Alex Salmond likes to recite the tale his grandfather told about his hometown of Linlithgow ousting English occupiers from the local castle in the 14th century.
“They put a hay cart under the portcullis and they all charged in,” Salmond said in an interview in Edinburgh, Scotland’s capital. “The way my granddad told it, he didn’t just say what happened, he named the people involved. These were daring deeds, heroic tales, even better than Braveheart.”
Seven hundred years later, Salmond is first minister of Scotland and leading his own drive for autonomy. Consultations by his government ended last week as he prepares to propose an independence referendum for the country in 2014.
With Britain in its second recession in three years, Salmond, 57, says his plan to revive the economy is better than what Prime Minister David Cameron is offering. Cameron says the U.K. government best serves the economic interests of Scots and English alike.
Salmond, who has sparred with five British prime ministers since entering national politics in 1987, is taking the fight to Cameron on the biggest constitutional question since the U.K.’s formation in 1707.
The argument is emotional, one of Scottish versus British identity, as well as economic, and the result may seal the political fate of both leaders, said John Curtice, professor of politics at Strathclyde University in Glasgow.
“The referendum will determine Salmond’s and Cameron’s legacy,” Curtice said by phone on May 10. “Salmond’s name will be written in the country’s history books” if he wins, and on the same basis “I wouldn’t wish to put too much money on Cameron being prime minister at the 2015 election,” he said.
Salmond has won support from News Corp.’s Rupert Murdoch, whose London-based Times newspaper named Salmond “Briton of the Year” in December. In his Twitter Inc. account, Murdoch praised Salmond as a fellow “anti-establishmentarian.”
Opinion polls show that Salmond has more work to do to convince a divided Scottish public to back his vision of an independent Scotland. Thirty-five percent of 998 Scots voters surveyed between Jan. 25 and Feb. 1 said they would vote in favor of independence, while 44 percent would vote against, the latest poll conducted by TNS-BMRB found.
“He’s always been very good at mood music and generating a feeling of momentum and inevitability about these things, which can influence how people vote,” said David Torrance, author of “Salmond: Against the Odds,” which was published last year.
North Sea Oil
With little more than two years before the referendum, Salmond’s argument is that increased government spending on projects such as transport improvements can create jobs and foster a revival. Scotland would also have 90 percent of North Sea oil and about 8 percent of the British national debt.
First-quarter figures showed the 140 billion-pound ($222 billion) Scottish economy was shrinking by less than the U.K. overall and unemployment was falling more quickly.
After gaining power in Scotland for the first time in 2007 and running a minority government, his Scottish National Party recorded a landslide victory last year in elections to the Edinburgh parliament. It has power over health, transport, justice and education, and a budget of about 28 billion pounds a year transferred from the U.K. Treasury.
Salmond, a former Royal Bank of Scotland Group Plc economist and oil analyst, wants to expand his government’s remit to have full control over finances, including income and corporation tax and the ability to borrow money. The proposal calls for Scotland to become a member of the European Union, while it would keep the pound and a seamless border with England. Queen Elizabeth II would continue to be head of state.
While failing to take Glasgow, Scotland’s largest city and a traditional Labour Party bastion, municipal elections showed the SNP cementing its dominance this month in some parts of the country. Cameron’s Conservatives and his U.K. coalition partner, the Liberal Democrats, both lost seats.
Scots are “divided down the middle whether Scotland will be better off economically” as an independent country, said Curtice. “If the unionists win the argument, it is game, set and match to them. It is a precondition for the SNP to win that argument to have a serious chance of winning” the referendum.
Salmond was born in Linlithgow, 15 minutes west of Edinburgh by train, on New Year’s Eve 1954, the second of four children to two civil servants. He grew up on Preston Road, down the street from St. Ninian’s church, where his mother was an elder, and the town’s oldest pub, the Black Bitch, named after the hunting dog from the coat of arms.
Robert the Bruce
Linlithgow Palace, a castle that served as a royal residence, dominates the town, perched on a hill overlooking a small loch with fisherman casting from boats. It was taken back from King Edward II’s army by Robert the Bruce in 1313 during the Scottish Wars of Independence. Mary Queen of Scots was born there in 1542.
