EDINBURGH, Scotland — Tears were spilled by heartbroken Scottish voters on Friday as hundreds gathered in the shadow of the Scottish parliament to mourn the end of an era. Alex Salmond, the man whose leadership of the Scottish National Party spanned a quarter of a century, stepped down after failing to lead his country to independence.
In the end, the campaign to secede from the United Kingdom was defeated by ten clear points, 55 to 45, but Salmond has transformed Scottish politics, leading the separatist party into power and then forcing London to grant his nation the right to self-determination.
After a vivid and enthusiastic campaign by the nationalists, their abrupt dismissal by the silent majority, who ended the dream of independence, hurt deeply. Less than 12 hours later, they lost their inspirational figurehead. “We’re still smiling,” said Janice Parker, 56, as she wiped the tears from her cheeks, before joining a mass rendition of Auld Lang Syne. “It was probably the gracious thing for him to do, but we’re still here. We’ll keep going.”
Nicola Sturgeon, the party’s deputy leader, is the strong favorite to replace him. She is seen as another formidable figure but one source who knows both of the politicians said Sturgeon lacks the wit and warmth that made Salmond so popular in some circles. He is far from universally loved, however, scoring particularly badly among women voters. If there is ever to be another referendum on independence, having a woman in charge might help reverse the gender gap, which ultimately cost Scotland its freedom from London.
Salmond, 59, said he had made the decision because it was time to hand over the struggle to a new generation. Most of the party’s members grew up through the era when he transformed the SNP from a protest party to Scotland’s party of government, even if that government remains limited. “I believe that in this new exciting situation, redolent with possibility, party, parliament and country would benefit from new leadership,” he said. “My time as leader is nearly over, but for Scotland the campaign continues and the dream shall never die.”
Salmond is unlikely to disappear into any shadows however. He said he would step down as leader in the fall but would continue to stand for election to the Scottish parliament.
One man who knows exactly what a tough operator Salmond can be, is David Cameron, the British Prime Minister, who some argue was comprehensively outmaneuvered by the belligerent Scotsman in the build up to the referendum. Cameron conceded many of Salmond’s demands about the referendum itself, which helped allow the pro-independence campaign to close the polls enough that Cameron was forced to cough up another round of concessions.
“Alex is a politician of huge talent and passion,” Cameron said. “He has been an effective First Minister and always fights his corner. While we disagree profoundly about his goal of a separated Scotland, and many other things, I respect and admire his huge contribution to politics and public life.”
Typically of Salmond he stood down not with the kind words of a retiree, but with the point-scoring aggression of an old warrior. He barred The Telegraph newspaper from even attending the press conference after a series of run-ins on the campaign trail, and proceeded to hurl grenades at his opponents in London as he retreated.
On the day that Cameron had reiterated his pledge to devolve further powers to Scotland, Salmond claimed he was already going back on his word. After reminding his opponents that 1.6 million Scots had joined his movement, Salmond insisted that Scotland must “hold Westminster’s feet to the fire.”
“The real guardians of progress are not the politicians at Westminster, or even at Holyrood, but the energized activism of tens of thousands of people who I predict will refuse meekly to go back into the political shadows,” he said.