The stars are in alignment, smiles the man who is the long-time face of Scottish independence. Not for another push at independence – yet – but for his revenge on the British politicians who denied him victory last fall.
Alex Salmond's political career looked to be over in September, after 55 per cent of Scottish voters rejected the idea of independence. Within hours of the referendum loss, Mr. Salmond announced he was resigning as Scotland's First Minister, and as head of the Scottish National Party.
But those who celebrated the 60-year-old's departure from the political scene were cheering too soon. Seven months later, Mr. Salmond looks set to follow the bitter referendum defeat with a very ironic victory by leading an historically large contingent of Scottish nationalists into Britain's parliament following a May 7 general election.
To the consternation of many, Mr. Salmond – who remains committed to pulling Scotland out of the United Kingdom – may have a large say in determining who Britain's next prime minister will be, and what legislation the country's new government can pass.
Opinion polls show the two main Britain-wide parties, the Conservatives and Labour, deadlocked with neither expected to win enough seats to form a majority in the 650-seat House of Commons. Meanwhile, the SNP – riding a post-referendum surge in popularity – looks set to claim perhaps 50 of Scotland's 59 seats, positioning the party as a possible kingmaker in the post-election scramble to form a workable government.
"The stars come into alignment once in a blue moon in politics, and with the deadlock in Westminster, there's a great opportunity for Scotland to have influence. It's an extraordinary moment," Mr. Salmond told The Globe and Mail after a Thursday night hustings debate held in a livestock market in Thainstone, part of a belt of rural towns outside the North Sea oil port of Aberdeen.
Most of the questions Mr. Salmond and the other candidates faced from the audience of about 100 concerned the deeply unpopular fiscal austerity imposed on Britain over the past five years. While the Prime Minister and Conservative Leader David Cameron is running on his economic record – boasting that Britain finally has emerged from the 2008 financial crisis and is now the fastest growing economy in Western Europe – there's a palpable anger in northeast Scotland, fed by a sense that the past five years have made the country a more unequal place.
It's a topic Mr. Salmond is more comfortable with than his opponents, and he deftly redirects any blame they try to aim his way – after all, he was Scotland's First Minister for much of the period in question – straight on down to the British parliament in Westminster, which he has made a career of blaming for Scotland's troubles.
Asked what he wants to do with the SNP's influence should it win as many seats next month as the polls predict, you get a sense how personal this latest fight is for Mr. Salmond. "We want to make sure 'The Vow,' the promises that were made, are kept," he responded instantly. "The Vow" is the name given by British media to the last-minute intervention last fall by Mr. Cameron, and also signed by Labour Leader Ed Miliband and Liberal Democrat Leader Nick Clegg, promising new powers for Scotland if it voted No to independence.
Mr. Salmond is widely loathed in England, and his return to Westminster – where he previously spent 23 years as an MP, often as a lonely voice for Scottish nationalism – has created concern about whether he is willing to play a constructive role in the British parliament. On Wednesday, Mr. Cameron tweeted footage of Mr. Salmond boasting that he would soon be "writing the Labour Party budget." Mr. Salmond, who was addressing an SNP rally when he made the remark, said he was making a joke.
Nicola Sturgeon, who replaced Mr. Salmond as First Minister and head of the SNP, has led the party's election effort, surprising many by emerging as the consensus winner of a seven-party television debate. But Ms. Sturgeon will be occupied with the affairs of the Scottish government in Edinburgh, and few doubt that it will be her political mentor, Mr. Salmond, who will be the SNP's loudest voice in Westminster.
Both Ms. Sturgeon and Mr. Salmond have said the left-of-centre SNP would not support another Conservative-led government. While Mr. Miliband has ruled out entering a formal coalition with the SNP, both sides have left open the possibility of a "confidence and supply" relationship that would see the SNP parliamentary faction vote with a Labour party government on an issue-by-issue basis.
That's led to a furious exchange of accusations, with Mr. Cameron warning that a Labour government supported by the SNP would be "a match made in hell," and Mr. Miliband charging the incumbent Prime Minister was trying to "stir up English hatred of the Scots" as an election ploy. Even some Scottish Conservatives have said they worry Mr. Cameron's tactics put the future of the union at greater risk.
On Friday, Mr. Cameron unveiled the Conservative Party's first "manifesto for England," including a controversial change that will introduce English MPs-only votes in Westminster on laws that affect only England. (England, unlike Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland has no parliament other than Westminster.)
Much of the SNP's rise is referendum-fuelled. The party – which had just six MPs in the last House of Commons – has quadrupled in size since the hard-fought September vote, giving it more than 100,000 members and making it the third largest party in Britain.
Scotland has for decades been a stronghold of the Labour Party. But the bitter referendum fight – which saw Labour mount a joint "No" campaign with the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats that was criticized for its negativity – appears to have broken that bond. While Labour (led by a Scot, Gordon Brown) won 41 seats in Scotland in 2010, the party is expected to retain only a handful of those on May 7.
Seeing Labour co-operating with the Conservatives, who have been reviled in Scotland since the Margaret Thatcher era, was a step too far in the eyes of many Scots.
"People have seen the SNP do well, be competent in government, and they've seen Labour working together with the great enemy, the great Satan, the Conservatives," said Malcolm Harvey, a research fellow at the University of Aberdeen's Centre for Constitutional Change.
Mr. Harvey said the SNP would be walking "a very difficult line" if it does support a Labour government, since the party's new clout in Westminster could undermine the core argument that Scotland needs independence from Britain.
And that remains Mr. Salmond's ultimate goal. A book he wrote about the narrow referendum loss was published days before the U.K. election campaign began and now sits in the front window of bookstores across Scotland. It's title? The Dream Shall Never Die.