" Such was Alex Salmond's final, desperate overture in 2007, when he sought to cajole Robin Harper, the then co-convener of the Scottish Green Party, into propping up the nation's first nationalist administration. Now, for the second time, the Scottish National Party's supremo is bent on boiling an entire election battle for the Scottish Parliament down to the same basic question. The answer he looks likely to get from the electorate on 5 May is much the same as the one he got four years ago: "Aye, up to a point."

Salmond can't lean forward and wrap his tentacle-like arms around every single Scottish voter, pull their faces close to his and murmur, "Trust me" (all of which he did with the hapless Harper, according to a recent recounting of the episode in the Scottish Review magazine), but he has done the next best thing by putting the following slogan on the ballot papers: "SNP - Alex Salmond for First Minister". Not "SNP - Free Scotland", nor even "SNP - Stop the Cuts".

It appears to be working for him: a YouGov poll for Scotland on Sunday on 17 April put the Scottish Nationalist leader ahead as the voters' choice for first minister, with double the support (57 per cent) of his nearest rival. The SNP has opened up a decisive lead over Labour (40 per cent to Labour's 37 per cent) in the constituency vote, which determines 73 of the 129 members of the Scottish Parliament by conventional first-past-the-post. A further 56 MSPs are returned from eight regions (each of which chooses seven representatives under a form of mixed member proportional representation). The SNP is edging ahead on that front as well, with 35 per cent support to Labour's 33 per cent.

It was a sensational day in May 2007 when the Scottish Nationalists ended Labour's half-century of hegemony in Scotland and became the largest party in Holyrood, the Edinburgh assembly. Although they sneaked just a one-seat lead and were able to form only a minority government, the SNP had made the crucial leap from protest to power. If they notch up a second triumph, the Nats could start to look like the natural party of devolved government north of the border.

Salmond seems steadily to be attaining the status of a contemporary clan chieftain for the whole of Caledonia: he is the uncrowned king of Scotland. Even seasoned political commentators regularly sing "Hail to the Chief" (a Highland ditty before it became the US presidential march). No little feat in a nation long notorious for mean-spirited put-downs, such as "Him, ah kent his faither".

However, First Minister is a far cry from prime minister of an independent Scotland. Surveys suggest that Salmond - who was forced, ignominiously, to shelve his plans for a constitutional referendum last September when he could not muster a parliamentary majority - can convince barely a third of his compatriots to stage a breakaway from the rest of Britain. Many who are comfortable with him as First Minister would like to see him ditch what has been nicknamed his "deferendum". They certainly don't want the Scottish question to become the equivalent of what some Canadians branded the "neverendum" in Quebec.

Mindful of this, the SNP has made its 2011 Scottish election slogan - "Be part of better" - even more unscary than the one under which it fought last year's general election: "Elect a local champion". Yet, when I catch up with Salmond on the campaign trail in Glasgow, the former oil economist feigns offence when I suggest that what he is successfully peddling isn't so much Scottish nationalism as Salmondism. "I don't see how any sane person can consider the SNP to be a one-man band. It's an orchestra," he says, and proceeds to praise his deputy, Nicola Sturgeon, and his finance minister, John Swinney.

Sturgeon's handling of the health service north of the border has been harmonious and she has grown in stature - sketchwriters would no longer dare dismiss her as a "nippy sweetie" - but it is hard to envisage her as a national emancipator.

While her chieftain and chief admirer was praising her, Sturgeon was slugging it out in less salubrious surroundings on the other side of the Clyde in Govanhill, a district known as "Scotland's murder capital". Labour is making a determined effort to unseat her from Glasgow Southside. A crackdown on knife crime is the manifesto commitment it is pushing in the tenements and tower blocks; the knives are out for Nicola.

Wounding the pride of Salmond's deputy - who would still get into the assembly through the regional candidate list - would be a small consolation for Labour if it can't oust the First Minister from office. With a far less charismatic leader, Iain Gray ("Gray by name, grey by nature"), Labour knows that it cannot beat Salmond in the TV studios, so it has taken its campaign to the doorsteps. Its declared aim is to canvass up to a million households and its Scottish standard-bearer is keen to be seen to be leading by example.

“Back at our Oban conference, I said that this is a doorstep election for us. We're gonna fight it face to face with the electorate," Gray tells me when we meet, sounding as though he might be squaring up to a bunch of knife-wielding neds in Govanhill rather than canvassing in Gilmerton, a neat, working-class neighbourhood in the suburbs of Edinburgh.

