SMART ALEX; How the Man Who Took the SNP Toapoint Whereit Could Threaten to Break Up the United Kingdom Knew It Was Time to Get Out

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ALEX Salmond's resignation from the leadership of the SNP is, on reflection, no great surprise, though even those close to him did not expect it quite yet.

But he has been party leader - national convener was the official, rather stuffy title - since 1990, and that is a long time. I remember back in 1982 David Steel telling me that Jo Grimond had warned him that, in his experience as Liberal leader, ten years was about as long as you could manage to lead a party in opposition, going round party conferences, meetings and broadcast studios saying the same sort of things without losing enthusiasm.

Steel himself had ten years as Liberal leader and now the same period has been enough for Salmond. He is going because he's given all he can to the job, and it has taken a lot out of him.

This has been clear for the past 18 months. In that time he has lost some of the zip that formerly characterised his performance, some of the sure footed-ness too. He was way below his best in the Scottish election campaign last year. 'What's wrong with Alex?' was the question reporters were asking each other. It seemed then that he was going through the motions.

His condemnation of the Kosovo war was deemed a blunder, even though subsequent events have gone a long way towards justifying his line.

Since that election he has been uncharacteristically lack-lustre as in effect - though there is no such official title - Leader of the Opposition in the Scottish parliament. His followers have been dismayed to see the ease with which Donald Dewar handled him; astonished as well as dismayed to find that, in Dewar's absence through illness, he couldn't apparently lay a glove on Jim Wallace.

This summer too has been marked by bitter dissensions within the SNP, culminating in the row with the party treasurer, Ian Blackford. The leadership inspired vote of 'no confidence' in Blackford was followed by Blackford's threat of legal action against Salmond and his stated determination to stand for election to the treasurer's post again at conference. Now at least that conference will be dominated by Salmond's leave taking and the struggle for the succession.

Whoever takes over (and the favourite is the present deputy, John Swinney) will owe a very considerable debt to Salmond.

That debt is easily expressed; he will inherit a real political party. For that is the measure of Salmond's achievement. He made what was essentially a protest movement into a coherent political force.

When he became leader in 1990, there was no reason to take the SNP seriously. Their temporary success, the remarkable flourish in that extraordinary year 1974, had long evaporated. 1979 had been a disaster.

Throughout the 1980s the party languished. As late as 1987 party policy was geared to a romantic impossibilism; withdrawal from the United Kingdom, the European Community and Nato - Little Scotland made tiny. The leadership was so low key as to be almost unnoticeable, and certainly scarcely noticed.

The SNP collected votes from people who were romantic nationalists, from those who couldn't stand Margaret Thatcher, but were still scunnered at Labour.

Salmond won his Westminster seat (now called Buchan and Banff) from the Tories that year, 1987. He became party leader three years later, aged only 35.

He converted the SNP into a pro-European social democratic party, positioning it so as to be able to challenge Labour's dominant position in Scottish politics. At first he worked closely with Jim Sillars, generally credited with devising the slogan 'Scotland in Europe'.

The 1992 election was a disappointment - Sillars lost the Govan seat he had won at a byelection two years previously. …