Ian Swanson: Salmond can take his time before giving the signal

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As the SNP holds its annual conference, Political Editor Ian Swanson looks at what the future holds for its independence agenda

IT’S nearly six months since the SNP’s stunning election victory, but the Nationalists are celebrating all over again as they start their annual conference in Inverness today.

The four-day gathering is another chance to savour their success in doing what all the pundits said could not be done – winning an overall majority of MSPs in the Scottish Parliament.

And the front cover of the conference programme says it all – a map of Scotland coloured almost entirely in SNP yellow.

But First Minister Alex Salmond and his ministerial colleagues know that, while justly proud of their achievement, they cannot afford to rest on their laurels. The SNP, after all, is not just about winning elections; its aim is independence for Scotland. And it now looks closer to that objective than it has ever been before – or may ever be again.

Mr Salmond’s majority removes the constraints that the SNP faced in its first term in power, but it does not mean everything goes the way it wants. It has already landed itself in much controversy with its proposed law to crackdown on sectarianism around football and has been forced to get involved in the dreaded trams project. There are dangers in facing weak opposition. The SNP needs to preserve its reputation for good government and that means maintaining a strong self-discipline despite the temptations of such unrestrained power.

As far as independence is concerned, opinion polls still do not show a majority of Scots wanting to go it alone, so Mr Salmond and his colleagues have a lot of work to do to convince voters they should choose independence in the promised referendum.

But the latest polls do show support creeping up. And after May’s election results, no-one should dismiss the First Minister’s persuasive powers.

Opposition politicians repeatedly demand that the SNP holds the referendum now. But the party said during the election the vote would come towards the end of the parliament. And any sensible government only calls a referendum when it thinks it can win it. Having the referendum later will allow the Nationalists maximum time to set out their case and also prove themselves again in government.

If they wait until 2015, there will also be a UK general election and the possibility of a majority Tory government at Westminster, ready to move to the right after being kept in check by the Liberal Democrats while in coalition. The prospect of unrestrained Conservative policies being imposed on Scotland against its will could be just what’s needed to tip voters into opting for independence.

Some Labour and Tory politicians want the UK Government to step in and hold its own referendum to kill off the independence issue. They argue that because the constitution is one of the responsibilities reserved to Westminster, the Scottish Government has no right to stage such a vote.

Mr Salmond dismisses such claims, insisting the scale of SNP’s election victory gives it the clearest possible mandate for a referendum.

It is worth remembering, though, that the SNP’s victory had very little to do with its belief in independence. Indeed, as in 2007, it could be argued the party won precisely because it sidelined independence by promising a referendum. It had also used its four years of minority government to prove it could be trusted to run the country. One senior Labour figure says: “People voted SNP because the Nationalists had shown they were a competent government.”

The SNP did promise a referendum in the last parliament, but postponed it when the other parties made clear they would unite to block it. The combined strength of the opposition can do nothing to stop Mr Salmond this time. But details of the referendum are still not clear – and, arguably, neither is what the SNP means by independence since it now seems happy to keep sterling as the currency and carry on using UK bodies such as the DVLA.

The chances are the ballot paper will not offer a straight Yes or No choice on independence, but include a third option of more powers while staying in the UK – often referred to as “Devo Max”. Opinion polls suggest that is the option likely to win most support. And the SNP would be able to claim such a result as at least a partial victory.

But if the Nationalists are ever going to be able to win Scots to independence surely this is the time. Their own leader is easily the best-known and most effective Scottish politician around; the two biggest anti-independence parties are weakened by defeat, effectively leaderless and uncertain about their own position. And an unpopular UK government is forcing cuts on Scotland.

They could wish for no better opportunity.