ALEX Salmond was last night crowned The Herald Scottish Politician of the Year, becoming the first three-time winner in the history of the awards.
The First Minister, who is only months away from the date with destiny that his whole political career has been building towards, is dominating not just Scottish but UK politics as the independence referendum approaches on September 18, 2014.
Mr Salmond won the prize in 2007 months after the SNP formed a minority Government and again four years later when his party swept to overall control at Holyrood.
The Government used that majority to pass legislation yesterday paving the way for next year's poll, delivering him his latest award. He was also recognised for his deft handling of the Grangemouth crisis where, unlike the fall-out from the shipyards announcement, the Holyrood and Westminster Governments acted in concert.
The editor of The Herald, Magnus Llewellin, told the ceremony at the Prestonfield House Hotel in Edinburgh: "These awards were launched back in 1999 to acclaim political achievement at the dawn of the new, devolved Scotland - and I think it's fair to say we have come a pretty long way since then.
"Despite its birth pangs, the Scottish Parliament is now an accepted and - dare I say it - respected cornerstone of our national life and it has certainly helped realise the prediction that devolution would be a process and not a single event."
Mr Llewellin said few would have predicted that within 14 years of the Parliament's creation a vote on independence would be a looming reality, adding: "But in March the First Minister published the Referendum Bill and we are firmly on the road to September 18, 2014, and the biggest decision those living in Scotland have been asked to make for more than 300 years."
The Herald editor also took the opportunity to criticise the Royal Charter for press regulation approved by the Privy Council last month, warning: "If we continue down the path laid out for us by the Charter, then revelations such as the recent Guardian expose on state spying will - in future - lead to calls for even tougher press regulation and de facto state censorship."
He said the industry's own independent regulator would render the Charter redundant.
In winning the accolade, the First Minister saw off the challenge of his deputy, Nicola Sturgeon and Presiding Officer Tricia Marwick. There was a lifetime achievement award for veteran Nationalist Sir George Reid, who is recovering from surgery for bladder cancer and sent a video message expressing thanks. Since retiring from Holyrood after a term as Presiding Officer Sir George has remained active in public life and was knighted last year.
Of the other individual awards, three were won by Labour politicians, two by the SNP and one by the Greens. There was also a cross-party award in the local government category, and the homelessness charity Shelter Scotland won Public Campaign or Campaigner of the Year award.
Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill won the award for Political Impact of the Year in seeing through the merger of the country's police forces. Ironically it came on the day an Audit Scotland report was highly critical of Police Scotland's finances.
Mr MacAskill saw off the challenge of the First Minister and the head of Better Together, Alistair Darling.
The award for Best Scot at Westminster went to Douglas Alexander, the Labour MP for Paisley and Renfrewshire South and Shadow Foreign Secretary.
Mr Alexander's contributions during the debate on the civil war in Syria helped prevent the UK getting involved, and over the past year he also set out a vision for devolution beyond the referendum.
The contest for Donald Dewar Debater of the Year, supported by NVT Group, was among Ms Sturgeon, Green co-convener Patrick Harvie and Labour leader Johann Lamont. It was Ms Lamont who won in recognition of her combative weekly jousts at First Minister's Questions.
Ms Lamont, who won the Political Impact award last year, was fulfilling another engagement, but her award was collected on her behalf by the party's recent Dunfermline by-election winner Cara Hilton.
In the One to Watch category, supported by ScottishPower Renewables, the rising stars shortlisted were Kezia Dugdale and Jenny Marra of Labour, and Mark McDonald, SNP winner at the Aberdeen Donside by-election. Ms Dugdale, promoted this year to be Shadow Education Secretary and an impressive media performer, was named winner.
Conservative MSP Gavin Brown, Environment Secretary Richard Lochhead and Finance Secretary John Swinney were in the running for The Herald Politics and Business Award, supported by RBS. The winner was Mr Lochhead for his tireless work in promoting the country's food and drink industry around the globe.
The Scottish Local Politician of the Year Award, supported by Improvement Service, was awarded jointly to the leaders of our three island councils - Orkney, Shetland and Comhairle nan Eilean Siar - for their Our Islands Our Future campaign. This has been pressing both the Scottish and UK Governments for greater devolution of power to them whatever happens in the referendum next year.
Gary Robinson, Angus Campbell and Steven Heddle won the award ahead of other nominees Councillor Barbara Grant of East Renfrewshire and Councillor Ken Guild of Dundee.
In the Public Campaign or Campaigner the shortlist comprised the Children 1st chief executive Anne Houston for her work highlighting child sex abuse in the wake of the Jimmy Savile revelations; Tommy Whitelaw for campaigning for carers of those with dementia: and Shelter Scotland for highlighting the iniquities of the bedroom tax.
Shelter Scotland won because their well-time political intervention extracted extra millions from the Scottish Government to alleviate the problem.
There was a new category this year, E-Politician of the Year, recognising the best use of the electronic and social media. The award went to Green MSP Patrick Harvie, who was an early adopter of these techniques and has built up more than 11,000 followers on Twitter.