Page last updated at 14:54 GMT, Wednesday, 8 October 2008 15:54 UK

Grasping the leadership thistle

Alex Salmond

By Andrew Black
Political reporter, BBC Scotland news website

Alex Salmond's reputation as a hot-headed and rebellious character ensured he was a high-profile politician long before becoming Scotland's first minister.

On securing such a responsible job, the original comeback kid of Scottish politics probably made a conscious decision to leave the past exactly there.

And he has done that. Almost.

The former civil servant may have turned over a new leaf of late - but the temptation to publicly clash with the UK Government over issues, from the Lockerbie bombing to wind turbines, ultimately proved too much.

Despite steering his party to victory in the 2007 Scottish election, Mr Salmond's dream of an independent Scotland has remained out of reach - his minority administration lacking the number of votes to stage a referendum.

And regardless of the flitting between Holyrood and Westminster, the SNP leadership and the backbenches, he has carved out a reputation as a tough politician and powerful speaker - feared as much by some colleagues as rivals.

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.

He won the Westminster seat of Banff and Buchan in 1987, before succeeding Gordon Wilson as SNP leader in 1990, holding the top job for 10 years and repositioning the party as more socially democratic and pro-European.

Mr Salmond played a prominent role in the '79 Group, which sought to sharpen the SNP's message and appeal to dissident Labour voters after the party's collapse in the 1979 General Election.

Surprise decision

This earned him a brief expulsion from the SNP in 1982.

He aroused controversy when he branded Nato action in Kosovo during the 1999 Scottish election campaign "an act of dubious legality, but above all one of unpardonable folly".

Eleven years earlier, he interrupted the chancellor's Budget speech in protest at cuts in income tax rates and the introduction of the poll tax in Scotland - for which he was thrown out of the House of Commons chamber for a week.

And, as first minister with his economist hat on, he blamed "spivs and speculators" for the problems which led to the launch of a 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.

Also known for his singing talents, Mr Salmond famously recorded a version of the Rowan Tree with artist Anne Lorne Gillies as part of a CD released by the SNP to inspire independence.

More recently, he joined Sandi Thom and a class of children with a rendition of the singer's hit I Wish I Was a Punk Rocker (with Flowers in My Hair).

Mr Salmond's first leadership tenure included a year in Holyrood after he won a seat there in 1999, before making a surprising decision to quit.

He returned to Westminster, where he had built up a high profile, resigning as an MSP and triggering a by-election on the day of the 2001 General Election.

Mr Salmond is a well-known betting man, and one wonders what odds he would give for the future of his beloved party

Part of that profile came from his many appearances on TV programmes ranging from Question Time to Have I got News for You.

John Swinney succeeded Mr Salmond in the SNP leadership but stood down in 2004 following continued criticism from sections of the party and the negative publicity of a leadership challenge - albeit one which he survived.

Many turned to Mr Salmond to grasp the thistle and take his old job back, but he famously stated: "If nominated I'll decline. If drafted I'll defer. And if elected I'll resign."

He 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 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.

Alex Salmond
Mr Salmond has shown off his singing talents on several occasions

Facing almost immediate pressure to step down as an MP, Mr Salmond said he would stick to his plan to quit Westminster at the next UK election, and moved to silence his critics by setting up a charitable trust, funded by his MSP's salary.

It was not long before the first predicted brush with the UK Labour government.

In an emergency statement to the Scottish Parliament, Mr Salmond voiced concern that the man convicted of the 1988 Lockerbie bombing - the UK's worst terrorist attack - could be transferred back to a jail in his native Libya.

The UK Government published details of a deal struck with Libya on prisoner exchange - which it insisted did not cover Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed al-Megrahi, serving life in a Scottish jail.

Then came several other clashes - including his proclamation in late 2007 that Scotland had gained the ability to produce more green energy than nuclear power - if the wind blew, of course.

Hitting out at UK ministers' plans for new nuclear power stations, he said future generations of Scots would be spared the "burden of toxic radioactive waste".

In contrast, 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 a criticism more reminiscent of the old days, Mr Salmond was accused of taking a "cavalier" approach to dealing with US tycoon Donald Trump's £1bn Scottish golf resort.

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.

Mr Salmond is a well-known betting man, and one wonders what odds he would give for the future of his beloved party - whether in government or not.

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