His campaign managers have sought to establish his macho credentials: the former charity worker has "walked in the killing fields" of Cambodia, voters were told. This only led to more mockery when Gray was ambushed by mildly aggressive anti-cuts campaigners outside Glasgow Central Station on 7 April and appeared, from the television pictures, to be running away from confrontation.

Over the rainbow

Gray is promising to introduce more apprenticeships than the SNP, but has refused to echo Salmond's pledge to protect every single public-sector job in Scotland (only the NHS will be ring-fenced, he says). In the past, it would have been the Scottish Socialist Party giving Gray a hard time for this, but the SSP has suffered the fate of most far-left groups, succumbing to fratricidal infighting.

After losing a long legal tussle with the tartanised edition of the News of the Screws, the party's shamed former leader Tommy Sheridan is now banged up in Barlinnie, where he has begun a three-year prison term for perjury. As a result, across most of urban Scotland - not least in the deprived "schemes", where the SSP used to be strongest until it self-immolated in 2007 - it is a straight fight between the SNP and Labour.

The complexity of what was once hailed as Scotland's "rainbow parliament" is about to be diminished further by the obliteration of the Scottish Liberal Democrats (who have sunk to 8 per cent in the polls). In the eyes of the Scottish electorate, the Lib Dems lied more flagrantly throughout last year's UK general election campaign than Oor Tommy ever did in the dock and have committed a far worse crime by collaborating with David Cameron's Conservatives - a hanging offence in both the Highlands and the Lowlands.

The Lib Dems used to be mini-monarchs of the glen - they reigned with Labour in the first two coalitions that bedded in devolution from 1999 to Salmond's victory in 2007 - but Tavish Scott and his tribe now resemble terrified fawns, trembling as they await their fate on the blood-splattered heather. Their only continuing relevance is in who will pick up the lion's share of their carcasses: Labour or the Nats? The Lib Dems have been overtaken by the Tories, who can claim to have re-established themselves as the third force in Scottish politics, with 11 per cent support.

Expectations that George Galloway would add some colour to the proceedings were dashed at his campaign launch - and not just because the Dundonian was dressed from head to toe in black. Mr Smirk goes to Washington was more entertaining than Mr Galloway goes back to Glasgow. On his old stomping ground again in an effort to resurrect his parliamentary career - this time as an MSP rather than an MP - the founder of Respect showed scant respect for Scotland's fledgling legislature and engaged in lame satire, describing Salmond and Gray as the political equivalents of the Krankies (a Scottish comedy duo that several generations of voters would never have heard of).

Galloway was much more on the ball some time ago when he compared Salmond to Jim Baxter, the legendary Rangers midfielder who restored to Scotland a sense of national pride when he tormented England's World Cup-winning side in a match at Wembley. Salmond, who has brought a similar flourish and mischievous flamboyance to the role of First Minister, does not conceal his satisfaction with the analogy. "For most Scots of my generation, one of our most pleasant memories was watching the 1967 game at Wembley. So, obviously, I think Jim Baxter was a God," he enthuses.

The smile slips from his face, however, when I suggest that Baxter's wizardry at Wembley may have been wonderful to watch, but it wasn't important. "Slim Jim" (who became almost as beefy as Salmond after he hung up his playing boots) performed his tricks for the tartan army not in the World Cup, but in a mere home championship match, about which the Scots always were far more excited than the English. "I didn't say it was important," Salmond retorts. "I said it was enjoyable."

The same could be said of his stewardship of devolved Scotland - enjoyable for him, but not all that important in historical terms. He can play a blinder against his unionist opponents on the stump and during Holyrood debates, but it does not alter significantly the status or governance of his native land. In hard macroeconomic and geopolitical terms, Scotland remains what it has been for the past three centuries - a stateless nation. The powers of the Scottish Parliament are puny compared to those of any Canadian province. Quebec has much more sovereignty than Scotland, particularly in areas such as taxation, energy and immigration.

This isn't to say that devolution doesn't make any difference. Salmond's minority government has frozen council taxes north of the border and it scrapped prescription charges on the day that the NHS brought in bigger charges in England. While their English counterparts have been rioting, Scottish students have been spared tuition fees. How all of this - plus every existing public-sector post - can be sustained amid the Con-Dem cuts is a question the SNP is being allowed to jig around.

Tom Gallagher, a Glasgow-born professor of peace and ethnic conflict studies at the University of Bradford, has argued that the SNP's economic policies are less shallow populism than sly attempts to cause strains in Anglo-Scottish relations. "Salmond talks about his warm affection for England but he is on an endless search for new ways to needle its citizens," Gallagher tells me over Sunday brunch at a café in Edinburgh.