Salmond said his first foray into politics was when he was in primary school and he represented the SNP because it was the only party left to choose.
“I won a resounding victory,” Salmond said during the April 18 interview at his official Edinburgh residence. “I promised morning-only school, ice cream instead of school milk. I had a good platform.”
He studied economics and history at St. Andrews University, the third-oldest university in the English-speaking world after Oxford and Cambridge. Founded in 1413, its luminaries include Benjamin Franklin, the American founding father who traveled to St. Andrews for an honorary law degree in 1759, and James Wilson, one of two Scottish signatories of the U.S. Declaration of Independence.
‘Corner of Nowhere’
“Growing up as a child in the 1960s in Linlithgow, there was an underlying assumption that Scotland was somehow stuck up in the corner of nowhere, always struggling against the odds,” Salmond said. “Then when I went to university and started to look at Scottish economic history, what I saw was something totally different. I saw this country that had contributed massively to economic and human development.”
His upbringing gave Salmond the grounding to reach out to Scottish voters, said Catherine Hassell, who grew up in the same neighborhood and went to the same school, Linlithgow Academy, albeit at different times.
“He puts it over like a working man rather than talking down to you,” Hassell, 65, said at the town museum where she volunteers. “I suppose he has the will to do it.”
Hassell, an SNP supporter, said she’s undecided on whether Scotland should pursue full independence.
Salmond has overcome political adversity before. His first-term government gained worldwide prominence in August 2009 when it released convicted Lockerbie bomber Abdel Basset Al-Megrahi on compassionate grounds. Less than two years later, he led the SNP to an historic victory by winning an overall majority in a voting system designed to create coalitions.
Salmond’s challenge now is to translate public support for himself and his party into backing for Scotland abandoning the 305-year-old Act of Union with England.
“If it happened, I would enthusiastically support it because that’s where we are, and if it didn’t, then I’m happy with the status quo too,” said Sandy Nairn, chief executive officer of Edinburgh Partners, the fund management firm he set up in 2003. “We’re not an oppressed nation under the yoke of someone else. We’re great neighbors and we get on pretty well.”
The Scottish Parliament in the city was re-established in 1999 under a U.K. policy called devolution introduced by the former Labour government led by Tony Blair. Since then, the movement toward more autonomy has gathered speed.
Mike Smith, a private banker from the U.S. who moved to Edinburgh 13 years ago, calls it “incremental independence.”
“The entire experience of devolution and pre-occupation with independence has been bad for the Scottish people and for the Scottish economy,” said Smith, who arrived in the Scottish capital to work for Merrill Lynch before moving to SGPB Hambros. “The economic prospects for Scotland as an independent country led by an SNP government are very dim indeed.”
There’s also the backlash against Salmond from what he calls the “London” political groups. The three main parties in the U.K. Parliament at Westminster -- the Conservatives, Liberal Democrats and Labour -- say Scotland can’t afford to be independent and is better off staying part of the U.K., Europe’s third-largest economy.
Salmond, a member of parliament from 1987 to 2010 representing the northeast Scotland fishing and farming district of Banff and Buchan, has been caught up in the inquiry into News Corp.’s ties with British lawmakers.
Labour leader Ed Miliband last month called him an “undercover lobbyist” for Murdoch over a failed bid to buy the rest of British Sky Broadcasting Group Plc. Salmond defended himself, telling the BBC on April 28 that his “good professional relationship” with Murdoch was about securing jobs in Scotland.
After graduating from St. Andrews, Salmond worked as a government economist between 1978 and 1980 and then for Royal Bank of Scotland, where he was responsible for creating its monthly oil index. He married Moira McGlashan, a Scottish Office civil servant 17 years older than him, in 1981. They live in a converted watermill in the village of Strichen.
A lifelong fan of Edinburgh soccer club Heart of Midlothian, Salmond wrote a regular column about horseracing for the Scotsman newspaper.
Yet it’s his interest in history and the legacy of his paternal grandfather, the town plumber in Linlithgow, that now reverberates across the nation.
“My granddad used to take me round all the nooks and crannies of Linlithgow,” Salmond said. “He wanted me to have a Scottish attitude to the world, and I think he managed it.”