For a time, Scottish nationalist leader Alex Salmond was treated like an eccentric yet harmless radical, his dreams of an independent Scotland just another far-fetched part of his complex, at times conflicting persona: He was a Scottish nationalist with a remarkable, even odd, affection for the queen, a man said to have only joined the Scottish Nationalist Party after an argument with his girlfriend at St. Andrews College, and a Scot who broke his own pledge to never wear a kilt until Scotland was truly independent.
As Scotland's September 18th vote for independence comes closer and closer and the chances that Salmond's dream could actually come true get higher and higher, Salmond is beginning to be seen as something else. He's been labeled a "bully" by the Daily Telegraph, ravaged by critics for his positive comments about Vladimir Putin at the height of tensions over Ukraine, and compared to Zimbabwean dictator Robert Mugabe by Britain's leading conservative magazine.
Not so long ago, he was even dubbed a "democratic Caledonian Hitler" by one of Britain's best known historians,
In fact, to get a sense of how some people view Salmond, one of the most important politicians in the United Kingdom right now, check out the Facebook page, "Alex Salmond is a deluded w***er." It's second only to his actual, official Facebook page in terms of popularity, and is currently illustrated with a picture portraying Salmond as Kim Jong-il, the late North Korean despot.
Salmond seems to divide opinion like few other politicians. He has substantial support, enough to be elected as first minister of Scotland, yet polls show almost as many are dissatisfied as satisfied with him. Strangely, women seem to have a particular problem with him: One recent poll from the Scottish paper Daily Record found that half of women surveyed saying his role makes them want to vote against independence. Salmond was described as "arrogant," "ambitious" and "dishonest" by those polled.
Perhaps it's logical that a man who espouses a radical plan would elicit both love and hate. But there's an even bigger factor here: Salmond doesn't just espouse a radical plan – he also promotes it very, very well.
The Scottish National Party (SNP) had been around for decades before Salmond joined it. After the party was decimated in the 1979 general elections, however, and it was Salmond and others, as part of the "79 Group," who pushed for the SNP to adopt a more leftist agenda. Salmond was expelled from the SNP due to infighting, but was quickly allowed back in and soon won a seat at Westminster. By 1990 he was leading the party, pushing it to a new social democratic, European Union-friendly platform.
While his time as leader was sometimes controversial, it was overall a time of success for the SNP. In 1999, the British Labor government agreed to significant devolution of powers to Scotland, and a Scottish parliament was formed. Salmond left the leadership in 2000, only to return in 2004 and take the party to new successes. In 2007, SNP won enough seats for a minority government in Scotland, in no small part due to its ability to win over disillusioned supporters of Labor, Britain's traditionally left wing party, and by 2011, it had an outright majority; the Westminster coalition government's 2012 agreement on an independence referendum was its greatest achievement yet.
How did Salmond do it? For one thing, his mercurial public persona to attract slightly more people than it annoys. He can handle himself in front of an audience: Salmond has been a face on the British political comedy shows for years, and performed well in the debates before Scottish independence. This video from Thursday, shows Salmond giving a dressing down to BBC economics reporter Nick Robinson, and captures some of his charm.
But there's more to it than that. He's also extremely savvy, able to negotiate terms for a referendum that were clearly in his favor. And now, he's somehow managed to engineer a situation where even if the "Yes" vote loses the independence referendum (still the most likely option), Scotland will still get more political powers, and the possibility of a later independence referendum will still be open. It's a win-win situation.
"[Salmond is] quite a natural politician, he is an extraordinarily brilliant long-game player, a calculator," Scottish writer Neal Ascherson told the Guardian back in 2011. "Sleek and smart, those wee black eyes dart from side to side and while others blether and blunder he just keeps to his game and he's always witty."
All in all, Salmond provokes such anger because he's good at his job. And perhaps it's not just anger he provokes, but fear.