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SNP leader Alex Salmond takes risks and he's confident. He's gambled the party's future on his brand of independence. But are the chips stacked the way he thinks they are?

ALEX SALMOND is a gambling man. He is actively involved with the horses, tipping winners in the Herald in Glasgow every Saturday, and he likes to boast that his results are 40 per cent better than his predecessor in the job, the Foreign Secretary Robin Cook. But there is a much bigger bet involving Salmond and Labour. If he wins it, he could be on course to become the first prime minister of an independent Scotland. He tips himself, of course. He won't bet on when he'll win, but it's odds-on, he says, that he will do so in the end.

A year ago there would have been no shortage of punters willing to take that bet. But last September's easy referendum victories, preparatory to elections to the devolved Scottish parliament next May, have rewritten the form book. "Scotland has crossed a psychological Rubicon," Salmond says, and in this the polls back him up. Earlier this month, NOP found that 50 per cent of all Scots questioned said they would vote Yes for independence in a referendum.

For Salmond, though, the most significant poll of all is the one that asks: "Regardless of your view, do you think that Scotland will become independent?" The answer to that one is Yes, by two to one. "When something becomes the currency of inevitability," he says, "you're well on the way."

Salmond has had a good summer, not just in the polls: Prince Charles has asked for a meeting and he has been outscoring New Labour at soundbites. He is different from all earlier leaders of the Scottish National Party. Because there is to be a Scottish Parliament, he is the first to have the prospect of winning real power.

While his face and voice are already familiar in Scotland, he is as yet untested. He may be a prophet; he could be a bullshitter. To find out whether either is the case, I spent a couple of days travelling with him in the taxi-van he uses to get around the country. He is an approachable, ebullient figure, chubby, with prominent dark brown eyes. Words bubble up in him and pour out. Salmond is a compulsive talker - he admits that he sometimes talks too much. But he is generous with his time, and eager to please.

We are on the Aberdeen bypass when the public relations man at party headquarters in Edinburgh calls on the mobile to report that Gordon Brown has dropped plans for a new tax on North Sea oil. Salmond instructs the driver to divert to Grampian TV. Arriving unannounced, he offers an interview. Undeterred when Grampian's newsroom rebuffs him, Salmond directs the driver round the corner to the BBC's Aberdeen studios. There he is made welcome, recording an interview that will be broadcast the following morning. On the way out of town, he slips into an independent radio station for one last fix.

His energy, stamina and commitment are compelling. Salmond is a political addict.

Towards the end of the journey, when we are beginning to relax, he starts to give me a lecture on Scottish medieval history. I learn the importance of the Declaration of Arbroath in 1320 (the Scots insisted on their right to depose a king) and listen to him reciting a verse written by the Marquis of Montrose at the time of the Civil War: He either fears his fate too much/Or his deserts are small/Who dare not put it to the touch/To win or lose it all.

Though Salmond had been describing his life in a discursive way, a theme ran through it: his gambler's willingness to take calculated risks,to put things "to the touch". The first of these was his decision to stand for the SNP nomination for the prosperous fishing, farming and oil constituency of Banff and Buchan - in 1985, only three years after he had been thrown out of the SNP for defying the leadership. (He had argued that the SNP should become a coherent political party - moderate, left of centre - rather than a diffuse national movement.) "I think I needlessly upset some of the party's older members," he says. It's not hard to imagine.

He won the nomination by a single vote. Had he not done so, he thinks he would have quit politics. He had a good job as an economist at the Royal Bank of Scotland. Its senior management tolerated his politics, but the understanding was that if he didn't get elected, he wouldn't do it again.

He took a second risk in 1988, the year after he'd become an MP. In the House of Commons, Nigel Lawson was reaching the climax of a greedy giveaway budget when Salmond stopped him in his tracks, insisting that the Chancellor let him speak. He wanted to draw attention to a dramatic reduction in the top rate of tax, and his dogged refusal to sit down caused a terrific commotion in the Commons ("You can't imagine the psychological pressure when even your colleagues are tugging at your jacket to get you to sit. It was terrifying.") His subsequent exclusion from the House for five days made him a figure on the national stage. The issue involved - the combination of tax cuts for the rich and a poll tax for the poor - faded, but the memory of this stubborn, baby-faced Scotsman lingered on.

Risk number three was standing for the party leadership in 1990, at the age of 35. Salmond says that if you don't take your chance when it is presented, you may never get it again. This view, shared by most successful politicians, shows whether their balls are made of brass or not. He beat Margaret Ewing by 486 to 186.

His fourth calculated risk is scarcely comprehensible to people outside Scotland, but it is at the heart and root of the debate within the SNP about the best way to secure Scottish independence. One choice is to go for broke - independence or nothing, and no corrupting alliances with political opponents , especially Labour. This is the pure stream of nationalism and it offended Salmond, who believed that independence could only be achieved by political negotiations taken in stages. To him, the vital first stage was the devolved parliament. To his opponents within the party the gradualism was intolerable but, after last year's referendum success, it is no longer controversial: "We all seem to have become gradualists now," Salmond reflects.

What is he really like, besides sometimes talking too much? The received opinion in Scottish politics and journalism is that Salmond is arrogant. He himself admits to "an occasional exasperation". At race meetings he can look hot and sweaty (he's put on weight since injuring his back last year). Asked what he recognises about himself in press cuttings, he replies: "A sense of humour, a common touch. I like working in the streets." Introspective self-analysis is not on the list.

