Alex Salmond has announced he will step down as Scotland’s first minister and resign as the leader of the Scottish National Party, after voters rejected independence from the UK.
Scotland voted “No” to independence by about 55% to 45% in a poll yesterday (18 September) that attracted a British record 84.59% turnout and is set to spur major constitutional change.
“For me as leader my time is nearly over but for Scotland the campaign continues and the dream shall never die,” Salmond told reporters in Edinburgh, within ten hours of conceding defeat this morning.
“I had to make a judgment as to whether I’m best placed to take that opportunity forward – and I think others are,” he said.
But Salmond – who during his campaign repeatedly insisted an independent Scotland would be part of the EU and keep the pound – added he had no intention of retiring from Scottish politics.
A Lord Ashcroft poll revealed that 27% of voters named EU membership as one of the reasons behind their decision. 90% mentioned the National Health Service, 78% disaffection with Westminster politics and 64% quoted the pound.
Salmond will not accept nominations to be candidate for SNP leader at the party’s annual conference on 13-15 November. After a new leader is selected, he will stand down as first minister. The new leader will “be elected by due parliamentary process,” he said.
Current deputy first minister and deputy SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon is thought to be the frontrunner. But she will need to be confirmed as successor by a vote of the Scottish Parliament.
The “No” side won with over two million votes (2,001,926) to 1.6 million (1,617,989). Later in the morning, UK Prime Minister David Cameron announced powers over tax, spending and welfare would be devolved to the Scottish Parliament.
The so-called “devo max” was promised by Cameron after opinion polls showed a surge of support for Scottish independence. When asked by EURACTIV if the EU would consider giving the UK powers back in a similar way in the event of “Brexit” referendum, the executive refused to comment.
“We now have the opportunity to hold Westminster’s feet to the fire on the ‘vow’ that they have made to devolve further meaningful power to Scotland. This places Scotland in a very strong position,” Salmond said at his press conference.
Cameron also announced plans to ensure only English members of parliament could vote on matters only concerning England. Currently Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish MPs can vote on those matters in Westminster.
He also said that talks over devolution of more powers to Wales and Northern Ireland should begin at the same time, setting a schedule for draft legislation in January. But Salmond threw doubt on some aspects of the plan.
“I spoke to the prime minister today and, although he reiterated his intention to proceed as he has outlined, he would not commit to a second reading vote [in the House of Commons] by 27 March on a Scotland Bill.
“That was a clear promise laid out by [former Labour prime minister] Gordon Brown during the campaign. The prime minister says such a vote would be meaningless. I suspect he cannot guarantee the support of his party.”
There is speculation that Cameron’s Conservatives would rebel because so many powers will de devolved, despite the final vote being, in the end, decisive. The commitment to ensure that English MPs can vote on exclusively English matters is seen as a sop to that faction.
Salmond has dominated Scottish politics for decades. He has been first minister since 2007 and led the SNP for two stints of ten years each, up to the present, leading the calls for a referendum on Scottish independence.
He is widely credited with turning the SNP from a fringe party into a mainstream political force. He headed a minority Scottish government from 2007 to 2011 but was able to form a majority SNP government after elections in 2011.
An occasionally controversial figure, he has been described as “the greatest political conjuror of recent times”by the British media.
“I am immensely proud of the campaign that Yes Scotland fought and particularly of the 1.6m voters who rallied to that cause,” he said at an emotional press conference.
EU reacts with relief to vote
Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, struggling to quash an independence drive by the region of Catalonia, said the Scottish result was the best outcome for Europe.
“The Scottish have avoided serious economic, social, institutional and political consequences,” he said in a video message posted on the government website. “They have chosen the most favourable option for everyone; for themselves, for all of Britain and for the rest of Europe.”
Belgian EU Trade Commissioner Karel De Gucht, whose native Flanders region is in thrall to a growing nationalist movement, said a Scottish split would have been “cataclysmic” for Europe, triggering a domino effect across the continent.
“If it had happened in Scotland, I think it would have been a political landslide on the scale of the break-up of the Soviet Union,” said De Gucht, a liberal who does not support demands from some of his fellow Flemings for their own state.
Even before Scottish polls closed, French President François Hollande expressed his fear of a possible “deconstruction” of Europe after decades of closer integration.