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Page last updated at 10:52 GMT, Monday, 5 April 2010 11:52 UK

Profile: Alex Salmond

Alex Salmond
Alex Salmond is seen as one of the outstanding politicians of his generation

By Andrew Black
Political reporter, BBC Scotland news website

Love him or loathe him, few people would dispute Alex Salmond's skill and achievements as a politician.

Scotland's first minister he may be, but Mr Salmond's reputation as a hot-headed and rebellious character ensured he was a high-profile politician long before taking Holyrood's top job.

Born on Hogmanay 1954 in the ancient and Royal burgh of Linlithgow, Alexander Elliot Anderson Salmond graduated from St Andrews University and began a career in economics, working for the Scottish Office and the Royal Bank.

Realising, however, that politics was his true calling, he began taking an increasingly active role in the Scottish National Party, having come to the conclusion that the economic case for independence was a strong one.

His initial rise to prominence, both inside the party and out, came as the SNP entered its darkest period.

When the job of party leader came up in 1990, Mr Salmond was in an ideal position to grab it. In the event, he grabbed it firmly with both hands

The 1979 General Election not only saw the number of Nationalist MPs slashed from 11 to two, but a strong victory by Thatcher's Tories meant Labour's previous talk of a Scottish Assembly was firmly off the agenda.

Mr Salmond played a prominent role in the breakaway 79 Group, which sought to sharpen the SNP's message and appeal to dissident Labour voters after the party's collapse, a move which earned him a brief expulsion in 1982.

Reflecting on the incident years later, he put it down in part to his being a "brash young man".

Despite his form, Mr Salmond established himself as a rising star of the SNP, winning the Westminster seat of Banff and Buchan in 1987, and notably getting himself banned from the Commons chamber for a week after interrupting the chancellor's Budget speech in protest at the introduction of the poll tax in Scotland.

When the job of party leader came up in 1990, Mr Salmond was in an ideal position to grab it. In the event, he grabbed it firmly with both hands, repositioning the SNP as more socially democratic and pro-European, while moving to transform it into a modern, election-fighting machine.

Negative publicity

The delivery of Scottish devolution presented new opportunities for the SNP. The party failed to win the first Holyrood election in 1999, but won enough seats to set itself up as the official opposition.

During the campaign, Mr Salmond had sparked controversy when he described Nato action in Kosovo as "an act of dubious legality, but above all one of unpardonable folly".

After putting in a decade as SNP leader, Mr Salmond made the surprising decision to quit and stand down as an MSP.

He returned to Westminster, where he had built up a high profile, partly from his many appearances on TV programmes ranging from Question Time to Have I got News for You.

John Swinney succeeded Mr Salmond as leader, but stood down in 2004 following continued criticism from sections of the party and the negative publicity of a leadership challenge.

Many turned to Mr Salmond to grasp the thistle and take his old job back.

He responded by aptly borrowing from General William Sherman, who on being asked to run for president following the American Civil War, famously declared: "If nominated I'll decline. If drafted I'll defer. And if elected I'll resign."

Alex Salmond
Alex Salmond was elected as an MP in 1987

Mr Salmond subsequently entered the leadership race "with a degree of surprise and humility, but with a renewed determination".

Essentially, as he put it himself, he changed his mind.

Following the comeback, on a joint ticket with deputy Nicola Sturgeon, Mr Salmond led the SNP to its greatest hour - victory at the 2007 Scottish election and delivery of a minority SNP government.

He also reinvented himself as something of a new man.

Gone was the Eck of old - known to respond to tough questions in an aggressive manner - replaced with a more measured and positive, even chirpy, character.

He also achieved a personal victory, winning the Liberal Democrat-held Scottish Parliament seat of Gordon, providing the vehicle for his return to Holyrood.

Gordon Brown, still Chancellor at the time, called Mr Salmond to congratulate him becoming first minister - four weeks after the election.

'Cavalier' approach

It was not long before the first predicted brush with the UK Labour government. The subject was the future of the convicted Lockerbie bomber, although there would be many more arguments with Westminster, on topics ranging from energy policy to Treasury funding.

Mr Salmond later blamed "spivs and speculators" for the problems which caused the takeover of HBOS, as the crisis of confidence in the financial sector hit Scotland.

He later brushed off criticism from his political rivals that HBOS' real problems were caused by the bank's exposure to the volatile mortgage market.

In contrast, though, the Glasgow Airport terror attack and foot and mouth crisis showed how willing the first minister was to work with Westminster on issues of UK importance.

In 2008, Mr Salmond was accused of taking a "cavalier" approach to dealing with US tycoon Donald Trump's £1bn Scottish golf resort.

Nicola Sturgeon and Alex Salmond
Mr Salmond returned as leader on a joint ticket with Nicola Sturgeon

An inquiry into the affair by Holyrood's local government committee raised concern over the Scottish Government's decision to call in the plans, following their rejection by Aberdeenshire Council, after "two five-minute phone calls".

The probe had to admit, however, that the decision, although unprecedented, was competent.

Away from politics, Mr Salmond has retained an enigmatic persona. He and wife, Moira, who have no children, are known to be protective of their private lives.

He is known for his love of singing, having recorded a version of the Rowan Tree with artist Anne Lorne Gillies as part of a CD released to inspire independence.

Mr Salmond is a well-known betting man, and one wonders - with his dream of an independent Scotland still out of reach - what odds he would give for the future of his beloved party - whether in government or not.

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