Salmond savours prospect of power

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The Independent Online
ALEX SALMOND bridles when his leadership style is likened to that of Tony Blair. But as he prepares for the Scottish National Party's last conference before the first Scottish "general election," that same aura of an opposition leader on the threshold of power is unmistakable.

"There have been general elections in Scotland before, but this is the first Scottish general election," he says, signalling the significance of May's election for the Edinburgh Parliament. Nine years after taking over the leadership of the SNP, Mr Salmond stands on the threshold of history. If the opinion polls are right, he has a good chance of taking the nationalists from decades of "inevitable opposition" to a place in the Home Rule administration.

His address to the SNP's annual conference in Inverness next week will be studied for any overtures to the Liberal Democrats as the SNP's only credible coalition partner, though for the moment he mocks them for "abdicating opposition to cosy up to the Prime Minister".

The proportional representation system being used for the election places a high hurdle on achieving an overall majority in the 129-seat parliament and Mr Salmond sees the "most likely scenario" as Labour or the SNP looking for a partner.

The prospect leaves the 43-year-old former oil economist with a delicate balance to strike at Inverness and beyond as he prepares the manifesto.

Soft-pedalling on the goal of independence and dropping expensive plans such as rail re-nationalisation may play well with the electorate, but they have antagonised activists outside the leadership circle.

Dissidents claim Mr Salmond is surrounded by a coterie for whom the "purr of official limousines" in a devolved administration sings louder than the call of outright national freedom.

The tag "political junkie" seems tailor-made for Mr Salmond. Even his leisure pursuits, Hearts and golf, sound suitably Scottish. He is married, but his wife Moira takes little part in politics - no conference kisses after the big speech - and they have no children.

State educated at Linlithgow Academy, Mr Salmond joined the SNP when he was 19 while studying economics and medival history at St Andrews University.

His left-of-centre views must owe something to his father, a civil servant whose politics was so hard-line he was known as "Joe Stalin". His mother was a fervent Tory until a recent conversion.

The young graduate worked first in the Scottish Office agriculture and fisheries department, and then joined the Royal Bank of Scotland, specialising in the oil industry.

He was elected in 1987 to Banff and Buchan, a farming and fishing constituency very different to his central belt home. And it is there, and across Scotland, that the debate in the party is growing over the fastest route to independence, with the "fundamentalist" wing dismayed at Mr Salmond's emphasis on a referendum even if the nationalists win an overall majority.

With opinion polls showing the SNP on level pegging with Labour and on course to win more than 50 seats, an overall majority is not inconceivable. Mr Salmond believes there are still plenty of independence-inclined Labour voters to be won over.

Asked to confirm a poll would still take place even if the SNP won an overall majority, Mr Salmond's reply was an emphatic "Yes".

"A constitutional issue like independence should be decided in a referendum, not just at a general election."

The four-day annual conference will be the biggest in the SNP's history with some 800 members expected to attend. Mr Salmond wants it to show the SNP "ready to be the administration of the first Scottish Parliament for 300 years".

Splits will not be welcome and open revolt has been made less likely by the inclusion of several critics of the current regime on the list of approved candidates for the election.

Mr Salmond, though an undoubted moderniser who has pushed tartan romantics and radicals into the background, points to the candidates list as proof that he has not followed a Blairite style of party management.

"I don't accept for a second that the party is under tight central control. Certainly the party is professional, it's efficient, but the SNP will always be at heart and in practice a democratic organisation."

Mr Salmond is dismissive of the Scottish Labour Party: "They have an identity crisis, a name crisis, an internal crisis, an ideological crisis - and they're not too good on sleaze either."

With the Conservatives struggling to get back into the political game in Scotland and the Liberal Democrats constrained by their hopes of coalition, Mr Salmond today is de facto leader of the opposition north of the border. The "first Scottish general election in history" could turn him into the First Minister.