Alex Salmond is still the biggest beast in the Scottish political jungle. He is a politician of rare skill, a quick and occasionally devastating debater and a strong leader.I would amend that first sentence by inserting a "by far" in front of that "still"; in terms of strategy he continues to run rings round what could be very loosely described as the "competition" (the three pro-Union parties) and has managed to keep a minority administration pottering steadily along, without much of a hiccough, for three years now. Ok, the list of actual concrete achievements is on the short side, but it certainly stands comparison with what has been "accomplished" by the majority Labour/Plaid Cymru coalition in Wales and the "No Party Left Behind" joke of a Stormont Executive.
All those traits remain but a convergence of other factors have prompted murmurings to grow louder in the background, from inside and outside the SNP. In short, people are starting to ask the question: has Alex Salmond lost his edge?
So, what's his (apparent) problem?
Despite Labour's overwhelming victory in Scotland in May (always on the cards in a wider two-horse UK race), his biggest problem, I suspect, is managing the expectations of the "Separation or Bust" fundamentalists who seem to form a large minority of the SNP activist base. He expounded on the unpalatable truth last week:
"The centre of gravity in Scottish politics is clearly currently not independence"A truth which is pretty much self-evident but not because the SNP doesn't have the majority at Holyrood to push through a referendum. Salmond has read the public, not only the political, mood and he knows that even if such a referendum were to come into play, there would be a large majority voting for Scotland to remain a part of the UK. If the public mood were different would he, despite the political opposition, hesitate for a moment to continue with his referendum campaign? Of course not.
So, where does that leave the SNP?
In the same position as the Catalonian and, to a lesser extent, the Québécois nationalist parties- a majority for separation from the larger nation simply doesn't exist and is unlikely to do so for the foreseeable future. But, even as an integrationist UK Unionist, I have got to admit, as is the case in Catalonia and Quebec, a degree of "otherness" does exist amongst a section of the electorate and that is a feature which, for the obvious reasons, the pro-Union parties in Scotland seem very reluctant to exploit. I believe Salmond has read the tea-leaves and already prepared the ground by the development of a pro-Scotland (as opposed to a purely anti-UK) philosophy- a philosophy which seems comfortable enough with Scotland continuing with, for example, the monarchy. I think the future of the SNP lies in developing that sense of "otherness" whilst co-existing with the greater whole; reaping the advantages of remaining a part of the United Kingdom whilst attempting to stand aloof from the cultural, social and even financial responsibilities of remaining part of that Union.
Salmond is consistently ahead of the pro-Union parties; he is now also apparently ahead of many in his own party. That party, if it wishes to remain relevant, should be seriously thinking about what he's now telling them.