It’s been a long 36 hours with only 4 hours sleep. And six hours in the 48 hours before that.
Forgive me then for being a little tired and emotional. But I didn’t expect the tears that have been held back, to start to flow, listening to the First Minister’s own emotional but pitch-perfect resignation speech and press conference.
And for me to feel so sad and not just a little disappointed.
Everyone is exhausted on the Yes side. We gave it our all – as we would. And I’m not sure the immediate aftermath is the right point for all this to be unfolding. A period of reflection over the weekend, enabling response rather than reaction would have been my preferred option.
But if anything proved just how different the First Minister is in reality from the gross caricature of him which has been painted by political and media opponents, and allowed to lodge in the minds of voters, it has been this action. (Though not without his mischievous side still coming to the fore – he couldn’t help sticking two fingers up to the Unionist cheerleading papers by excluding from this press conference. Good for him.) He is taking full responsibility for the failure to win this campaign and doing the decent and honourable thing. There are few politicians these days willing to fall on their swords when they lead from the front and fail to deliver. Membership of the SNP not only requires supporting independence but a commitment to put the interests of the Scottish people and Scotland first. On the latter, the First Minister is doing what he thinks is in his country’s interests. There is much more to this man in terms of his measure than has often been portrayed.
And yet, he has not failed, not completely. Independence for Scotland was voted for by a significant minority of the Scottish population. Many more were nearly persuaded – the yes buts who decided instead to opt for the promises made by the Unionists on more powers. As the First Minister himself warned in the media conference several times, there are many No voters who will be angry if they now find they have been sold a pup. His leadership of the SNP has been key to enabling Scotland to arrive here, where we currently stand in terms of the power and control wrestled from Westminster’s grasp.
So in some ways, the First Minister’s resignation is entirely understandable and honourable. He feels he has done what he can in terms of that journey and can do no more.
It also makes sense in terms of where we are in the Scottish parliamentary calendar and also, internally for the SNP.
Standing down now allows his successor eighteen months in which to make the role their own, to lead the Scottish Government and prepare a platform for 2016. The SNP’s annual conference has been pushed back as a result of the referendum to November. His resignation now allows for a leadership contest to be held meeting the internal constitutional niceties, but not so long that it involves a blood-letting in the party. Crucially, it allows Nicola Sturgeon to put herself forward as the contender to replace him without attracting much more than a potential stalking horse – there has to be a venting at some point – rather than a more serious challenge. It allows the changeover of leadership to be managed, dignified and some might say, stage managed.
But I am still disappointed.
Yes, Alex Salmond has led his party now for 20 years in total – he clearly has a thing about bundles of ten – and yes, he will be 60 in a few months’ time. But I think he still had something to give and indeed, I rather think Scotland needs him and his tactical nous in these early days of a not quite better nation, but at least a somewhat improved model.
Firstly, there are eighteen months to go until the next Scottish Parliamentary elections. Time then, for a re-energised First Minister to lead a radical programme of action within the powers the Scottish Parliament holds to show that the SNP is more than a one trick pony. This administration has indeed been dominated by the constitutional debate, to the extent that real scrutiny of legislation, proper challenge of change-making and indeed, the introduction of big new ideas absent from the Programme for Government has been lacking. Eighteen months of activity would set the SNP fair for fighting the next Scottish elections to win. Again.
Secondly, Scotland needs him. His resignation remarks identified the indecent haste in which the Vow is unravelling – which did so much to persuade the undecideds to stick rather than twist. And it is happening. Boris Johnson has said today that he’s not bound by the Vow. The Prime Minister has inserted the issue – rightly – of wider devolution across these isles into the process: some are arguing this makes conditional new powers for Scotland on answering the long-standing West Lothian question. Ed Miliband has resiled from his part in the deal on the flimsy basis that this now changes things.
Already this process of new powers for Scotland is a tangled mess and it remains to be seen if anything meaningful will be delivered before the General Election. We were promised by Gordon Brown a paper, today, setting out what those powers would be. Time is ticking, Gordon. And Scotland is waiting and watching.
So the First Minister is right that a careful watch on this process is required. And who better to do it than him? No one understands the tactics of such processes better. No one knows how to push their buttons more effectively. No one knows how they tick like he does. Scotland needs him at his wily best, to hold them to account, to keep them in line, to ensure Scotland gets what we were promised.
Finally, for all that he has been demonised and raised as a doorstep issue during this campaign, no one is more surefooted at gauging the mood, needs and wants of the Scottish people. Under Alex Salmond, the SNP has moved to be much more in tune with the mood of the Scottish people. He has carefully intertwined leading and following, moving forward in the constitutional journey at a pace Scotland is comfortable with. He, more than anyone else, in the party has brought us to this stage, whereby 45% of the Scottish electorate voted for independence. We need him as our proxy in this new powers’ process.
Or rather needed him. Because now he has gone. Or at least is going.
And for all that I am saddened at his decision, it is to be respected for what it is. An honest, emotional and well-meant reaction to the events of yesterday. It is a measure of the man who history will show as having been a rather fine First Minister for Scotland and absolutely key to us as a country and a people taking more control of the decisions and powers which affect our lives. His position in Scottish political history is assured. And he is right. The dream does live on. And it will live on, without him. He has achieved much and clearly thinks he has no more to give.
I just wish he’d taken the weekend to rest up, reflect and then respond.