Hail to the Chief: The Scottish National Party, Led by Alex Salmond, Seems Likely to Hold on to Power in Holyrood in the 5 May Elections. It Would Be a Blow for Ed Miliband and Labour-And Yet the SNP's Goal of Independence Seems More Distant Than Ever

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"The only question ye have tae ask yersel', son, is this. Dae ye trust me?" Such was Alex Salmond's final, desperate overture in 2007, when he sought to cajole Robin Harper, the then co-convener of the Scottish Green Party, into propping up the nation's first nationalist administration. Now, for the second time, the Scottish National Party's supremo is bent on boiling an entire election battle for the Scottish Parliament down to the same basic question. The answer he looks likely to get from the electorate on 5 May is much the same as the one he got four years ago: "Aye, up to a point."

Salmond can't lean forward and wrap his tentacle-like arms around every single Scottish voter, pull their faces close to his and murmur, "Trust me" (all of which he did with the hapless Harper, according to a recent recounting of the episode in the Scottish Review magazine), but he has done the next best thing by putting the following slogan on the ballot papers: "SNP--Alex Salmond for First Minister". Not "SNP--Free Scotland", nor even " SNP--Stop the Cuts".

It appears to be working for him: a You Gov poll for Scotland on Sunday on 17 April put the Scottish Nationalist leader ahead as the voters' choice for first minister, with double the support (57 per cent) of his nearest rival. The SNP has opened up a decisive lead over Labour (40 per cent to Labour's 37 per cent) in the constituency vote, which determines 73 of the 129 members of the Scottish Parliament by conventional first-past-the-post. A further 56 MSPs are returned from eight regions (each of which chooses seven representatives under a form of mixed member proportional representation). The SNP is edging ahead on that front as well, with 35 per cent support to Labour's 33 per cent.

It was a sensational day in May 2007 when the Scottish Nationalists ended Labour's half-century of hegemony in Scotland and became the largest party in Holyrood, the Edinburgh assembly. Although they sneaked just a one-seat lead and were able to form only a minority government, the SNP had made the crucial leap from protest to power. If they notch up a second triumph, the Nats could start to look like the natural party of devolved government north of the border.

Salmond seems steadily to be attaining the status of a contemporary clan chieftain for the whole of Caledonia: he is the uncrowned king of Scotland. Even seasoned political commentators regularly sing "Hail to the Chief" (a Highland ditty before it became the US presidential march). No little feat in a nation long notorious for mean-spirited put-downs, such as "Him, ah kent his faither".

However, First Minister is a far cry from prime minister of an independent Scotland. Surveys suggest that Salmond--who was forced, ignominiously, to shelve his plans for a constitutional referendum last September when he could not muster a parliamentary majority--can convince barely a third of his compatriots to stage a breakaway from the rest of Britain. Many who are comfortable with him as First Minister would like to see him ditch what has been nicknamed his "deferendum". They certainly don't want the Scottish question to become the equivalent of what some Canadians branded the "neverendum" in Quebec.

Mindful of this, the SNP has made its 2011 Scottish election slogan--"Be part of better"--even more unscary than the one under which it fought last year's general election: "Elect a local champion". Yet, when I catch up with Salmond on the campaign trail in Glasgow, the former oil economist feigns offence when I suggest that what he is successfully peddling isn't so much Scottish nationalism as Salmondism. "I don't see how any sane person can consider the SNP to be a one-man band. It's an orchestra," he says, and proceeds to praise his deputy, Nicola Sturgeon, and his finance minister, John Swinney.

Sturgeon's handling of the health service north of the border has been harmonious and she has grown in stature--sketchwriters would no longer dare dismiss her as a "nippy sweetie"--but it is hard to envisage her as a national emancipator. …