Salmond’s greatest fortune was the quality of his opponents

When Alex Salmond steps down today, he will do so as an ideologue to whom defeat is barely distinguishable from victory. "They thought it was all over," he will say, "it isn't now."

He will ask supporters to look to a supply-and-demand arrangement with a minority Labour government or an EU referendum as potential chances for another referendum on Scottish independence. So a Tory victory now precipitates another referendum, as does a poor Labour victory without enough Lib Dems to make up the numbers. 

It does not seem to bother Salmond that he lost the vote. The expressed will of the Scottish people is not interesting to him because it does not correlate with his. During the campaign it was a "once in a generation opportunity for Scotland". He dropped that line as soon as he lost.

As Jackie Baillie, Labour MSP, said during Salmond's final first minister's questions at Holyrood, the "real tragedy" of Salmond's career was that he had become so obsessed with independence he had failed to use the powers he already had to tackle poverty. The Scottish government's own website showed progress on just two of the 11 targets it proposed for measuring its performance. Economic growth has not risen compared to the UK average or matched other small EU countries, productivity had not increased and nor has life expectancy. Teaching numbers are down, college are down, NHS bed numbers are down.

"The real tragedy is that he was so blinkered by his passion for independence that powers he already had – powers to tackle poverty, to reduce inequality to deliver social justice – were pushed into second place," Bailie said. "For the last seven years, the first minister has used his age-old excuse that somehow it was Westminster's fault."

This is how it goes with ideologues: they do nothing for you. They are myopic. The practicalities of day-to-day political life are beneath them. Everything bad is the fault of the enemy. Everything else is a distraction from the eternal battle. Even the democratic will of his own countrymen, which he claims to be so motivated by, is just an impediment to his political journey.

Salmond was considered a highly accomplished politician, but in truth this speaks more to the dearth of quality in British politics than it does to his talents. His greatest quality was poor competition.

The SNP gamed every scenario, plotted how to turn each event to its advantage. They tracked carefully the promises of new powers during the campaign and from the off – from literally the day after the vote – they insisted the promise had been broken. They could not allow Scots to believe that new powers were available within the union. They had to get in there early so they could publicise every failure of timetable as a plot against the Scottish people. If the new powers were delivered, it was because they held Westminster's "feet to the fire". If not, they could use the betrayal as propaganda. They knew the early days were crucial in defining the public's impression of the process, in the same way the Coalition managed to convince voters of the lunatic proposition that the global recession of 2008 was somehow Labour's fault.

But this process would have been much harder if it wasn't for Westminster's insistence that it would play directly into Salmond's hands. Cameron's decision to give a speech immediately after the vote and talk about English votes for English laws was one of the most irresponsible acts by a British prime minister for a generation. In one swoop he vindicated all the SNP's arguments about the venal, self-interested nature of Westminster.

Since then, as this website has documented, the Conservatives have grown ever more brazen in their demands for party political advantage amid the debris of the old union system. Cameron's decision to task centuries of constitutional reform to William Hague's spare time typified the Tory response.

There is no insult so severe that it sufficiently encompasses the moral failings of the Conservative party. Once upon a time they cared about British legal and political tradition and the good of the nation. Now they vandalise it for political advantage.

Ed Miliband's plan for a constitutional convention was more appropriate for the scale of the task ahead of us. There are some interesting, even inspiring, ideas bouncing around about using citizen's juries for the task. Whatever one's sympathies – be it federalism, or an English parliament, or regional assemblies, or giving more power to local councils – the question is big enough to warrant that sort of arrangement.

But Labour plays into the SNP's hands by virtue of its political absence. A recent Ipsos Mori poll showed the party was about to get wiped out in Scotland, clinging on to just four seats after the general election. It is not hard to see why. Labour has no message, no passion and seemingly no understanding of life north of the border. There is a certain irony to the idea that Labour is undoing its own electoral advantage in Scotland without any need for Tory conspiracy.

This is the result of Labour's managerial language, its focus-group approach to policy-making, its nervous centralism and, more than anything else, its utter failure to protect people from the ravages of neo-liberalism. The Tories represent their voters in the south-east relentlessly. Labour deserted its voters when it decided that it should not interfere in the market. The public have never agreed with this principle – not even Tory voters do. But it has long been a staple of Westminster thought that only free-market economics are tolerated. Since Blair, Labour has accepted this limitation. Now the chickens come home to roost for its cowardice.

Amid this circus of ineptitude Salmond has excelled as a vastly superior strategist and orator. But his real legacy is an unsuccessful attempt to divide the peoples of these islands. He is like all ideologues: putting ideas beyond the humans who hold them. The only reason he enjoys such high standing is because his opponents are even worse.