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Will Scotland buy SNP's soft sell?

ALEX Salmond's speech to the SNP spring conference in Glasgow yesterday revealed the scale of the challenges and paradoxes he faces on the road to the independence referendum.

On one level, the First Minister's pitch was a simple one to voters on the eve of the local elections.

He provided a list of achievements and policies, including a reheated pledge on 600 hours a year of free nursery education, which the SNP's candidates can now dutifully recite on doorsteps.

There was a natural emphasis on Glasgow, given the city council is the party's top target in May. Wresting control of the city chambers from Labour would turbo-charge the SNP's independence bandwagon.

But the other tier of Salmond's speech was more intriguing, and potentially more difficult for him.

It was his fledgling argument that Scotland is already quasi-independent in some regards, notably in Holyrood's control over the health service, school and higher education, and the justice system.

These "measures of independence" have allowed the SNP to take Scotland in a different direction to England by spurning the privatisation of public services relished by the Tories, Salmond argued.

Imagine, he went on, what a beacon of social justice Scotland could become if it was wholly, not simply partially, independent.

From Salmond's repeated use of this idea, and Nicola Sturgeon's expected return to it today in her conference speech, it is clear that the SNP intend to promote independence as a natural and painless extension of Holyrood's powers.

Numerous bland speeches yesterday which lauded Britishness, the monarchy, and Scotland's intense neighbourly love of England also sought to reassure the 20% of voters who will decide the outcome of the referendum.

What, many old SNP hands must wonder, happened to the passion?

How did the most enormous, extraordinary decision in Scotland's modern history become a relentless exercise in triangulation and message management?

Therein lies Salmond's central conundrum.

Independence would mean seismic change for Scotland, a decisive constitutional break with the past and the cornerstone, for good or ill, of a wholly new future.

The First Minister knows it – and desires it. But to get there, he has chosen to downplay its magnitude to avoid alarming swing voters.

And in so doing he may leave some in his party – and the country – unsure of what he stands for.

Balancing these competing demands is a hard political test, but if anyone can do it, Salmond can.

The local elections will be an early indication of whether the soft sell is working. If Glasgow falls, then the hopes of the independence movement will rise.

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