Alex Salmond this afternoon dramatically quit as Scotland’s First Minister after voters rejected independence. The First Minister said he would stand down in November to let the next generation take over the fight to lead Scotland out of the Union. Mr Salmond announced his departure at a press conference this afternoon. He said ‘party, Parliament and country’ would benefit from ‘new leadership’. But he fired a warning shot at David Cameron not to go back on his promise to transfer sweeping new powers to Holyrood within six months.
This afternoon’s announcement came after he was forced to accept that a majority of Scots had decided ‘at this stage’ not to become an independent country. The ‘No’ campaign secured 55 per cent of the vote to the nationalists’ 45 per cent. Mr Salmond suggested that Westminster was now preparing to renege on its pledge to give Scotland new powers by March next year. He said: ‘We now have the opportunity to hold Westminster’s feet to the fire on the vow that they’ve made to devolve further meaningful to Scotland. This places Scotland in a very strong position. I spoke to the Prime Minister today and although he reiterated his intention to proceed as he has now outlined he would not commit to a second reading vote by the 27th of March on a new Scotland Bill. That was a clear promise laid out by Gordon Brown during the campaign.
‘The Prime Minister says such a vote would be meaningless. I suspect he can’t guarantee the support of his party and we’ve already seen the common front between Labour and Tory, Tory and Labour, is starting to break.’ He added: ‘There is a decision as to who is best placed to lead this process forward. I believe this is a new exciting situation that is redolent with possibility. In that situation I think party, Parliament and country would benefit from new leadership – therefore I’ve told the national secretary of the Scottish National Party that I shall not accept the nomination for leader at the annual conference in Perth on the 13th to 15th of November.
‘After the membership ballot I will stand down as First Minister to allow the new leader to be elected by due Parliamentary process. Until then I will continue to serve as First Minister. It’s been the privilege of my life to serve as First Minister. But as I said often during the referendum campaign this is not about me or the SNP. It is much more important than that. The position is this. We lost the referendum vote but can still carry the political initiative. More importantly, Scotland can still emerge as the real winner.’
Mr Salmond said that at the age of 59, after 20 years as SNP leader and seven years as First Minister, it was time to hand over the reins. He said it was ‘time to give someone else a chance to move that forward’. The SNP leader revealed that he made the decision this morning. He added. ‘I believed there was great possibilities in the campaign and obviously I wouldn’t have made the decision if there had been a Yes vote. I believe in the circumstances the vote we have, galvanizing, wonderful, empowering and massive though it is, it’s my judgement that someone else in the leadership would be best-placed to take that forward to the summit.’
Mr Salmond’s decision to quit will leave a huge hole in the Scottish National Party. He has been leader for 20 of the last 24 years, taking the party into power in Edinburgh before securing the historic referendum on independence. He led the party from 1990 to 2000 after public rows with senior SNP figures, when he quit the Scottish Parliament, handing the reigns over to John Swinney. After four years on the backbenches though, he returned to the fray in 2004. He came back as leader, taking the SNP into power in Holyrood in 2007, winning an unprecedented overall majority in 2011.
He used the election victory to claim a ‘mandate’ for a referendum on independence. His political rivals in Edinburgh struggled to match his charisma or cunning, while the Westminster parties left him to his own devices, realizing almost too late the threat he posed to the Union. Today he refused to back a candidate for his successor, but his long-serving deputy Nicola Sturgeon is the certain frontrunner. The pair have been an almost permanent fixture on Scottish TV screens for the last decade. William Hill made Miss Sturgeon the 1/3 favorite to take over the SNP leadership.
‘Nicola Sturgeon played a very prominent part in supporting Alex Salmond during the Yes campaign and is an obvious front runner as the race to succeed him gets underway,’ said William Hill spokesman Graham Sharpe. Other possible contenders include Angus Robertson, the SNP’s successful election strategist, Alex Neil, the Scottish Health Secretary, and Derek Mackay, a local government minister.