By Ray Fleming

WHEN Sir Gus 0'Donnell, Britain's most senior civil servant, gave a retirement interview last week he included concern about the unity of the United Kingdom among the warnings he wanted to give before leaving Downing Street. His remark, very carefully phrased, was taken to refer to the possibility of a Scottish bid for independence. It was therefore particularly interesting yesterday to see The Times name Alex Salmond, the leader of the Scottish National Party and First Minister of Scotland, as Briton of the Year.

In a leading article the newspaper made clear that its admiration for Mr Salmond should not be taken as uncritical support for his ambition to make Scotland independent but rather as admiration of his abilities as a politician, especially in winning the Scottish elections last May by welding the nationalists into a formidable campaigning force. “He is,” said The Times, “by any standards, one of the most formidable politicians in Britain.” It is true that Britain is rather short of “formidable politicians” at the moment and The Times is right to push for the need for a reinvigoration of politics by strong regional leaders like Mr Salmond who can claim a mandate from their local electorate. In the last century several national British leaders came from a background of provincial politics but this grounding seems to have been lost.