The referendum is almost certainly Alex Salmond's final battle - and he lost. His shock resignation marks the career-end of one of Scotland and Britain’s most remarkable and committed politicians. Slumped in the back seat of his official car on his way to Aberdeen airport, with the stench of uncomfortable defeat coursing through the Yes camp, Scotland’s First Minister looked like a disappointed bloodhound. But it hid a deeper pain; the realisation that Scotland’s “once in a lifetime” rejection of independence also meant that calling it a day as First Minister of Holyrood was his only honourable option.
Such a defeat - after months of soaring expectations and claims that a political earthquake was imminent – would have destroyed other would-be kings. The wide-spread expectation was that Alex Salmond would somehow find yet another come-back route. Instead he has chosen to go – and though the phrase is over-worn, Scotland may never see his like again.
Margaret Thatcher once said : “You may have to fight a battle more than once to win it.” Salmond instinctively knew and understood this and those close to him admired an ever-returning champion, almost disturbingly capable of sifting through ashes and finding not a pyre, but shoots of regeneration. In his concession speech, with Scotland left exhausted from months of a monoculture of independence debate, it seemed he was trying to do just that.
Scotland, he said, had not chosen separation from the United Kingdom “at this stage”. Although accepting the democracy of defeat, he quoted the 1.6m Scots who voted for him, not the two million who decided to reject the statehood menu he and the SNP had specially cooked up.
Salmond has been here before. Ahead of the 1992 general election, he said Scotland would be “free in '93”. The outcome? They were on the floor in ’94, winning only the same slim number of MPs they had before the election.
In pictures: Alex Salmond's campaign for Scottish independence
In pictures: Alex Salmond's campaign for Scottish independence
1/9 The campaign for independence
Alex Salmond stepped down as Scotland's First Minister and the leader of the SNP after the country voted no to independence
2/9 The campaign for independence
Alex Salmond said he accepted 'the democratic verdict of the people'
3/9 The campaign for independence
First Minister of Scotland Alex Salmond chats to school children at Strichen Primary School in Strichen
4/9 The campaign for independence
Scotland's First Minister Alex Salmond delivers his final independence speech to supporters in Perth
5/9 The campaign for independence
On the last day of campaigning before the polling booths open, the SNP leader has written to voters in a final attempt to convince them to vote for independence
6/9 The campaign for independence
It was decided to give Alex Salmond, free of charge and for nothing, an extra year in government
7/9 The campaign for independence
Alex Salmond and Alistair Darling taking part in a live television debate in Glasgow on 25 August
8/9 The campaign for independence
Alex Salmond during the live television debate with Alistair Darling at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland on 5 August in Glasgow
9/9 The campaign for independence
Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond presents the White Paper for Scottish independence
He will be 60 this November. And he may have accepted that he doesn’t have another 21 years to keep on the same journey, with the same message and prophetic conviction that ultimately Scotland will believe in him.
In the politics of national "neverendums", a second chance is always the dream. Quebec has had two chances at leaving Canada and said No both times. However Salmond had no choice but to agree that Thursday’s vote settles the matter for a generation.
David Cameron thinks the lifetime option is more realistic. But whenever it comes, Scotland’s second chance will now not be led by the man one Tory MP at the beginning of his political career in the 1980s forecast was already the “infant Robespierre” of Scottish nationalism.
Thursday’s loss evidently hurt him more than all of his previous defeats. With the SNP leading a majority administration in Holyrood, the machinery and authority of Government was successfully deployed by the Yes campaign. The days of nationalism in Scotland defined by bunch of amateur dreamers and delusional tribalists has been gone for some time.
But there was one flaw in the machinery. Salmond himself.
In the final days of the 2011 Holyrood election campaign, Salmond chartered a £1,000-an-hour helicopter to tour Scotland. He told journalists who asked: “It’s fantastic. We’re calling it Saltire One.”
The exercise didn’t go down well with his fellow MSPs. One close to him said: “Alex is always centre-stage. It’s where he believes he should be. US Presidents have Air Force One. Alex thought he was entitled to an equivalent. It’s the dark side of his personality – and for a generation the SNP have had little choice but to accept that campaigns and elections in Scotland have been about one man.”
The Independent has been told that another Saltire One was on stand-by again, and that triumphalist victory fly-ins, which included stops at Edinburgh and Stirling Castle, the spiritual home of Bruce and Wallace, were planned for today, all despite the party’s internal canvass returns showing a serious hesitancy from Scottish voters which Salmond kept well away from all his speeches.
When Salmond stood down as SNP party leader in 1999 after a so-so performance in the Holyrood election, he told favoured journalists that he was “giving others a chance to come out of the shadows, to grow and develop”.
He was gone for just five years, and when he returned most of the party still remained low-profile politicians, except for "wee Nicola”, whom he privately said was likely to become his heir.
Nicola Sturgeon is as culpable for the hard oversell of the final weeks of Yes campaigning as her mentor and was often more patronising and dismissive of her opponents than Salmond. Over the next weeks, it’s thought that he will officially anoint Sturgeon and try and leave his disappointed party in her hands. Others in the SNP will certainly not see that as automatic.
Although his first early-morning speech in Edinburgh was a hybrid apology and thank you to all who backed him, it seemed there was a reluctance to accept his own “long march to freedom” would be left incomplete. His exit from Scottish front-line politics, regardless of the Yes campaign, leaves a vacuum in the nationalist cause.
But the party that Salmond helped shape as a young socialist firebrand, the one he resigned from in 1979 and later returned to lead, is unrecognisable from kilt-wearing band of uber-fanatics that were easily dismissed from the arithmetic of most elections. Salmond almost single-handedly changed that.
Before announcing his resignation, he said: “Let us not dwell on the distance we have fallen short, let us dwell on the distance we have travelled and have confidence the movement is abroad in Scotland that will take this nation forward.” When he spoke, he must have already made up his mind to go, and that whoever took the nation of Scotland forward, it wouldn’t be him.
Salmond studied medieval history at St Andrews University and therefore knows that the taking of power can be opportunistic and ill-timed. The 2014 referendum came too soon for him. He perhaps needed another year, another Tory Government, and an even sharper threat of a possible UK exit from the European Union.
Others believe that the late intervention of Gordon Brown, the promise of enhanced powers for the Scottish Parliament and the likely emergence of a federalist UK constitution, means historians will eventually point to Mr Salmond as the real victor of 18 September 18 2014.
The price of saving the Union may turn out to be its radical reinvention. And although Saltire One may never to the skies again, Salmond says he will stick around long enough to “make sure these further powers are delivered”. But he have to be content doing that as an involved spectator – and Scotland, without his voice, may seem to many weaker as a result.