Salmond was born on 31 December 1954 in Linlithgow, just west of Edinburgh. His father, an electrician by trade, was a civil servant in the Scottish Office. There was an elder sister and a younger brother and sister. Much of the talk was about golf and politics. He also had, he says, a very wise mother.

The local schools were good and he went to university in St Andrews so that he could play golf while studying economics and medieval history (best return on the Old Course: 77). He says he had a "great childhood; fantastic".

The only thing he refuses to talk about is his marriage, in 1981, to Moira McGlashan, who then worked at the Scottish Office. He was 26, she was 43. They have no children. Naturally, people are curious. Perhaps his marriage is a homage to a happy and secure childhood?

"I don't have much time for obvious psychological interpre-tations," he says. "I don't use my family as a prop in politics. I've never done it, I don't approve of it, and I'm not going to start it." He then speaks off the record about a politician who succumbed to the temptation and whose family was embarrassed as a consequence.

You can learn much about a politician by identifying his heroes. None of Salmond's are Scottish. The contemporary politicians he names are John Biffen ("the purest voice of Englishness in the Commons"), Ted Heath ("his dogged streak, his stamina") and Tony Benn ("some weird ideas, but an open-minded sort of guy"). From history, he conjures up Michael Collins, for having taken a gradualist approach to Irish independence.

Last September's referendum, he argues, was the vindication of gradualism. After the Yes vote in favour of devolved Scottish parliament and local powers of taxation, the idea of independence suddenly began to look possible to voters outside the core of convinced nationalists. This had already had a profound effect, not least south of the border, where nationalism is being equated with anti- Englishness.

Salmond declares himself to be one of "the few practising Anglophiles in Scottish politics", and cites in proof the fact that while he was in France following the World Cup last summer he got no pleasure out of England's defeat by Romania. On the contrary, he consoled a distressed English fan. There are some politicians who cheer England's tormentors - George Robertson, the Secretary of State for Defence, for instance - but Salmond is not among them. "I've tried to fashion a Scottish independence movement that threatens no one in Scotland. This has been by leadership project more than anything else.

"The interesting thing is that I'm certain anti-English feeling is on the decline in Scotland in a very strong way. It last peaked because of the poll tax. I'm not saying there is no anti-English feeling in Scotland - of course there is. But as Scotland approaches independence, one of the things I hope will go is our chip on the shoulder about the English. I think the SNP has a huge responsibility to articulate Scottish independence in a way that is pro-Scottish and not anti-English.

Salmond hankers to change the name of the SNP. "I've always wanted to call it the Scottish Independence Party. It's a much better encapsulation of what we're about. Independence is our idea, and our politics are social democrat. I'm a post-nationalist."

But it is the National party he will lead into next May's election and, since things are neck-and-neck in the polls, there is fevered speculation about the outcome.

"Victory would be to emerge as the leading party," he says. "That will land enormous moral authority when a coalition is being formed. Our obvious partners are the Liberals, although it is possible there will be dissent with the Labour Party."

In power, the SNP would want to hold an independence referendum within the four-year term of the Scottish parliament. "Timing depends on the circumstances and the Liberals. We've not walked to them formally yet." Informally? "Depends on which Liberals you're talking about."

So, what kind of Scotland would it be? Salmond fearlessly speculates that the Queen, while remaining head of state, would be stripped of her power to dissolve parliament and give the royal assent to new legislation.

Scottish defence policy would forget about tanks and nuclear missiles and concentrate on the legendary infantry regiments, which would be used to support Nato and for peacekeeping duties.

And no central bank: "We're very pro-EMU, and we'd probably make do with the European Monetary Institute in Frankfurt. It would be to everybody's convenience to maintain parity with Sterling until entry, although I wouldn't want to venture into EMU at the current rate of sterling."

There would be no security services, and the diplomatic service would be a tighter ship than the one in Whitehall. BBC Scotland would become the Scottish Broadcasting Corporation, financed by the licence fee.

The St Andrew's cross will remain. "I don't think we'd be changing that. The saltire is the oldest national flag in Europe." The national anthem? "Which one? God Save the Queen has gone already. I think I would test the best of the existing tunes against a new tune. Something for the new age."

Salmond, who is a good salesman, makes it sound easy. After talking to him for some time, you realise that you are beginning to forget the obstacles to independence, such as the deeply felt opposition of the Labour Party.

He has also used history selectively. In a different time, nearly 20 years ago, the Scots lost their nerve and the vote for a devolved parliament - never mind an independent one - was so lukewarm that the idea was dropped. Salmond's new supporters could easily lose heart if there is an economic downturn, especially if that would make entry into EMU more difficult .

He is an optimist. The one difficulty Salmond does not contemplate is a gut opposition among the English towards the break-up of the Union, either in Parliament or outside it. And the actual deed may not even require a declaration of independence. All that need happen, so he says, is the dissolution of the Act of Union. He would like to celebrate the 300th anniversary of the Act in 2007 by consigning it to history's dustbin.

Salmond's bold talk is engaging - and so is he - but there are plenty more hurdles to be jumped. Scottish independence might eventually prove to be a good bet, but my tip is to look for a much better price than odds on. !