Alex Salmond has always liked a gamble. By age 10, the future leader of the Scottish National Party had backed his first winning horse. Later, after becoming a prominent politician, he wrote a racing column. But his biggest wager came as a student in the ’70s, when he signed up with the Nationalists, long-odds outsiders committed to the unlikely goal of independence.
It’s a gamble that’s paid off handsomely. In May, Salmond’s party scored an overwhelming victory in elections to the Scottish Parliament. These days, Salmond finds himself the U.K.’s most popular party leader and an idol for peaceable separatists from Catalonia to Quebec.
An independent Scotland looks like more than just the fantasy of Braveheart-fed romantics. For the first time since Scotland’s Parliament was reestablished in 1999, a single party holds a majority, allowing Salmond to promise a vote on ending the country’s 304-year union with England. In Salmond’s words, Scotland’s years of “self-doubt and negativity” are over. “A change is coming and the people are ready.”
If so, much credit belongs to the 56-year-old Salmond, whose winning manner played a key role in securing this year’s triumph. “He can be amazingly charming,” says biographer David Torrance. A quick wit certainly helps. Salmond’s talent for repartee once earned him regular TV appearances. Voters also appreciate an unstuffy style, a roly-poly physique, and an everyman range of hobbies: playing golf, supporting his local soccer team, and enjoying Star Trek reruns.
The Salmond charm has helped to win useful supporters, from rich businessmen to Edinburgh-born Sean Connery. Said to be on good terms with royalty, Salmond was present at Will and Kate’s wedding when other senior politicians—notably ex-prime ministers Gordon Brown and Tony Blair—were off the guest list. (It may have helped that Salmond says he wants to keep the queen as head of state of an independent Scotland.)
But his apparent openness and affability have their limits. Salmond’s domestic life remains strictly private. He’s been married for 30 years, but his wife, Moira, who’s 17 years older than her husband, stays out of the limelight. And the regular-guy image conceals a hard-working politician with a powerful intellect. Before politics, Salmond worked as an economist for the Royal Bank of Scotland. By age 35, he was already leading the SNP and building a case for independence that has nothing to do with historical grievances or tartan-clad sentimentality. Scotland, with slightly more than 5 million inhabitants, depends on the U.K. for much of its cash, but it boasts reserves of oil and gas. Norway flourishes with a similar population—and abundant oil—so why not Scotland?
Whatever Salmond’s arguments, Scotland has still to be convinced. Polls suggest that a hefty majority of voters remain wary of independence. But the referendum won’t be staged for at least two years: time enough for the first minister to exercise his persuasive charm. It’s a rash punter who bets against Alex Salmond.