Indeed, it could be argued that for most of its 18 years in opposition, the Labour Party's Scottish policy has been driven by fear of the Nationalists. Many Labour people wrongly assumed that Mr Salmond would cease to run rings round them once they got into government. Support for the SNP is not simply anti-Conservatism "with Scottish characteristics", but a deep- seated expression of national identity. New Labour's Englishness is as much a foil for the SNP as was Thatcherism.
Mr Salmond has been much helped by Tony Blair's metropolitan blunders. On one of his pre-election forays into Scotland, for example, he seemed unsure as to what was the Claim of Right. (It was a declaration, signed by most Labour MPs, including John Smith, asserting the right of the Scottish people to choose their form of government.) On another, he described Scottish political journalists as "unreconstructed"; then he compared the Edinburgh parliament to a local authority.
That does not mean, however, that the Scottish people lend their wholehearted support to every bullet point in the SNP programme. Far from it. Mr Salmond's manifesto last year promised 100,000 new jobs, 20,000 new affordable homes, 700 more teachers, higher pensions and child benefit, and a non-nuclear defence policy. Public spending would have gone up by billions, paid for by higher taxes on annual incomes over pounds 26,500, defence cuts and - the largest slice - by reclaiming the hotly-disputed surplus allegedly paid into the United Kingdom Treasury from Scotland's oil.
These are the policies of a toy-town opposition, but Mr Salmond's great skill has been to divert attention from the small print - giving the impression that he leads some kind of west European social-democratic party. Sometimes the veil of this pretence is exceedingly thin, as with yesterday's conference decision to dodge the tax issue. More often, it is Mandelsonian in its cleverness. "Independence within Europe" was a good slogan because it pointed to the reality that the EU would guarantee freedom of movement and an open market. And this summer, Mr Salmond leaked the fact that he was about to meet Prince Charles to discuss the future of the monarchy in an independent Scotland. This was accompanied by a single-handed change to the SNP's hitherto republican policy, saying the party would campaign to keep the Queen as head of state in a referendum on her status. Highly reassuring to apolitical, conservative, weak Nationalist voters. And when such voters are faced with the choice between the hated Tories, the corrupt machine-politics of Scottish Labour, and the shiny emotional appeal of the SNP, Mr Salmond is well placed.
It is the emotional appeal of independence which has meant that the promise of devolution has not halted the SNP advance. The Conservative argument was right in its analysis - devolution is a slippery slope - but wrong in its conclusion. The slippery slope is a good thing. Once on it, the Scottish people can decide whether to slide the whole way, or at which point to settle with a peculiarly British form of federalism. The Scots have much to gain from independence - although not that Exchequer "surplus" - and nothing to fear, apart from the SNP's unreformed early-Eighties socialism. If Mr Salmond wants to lead an independent Scotland, as opposed to driving Scotland out of the UK under Labour and Lib-Dem leadership, he needs urgently to reform his party. Until then, independence might be a noble, even a just, cause, but the SNP will be a flawed instrument for achieving it.Reuse content