Page last updated at 20:18 GMT, Wednesday, 2 July 2008 21:18 UK

Reign over for Holyrood's Mr Nice

Nicol Stephen

By Andrew Black
Political reporter
BBC Scotland news website

Nicol Stephen has been described as many things by many people over the years. "Nice", "nervous" and "safe" have all been thrown into the mix.

But beneath the gentle demeanour lurks the former lawyer's tough persona - a much-needed trait for any party leader.

If his Mr Hyde failed to show publicly during his time as Scotland's deputy first minister, it certainly came out once the Scottish Liberal Democrats found themselves out of power after the last Holyrood election.

Born in Aberdeen in 1963, Mr Stephen is best known as a politician from his time in Holyrood.

But he also served as a regional councillor in Grampian and, very briefly, as MP for Kincardine and Deeside from 1991-92.

He won the seat - considered safe Tory territory - in a by-election but it was reclaimed by the Conservatives in the subsequent general election.

Claws out

The father-of-four entered the Scottish Parliament in 1999 as MSP for Aberdeen South, serving in a number of government roles as part of his party's coalition with Scottish Labour, most notably as transport minister.

Mr Stephen was always seen as a possible successor to Scots Lib Dem leader Jim Wallace - and he got his chance when the latter decided to step down following the party's good day at the polls in the 2005 General Election.

When the other likely contender Tavish Scott ruled himself out of the race, the field was left open for Mr Stephen, seen by rivals as the "continuity candidate", to romp home to victory.

He secured more than 75% of the vote against his rival, the rebellious Lib Dem backbencher Mike Rumbles.

With his success came Scotland's number two job, the title of deputy first minister.

And there was success outside Holyrood under his watch, when the Lib Dems overturned a huge Labour majority to win the Westminster Dunfermline and West Fife by-election, in a neighbouring constituency to Gordon Brown's.

Nicol Stephen
Nicol Stephen briefly served as an MP before going on to serve at Holyrood

On the 2007 Holyrood campaign trail, Mr Stephen set out his aspirations for young people and more powers for the Scottish Parliament - while insisting the party was a political force in its own right.

Returned to Holyrood with a 2,732 vote majority - but an 11.21% swing from his party to the SNP - Mr Stephen's unwavering refusal to do a deal with the SNP because of its independence stance meant the party was relegated to the opposition benches.

Former first minister Jack McConnell stepped down as Scottish Labour leader but Mr Stephen stayed on - and his claws came out at first minister's question time.

He attacked the decision to sack Sportscotland chairwoman Julia Bracewell and her counterpart at the Institute of Sport, broadcaster Dougie Donnelly.

Ministers decided to merge the organisations' boards, saying one person chairing one agency was sensible.

'Vilified regimes'

But, with the Olympic Games approaching, Mr Stephen stated: "Instead of sharpening up Scotland's performance at the games, ministers were sharpening their long knives for the back of Dougie Donnelly."

On another occasion, he read out extracts of a letter from an NHS Tayside specialist plastic surgeon to a patient, in which he said health board bosses told him to remove names as a "simple solution" to people waiting more than 18 weeks for treatment - a key government target.

By the end of the day, Health Secretary Nicola Sturgeon had given an assurance that any wrongly removed patients would be treated.

Mr Salmond was also accused by the Scottish Lib Dem leader of writing to some of the world's most "vilified and dangerous regimes" in his bid to rid Scotland of nuclear weapons.

The first minister contacted 189 countries stating Scotland's opposition to replacing Trident, but Mr Stephen attacked him for writing to regimes such as Zimbabwe, Iran and Burma.

Nicol Stephen
Mr Stephen served alongside Labour's Jack McConnell in coalition government

Claiming the first minister was "obsessed with getting a seat in the ante room at the United Nations", he asked: "Is there any regime, dictatorship or one-party state that he won't beg to help in the cause of Scottish independence?"

Then, things got personal when Mr Stephen claimed the Scottish Government's involvement with Donald Trump's 1bn Aberdeenshire golf resort "smelled of sleaze".

Ministers had decided to have the final say on the US tycoon's plans for the Menie Estate, after they were rejected by the local council.

But the attack was the final straw for Mr Salmond after Scotland's top civil servant Sir John Elvidge ruled civil servants involved in the application had stuck to the rules.

Demanding a yet-to-be-made apology, Mr Salmond said the former deputy first minister had become "unelectable in the north east" and warned he would regret the comments.

Although Mr Stephen could not have imagined life out of power at Holyrood for the first time since devolution, his new stance seemed at odds with his election campaign criticism of the "Punch and Judy-style" politics of rivals.

Despite some spirited performances and a few good hits in opposition, it was ultimately not enough.

The stresses and strains of the job, he said, were proving too much for his personal life.

Rather then letting Mr Hyde fight on, it was Mr Stephen's dedication as a family man which, in the end, convinced him to quit as leader.


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