Alex Salmond has loomed large in Scottish politics for more than two decades. When he became an MP for the Scottish National Party (SNP) in 1987, it had three MPs. Since he became leader of the party in 1990, it has become the dominant force in Scottish politics. On Tuesday 18th November, after more than seven years as First Minister, Alex Salmond made his resignation speech at Holyrood. That he will be remembered is likely– but for what?
Salmond was always conspicuous and outspoken. The story he told the Guardian in 1991, of how he joined the SNP at the University of Saint Andrews, indicates a contrary character: “I had a blazing row with a [Labour-supporting] girlfriend from Hackney and she said, ‘If you feel like that – go and join the bloody SNP’, so I did.”
However, it was more than a big personality that kept him in the public eye. His leadership of the SNP turned round its fortunes, bringing them an unprecedented majority in the Scottish Parliament in 2011.
In the words of SNP MSP for Edinburgh Central, Marco Biagi, “When he became politically active…the SNP were little more than a fringe interest and the idea that within a generation we’d have a majority SNP government leading a devolved Parliament and holding a referendum on independence would have seemed laughable. But we got there – and much of that is due to Salmond’s deep commitment to his beliefs and his ability as a leader.”
Although he failed to secure a ‘Yes’ vote, a big increase in political engagement may prove a lasting legacy. For the referendum, voter turnout was 84.5 per cent and the lowering of the voting age to 16 prompted the involvement of a large group who’d never voted before. A recent TNS poll of 993 over-16s found that 37 per cent were more likely to vote in the future, rising to 55 per cent for those under 35.
Salmond was proud of the abolition of fees for Scottish students – highlighted on Tuesday by the unveiling of a monument quoting his declaration that ‘rocks will melt’ before he introduced student fees.
What was actually scrapped by the SNP government in 2008 was a £2,000 endowment paid upon graduation, which replaced tuition fees after the Scottish parliament opened in 1999. did this change anything?
Dr Alan Convery, lecturer in politics at the University of Edinburgh, said: “It is difficult to say…that free university tuition has led to a significant widening in participation.”
This is supported by a report from the University’s Centre for Educational Sociology, which concluded that, ‘there is no evidence that the social-democratic approach [in Scotland] has generated greater equality or wider access than the market approach [in England].’
However, individual students may feel differently. For Edinburgh student Glen Shepherd the lack of fees was very important. “I probably would not have [gone] to University if there had been tuition fees! I come from a low income background so having to cough up the cash to cover tuition fees would simply not have been feasible.”
Salmond was not always free of controversy. In 2012, he was accused of lying about seeking legal advice concerning an independent Scotland’s likelihood of joining the EU, although he was later cleared of breaching the ministerial code.
However, his strongest legacy might prove to be something less tangible. Marco Biagi suggested, “He has left Scotland more at ease with itself.”
Glen Shepherd, echoed this idea. “The Salmond Yes campaign really boosted the Scottish people’s sense of pride and place in our society and the world.”
However the SNP may not have seen the last of Alex Salmond; his resignation in 2000 only lasted four years and there is talk of him standing for Westminster. But, given his undeniable achievements leading the SNP to power, it seems unlikely that they would want to forget Scotland’s longest-serving First Minister any time soon.