Voting for Britain: Opinion poll blow alarms SNP

THE SCOTTISH National Party was in a state of shock yesterday after an opinion poll showed public support plummeting. Black propaganda, a hostile press and the war in Kosovo were all blamed by anxious party officials but the deeper suspicion is that many Scots are frightened by the prospect of independence.

With less than two weeks to go before elections to Scotland's first parliament in 293 years, the SNP is trailing Labour by 20 points - the biggest recorded gap between the parties in recent times.

Alex Salmond, the SNP leader, tried to put a brave face on the findings of the poll - carried out for The Herald - promising to "barnstorm" his way across Scotland. But apart from fighting talk the party had nothing new to offer.

Yesterday its main topic was an attack on the hike in fuel taxes - an area of policy completely outside the responsibilities of the new Parliament. "As far as this campaign is concerned the SNP have not yet begun to fight. Our response to unfavourable opinion polls is to get our jackets off and get stuck into this campaign," Mr Salmond said.

Hopes for a revival rest heavily on the actor Sean Connery and the generation of a wave of patriotic fervour. Mr Connery, who funds the party to the tune of pounds 40,000 a year, is in Edinburgh this weekend to promote his latest movie, Entrapment. He will then turn to promoting the SNP, addressing a party rally on Monday night in Edinburgh, making guest appearances with Mr Salmond and probably adding his distinctive burr to a party election broadcast.

Translating the latest opinion poll into Holyrood seats gives Labour 63 - two short of an overall majority - the SNP 34, Liberal Democrats 18 and Tories 13. Earlier polls hadshown the SNP winning more than 40 seats. The remaining member of the 129-seat parliament could be MP Dennis Canavan, expelled by Labour and fighting his Westminster constituency of Falkirk West as an independent.

Angered by what he sees as a hostile, Unionist press, Mr Salmond said the party was going to take the campaign directly to the people, with more razzmatazz and more personalities. "We are going to be here, there and everywhere, barnstorming Scotland in the way we do best."

He was unrepentant over his condemnation of the Nato bombing of Yugoslavia and said the "Penny for Scotland" proposal - reversing the Budget tax cut to pay for public services - would remain a key campaign issue. Both gambles aroused criticism within the party and the anti-bombing stance has almost certainly cost public support.

Mr Salmond's personal poll ratings have fallen way below those of Donald Dewar, theSecretary of State for Scotland and probable First Minister of the Holyrood Parliament.

The SNP leader said it was understandable the campaign had been kept off the front pages by the war in Kosovo. However, he could not explain why that had cost the SNP more dearly than other parties.