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Alan Massie: Salmond's triumph brings a whiff of Gaullism

The future of Scotland and the Union itself is now in question after the SNP's triumph in Glasgow East

Two things are clear. First, the Glasgow East by-election was a personal triumph for Alex Salmond, who campaigned relentlessly in the constituency and in the last days spoke of the election as being a choice between Holyrood and Westminster (even though it was of course an election for Westminster). Second, Labour can no longer claim to be the party that best represents Scotland; its rejection at the Scottish Parliament elections a year ago has been confirmed.

Things are going the SNP's way. That much is clear. How far the present favourable wind will carry the party is another matter. Certain caveats must be entered. It is arguable that the by-election was as much a rejection of Labour as an endorsement of the SNP. Then the poll was low, with a turnout of only 42 per cent. Moreover the SNP has twice won by-elections in Glasgow, but failed to hold on to the seat at subsequent general elections. Yet this feels different. The SNP is in office in Scotland now. So the result can't simply be dismissed as a protest vote. It was that, certainly, but it was not only that. There's a sense in which any number-crunching we may engage in may be irrelevant.

To understand the nature and significance of the SNP triumph we have to look back. We have to consider why Labour enacted devolution. It did so without initially any great enthusiasm. It was essentially a defensive move. Devolution was supposed to stall the SNP; it has signally failed to do so. But it was also intended to protect Scotland from social policies enacted by Westminster which were thought inimical to the interests and ethos of Scotland. Opposition to Thatcherism inspired Labour's commitment to devolution. It had its origins in timidity. It was an expression, not of confidence in Scotland, but of a lack of confidence.

Mr Salmond doesn't share that lack. Quite the contrary. He is brimful of confidence. His ebullience is infectious, and it is making Labour look a sad, bedraggled lot. This is his first achievement: to have done away with defensiveness and to have persuaded a growing number of Scots that the country is on the march.

The opposition parties, and sceptics in the media, may say it is all a bluff. But, in the year and more since he became First Minister, nobody has come close to finding a way to call the bluff, if bluff it is. Far from it. He speaks with authority as no Labour first minister has done since the parliament came into being in 1999. That authority is often arrogant. When in Glasgow East he declared that an SNP win would be a victory for Scotland; that was arrogant. It was an assumption that one might resent, carrying with it the implication that if you didn't vote SNP, you were less than Scottish or had no confidence in Scotland. But there it is: that's how he presents himself, and how he is persuading others to see him.

He is not so much capturing a new mood as creating one. The SNP has enacted few of its election promises, and has indeed fallen down on a number of them. People don't seem to care. Even many who are reluctant – or not yet ready? – to vote SNP, regard Mr Salmond as an impressive leader. He seduces us by words rather than acts. There's a whiff of Gaullism in Scotland today. Mr Salmond speaks like a man whose hour has come, whose mission is to release Scotland from the constraints that impede her resurrection. It's extraordinary.

Of course the party or movement that he leads still represents only a minority interest, but for the moment anyway he behaves as if he represents the whole of Scotland, even as if he himself is Scotland today.

It may all come crashing down. The most successful area of the economy in recent years – financial services – is in trouble. We may be dragged into a recession. But for the moment at least, he is the man who is making the weather, and the wind he has blown up is in his sails. Can it last? Will it blow Scotland to independence, or will it blow itself out?

Allan Massie is an author and columnist for The Herald in Scotland