Leading article: Alex Salmond's success is taking Scotland closer to independence

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Alex Salmond can look back on his year as Scotland's First Minister with some satisfaction. The SNP leader has used his minority government to maximum effect over the past 12 months and, in doing so, has strengthened his party's support among the Scottish population. Those who predicted that the pressures of office would squeeze the nationalists' popularity have been confounded. Indeed, the difference between Mr Salmond's serene year in Holyrood and the meltdown experienced by his fellow Scot, Gordon Brown, in Downing Street is unmistakable.

The SNP leader's success has stemmed primarily from his ability to play the devolution game with consummate skill. Mr Salmond has managed to get both Edinburgh and Westminster to, as he puts it, "dance to a Scottish jig". Witness the stumbling performance last week of Wendy Alexander, the Scottish Labour leader, and Mr Brown, on the question of whether or not Labour is in favour of a referendum on independence.

As for the goal of independence, Salmond is in no rush. He says he plans to launch legislation for a referendum on independence in the Scottish parliament by 2010. But Mr Salmond's real objective is to wait until the Conservatives are back in power in Westminster. Such is the continuing unpopularity of the Tories in Scotland that the SNP would be far more likely to win a referendum in those circumstances.

This newspaper believes that if the Scottish people desire all-out independence, they should have it. There is no sense in keeping the Union together if it lacks popular consent. At the moment, the opinion polls suggest support for going it alone in Scotland is not yet overwhelming. The time would appear not yet to be ripe.

And yet Scotland continues to diverge from England in numerous and significant ways. Mr Salmond has continued the interventionist policies of the devolved Scottish executive in higher education, health and elderly care. In the past year, his administration has scrapped the student "endowment" (the £2,000 fee paid by Scottish students after graduation), ruled out new nuclear power stations and set out ambitious goals on renewable energy. In other fiscally populist measures, Mr Salmond has removed tolls on road bridges and frozen Scottish council tax.

The financial relationship with England looks increasingly contentious. The Treasury's "Barnett formula" for deciding Scotland's funding from Westminster looks more and more unfair given the social benefits that are available in Scotland, but not south of the border. This is all grist to Mr Salmond's mill, of course. The greater the resentment in England at perceived Scottish bias in the public finances grows, the more likely the prospect of independence becomes. At the moment, the SNP leader seems to be in a win-win position.

Things could go wrong for the SNP, of course. There are some glaring contradictions in Mr Salmond's policies, such as promising relief from taxes at the same time as pledging more generous expenditure. How does the SNP intend to secure the long-term future of Scotland's universities without tuition fees? And the executive's recent rejection of a major wind farm planned on the Isle of Lewis poses awkward questions about how Scotland can meet its emission cutting and energy generation targets.

Then there is Mr Salmond himself. He could make some popularity-draining slip-up before he gets his chance to call a referendum. It is not impossible. But such an implosion is what many of his critics were predicting a year ago. Mr Salmond has disappointed them so far. Who would bet against him continuing to do so?

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