As the author of a ferocious critique of the current First Minister, entitled The Illusion of Freedom: Scotland Under Nationalism, Gallagher fears further attempts to rile the English if the SNP is returned with an increased mandate on 5 May. "Salmond seems to be banking on a voters' revolt in England, resulting in a slashing of Scotland's block grant and eventual divorce proceedings."

Others would consider that alarmist. As the constitutional historian Peter Hennessy has observed: "Scotland [continues to] be to the UK what Quebec is to Canada and the UK is to the European Union, the awkward one spewing out a constant drizzle of complaint but never pushing it to the point of rupture."

Quebec has brought the Canadian confederation far closer to the brink of disintegration than Britain has ever been - not just once, but twice. A much closer parallel could, perhaps, be drawn between Caledonia and Catalonia. For 23 years, as premier of Spain's richest region, Jordi Pujol reigned in Barcelona and goaded governments in Madrid. Catalonia, however, is still part of Spain.

Salmond might be shaping up to become the Pujol of Scottish politics, slowly and steadily salami-slicing sovereignty from London, starting with fiscal autonomy, yet never quite persuading his compatriots to make the leap of faith to independence in Europe (whatever that means within an increasingly integrated EU). Just as Pujol claimed more than once that Catalonia was "passing through its worst moment in its relations with Madrid", so Salmond confidently proclaims (as he has done several times): "I believe we're at the nearest point that Scotland has been to independence for 300 years."

It's my party

The Scottish national movement is riding on the hinges of history, he contends. "What were previously seen as pillars of British identity have been crumbling for some time and will be further diminished by a Con-Dem administration that doesn't give a fig for Scottish opinion."

This latest chapter in Scotland's story looks as though it will be a lengthy one, however. The way Salmond tells it, the Scots and their southern neighbours are engaged in the longest of long goodbyes. He has "never believed in a [nationalist] Big Bang theory", contending that Scotland is engaged in "a process of independence", in the course of which it will "accrue extra powers for our parliament". Still only 56, Salmond can afford to play a longish game.

Not that he will be reclining in Bute House, the FM's official residence in the elegant Georgian New Town of Edinburgh, and patiently waiting for the Bullingdon boys to bring about the break-up of Britain. "It would be nice to believe we could all put our feet up and wait for David Cameron to propel Scotland to independence," he says, "but I think we might have to exert ourselves somewhat."

Fundamentalists in his own party fret that Salmond isn't exerting himself sufficiently in pursuit of the SNP's flagship policy. A few of the "fundis" might even have cheered when Jeremy Paxman mischievously suggested to Salmond - during a Newsnight interview after he had postponed his plans for a referendum - that Scotland's Nationalists might need a new Moses to lead them to their promised land.

The former SNP deputy leader Jim Sillars wrote in the Scotsman of 13 April: "Only poor Iain Gray believes Alex Salmond is 'obsessed' by independence, oblivious of the fact that the 'I' word is on the back burner, shunted there, in the view of the leadership, by the superior tactic of gaining votes from all and sundry . . . in order to reclaim those seats at the ministerial desks."

Sillars's intervention was swiftly shot down as the moan of an embittered malcontent by the cyber-Nats who dominate that paper's online forum. They may find it harder to dismiss the reflections of the only intellectual to grace the SNP benches at Holyrood. Christopher Harvie, former professor of British and Irish studies at the University of Tübingen in Germany, considered himself hugely fortunate to scrape into the Scottish Parliament as a list MSP for Mid-Scotland and Fife in 2007. He once extolled Salmond's virtues in any media outlet that would host him. However, as he departs from Holyrood, he cannot disguise his disillusionment with the nation's first nationalist administration.

Harvie has written a new final chapter for the new edition of his acclaimed history of 20th-century Scotland, No Gods and Precious Few Heroes. Although he still considers Salmond to be a canny strategist, he has tired of the "cold publicity material and naff slogans". He considers "low-carbon Scotland and independence stalled" and questions whether his one-time hero "can galvanise support for a new political as well as economic ecology".

He notes, too, that the nationalist club at the University of St Andrews (Salmond's alma mater) had only three members in 2010. "Had Holyrood 2007-2011 really been a Scots attempt at breakaway?" he writes. The gloomy epilogue to his book is entitled "Salmond's Parliament". And, after four years on the SNP back benches at Holyrood, Harvie has no doubt that it is all about Alex, after all.

Rob Brown was founding deputy editor of the Sunday Herald, Glasgow, and is a senior lecturer in journalism at the Independent College Dublin