That look of sardonic amusement on Alex Salmond's face when he unveiled the SNP's proposed referendum question. It's a look that says: "Well, you asked for it; now you've got it." They had indeed. The opposition parties and the UK Government had assumed the SNP would indulge in blatant jiggery pokery over the wording of the independence question. They had also expected a second "fall back" question on devolution max so that Salmond could have his cake and eat it. In the event, there was neither. The spin was that there was no spin, just Salmond's 10 little words: "Do you agree that Scotland should be an independent country?"
The bare-faced simplicity of the proposed question wrong-footed the Scottish opposition leaders. None of them offered any objection to the wording on the day of its announcement, even though they had seen it in advance. Tory leader Ruth Davidson called it a "fair and decisive legal question". The referendum expert, Professor Matt Qvortrup, who has been critical of SNP referendum questions in the past, said it was "surprisingly straightforward and fair - a clear and unequivocal question". It took until Thursday morning before the BBC found a professor of marketing from Arizona State University, Professor Robert Cialdini, who pointed out that the question is a leading one. Well, most questions in politics are, though that doesn't necessarily make them unfair. But Alistair Darling and Lord Forsyth insisted it was "rigged" and undemocratic because it made independence sound too positive. I suspect that Salmond, if pushed in the consultation, might be persuaded to include a reference to "leaving the United Kingdom" even though it is a tautology.
But by 2014, that may not be enough to save the Union. The point is that the Salmond question is now out there – a positive proposition which, according to an instant poll by the Daily Telegraph, would secure an affirmative from the Scottish voters. That's remarkable, even for a leading question, given the Scottish voters' resistance to independence in the past. Once again, in this game of constitutional chess, Salmond seemed to be in control of events, leading from the front, defining the terrain, setting the agenda. He made significant concessions to the Coalition Government on the Electoral Commission and the single question, but he somehow managed to turn even that into a positive. This is what infuriates opposition politicians about Salmond: he's always so damned relaxed, so confident, as if in possession of some secret knowledge that independence is only a matter of time, and that all he has to do is remain upbeat and allow history to do the work.
It's difficult not to get infected with Salmond's confidence; to start thinking yourself into an independence frame of mind, following the First Minister's logic, ignoring hard political realities. Doesn't he realise that only around one-third of voters consistently support independence in the opinion polls? Doesn't he understand that Scots are a timid, if not cowering, nation of 90-minute patriots, who just don't do things like break up Britain, demand oil revenues and create their own army? All those scary questions about the Bank of England refusing to be lender of last resort, the euro, the EU, the pandas. How come he seems so unfazed by them?
How has this tubby and rather self-satisfied politician managed to change the political weather to such an extent that almost everyone you speak to in Scotland, even staunch Unionists, seem to regard independence as no longer a romantic dream but a practical possibility?
Scotland has changed, and the confirmation came last week. The old arguments against independence just aren't working any more. But what has changed, and could it all be down simply to the presentational magic of Alex Salmond? Why are so many people who would never have regarded themselves as nationalists now coming under his spell?
It's not just that the Unionists' arguments are sounding old and tired. When you think about it, there's nothing older and tireder than nationalism – Burns, Bannockburn and Sean Connery. But somehow Salmond has breathed life into an old passion and made it sound new and exciting – a vehicle not for the promotion of national identity, but for securing socially worthwhile objectives and pursuing an ethical foreign policy. And Scotland seems to like this confident, outward-looking image of itself. The secret of Salmond's success is that he has turned himself into an echo chamber for Scottish communitarian values, in a nation where Conservative values are anathema and where Labour, the old national party of Scotland, no longer knows what its values are.
In his Hugo Young lecture last week, before the leading lights of the London liberal left, Salmond said that an independent Scotland could become "a beacon for progressive opinion, south of the Border and further afield". He invited the metropolitan left to regard Scotland as a political space where alternatives to the Coalition's deflationary and socially reactionary policies can be seen to work in practice. A kind of laboratory of modern social democracy, where the NHS is not being privatised, where welfare is not being cut, where weapons of mass destruction are not tolerated, where climate change is taken seriously and where gross inequality of wealth is rejected. It struck a chord at home, though not among his metropolitan audience, who seemed decidedly unmoved.
Throughout the London media, Salmond tends to be regarded as a "wily operator", an opportunist who plays with loaded dice and can't be trusted. Jeremy Paxman carried this to characteristic extremes in his notorious Newsnight interview last week when he compared Salmond to the Zimbabwean dictator Robert Mugabe.
But in Scotland, Salmond is seen less as a self-interested politician and more as an embodiment of contemporary Scottish aspirations. Which is why involuntary hackles rise at the sight of him being treated with disrespect by patronising London TV presenters. Now, this may be naïve. Salmond is, after all, a politician, and politicians are adept at telling voters what they want to hear. Not long ago, Salmond was advocating a kind of Celtic neo-liberalism which would see Scotland becoming a free-market banking-led "tiger" economy like Iceland or Ireland. He wanted to cut business taxes and was feting leading Scottish bankers, like the now disgraced Fred Goodwin. Not any more.
But it's not just that Salmond is an ideological magpie. There is something more fundamental going on in Scotland: a reassessment of the means by which social democratic ends can be achieved. The left used to scorn "narrow nationalists" for wanting to turn the clock back, divide the working class, exchange chauvinism for socialism. Scottish nationalism was seen by most Scottish intellectuals as a crabbit and parochial passion, at best romantic and at worst racist. Even the writer Tom Nairn, who wrote the seminal The Break-up Of Britain in 1977, regarded nationalism as "Janus-faced" and railed at the "tartan monster", the couthy, introverted strand of kailyard nationalism that always threatened to drown progressive politics. This is a criticism that you hardly ever hear these days. The SNP still celebrate Bannockburn and sing dirges like Flower Of Scotland, but they are no longer regarded as the party of the Tartan Army. Instead of cultural narcissism, we have a kind of Celtic Connections nationalism, which manages to be progressive and internationalist as well as modern and actually rather cool.
The Scottish National Party has created a progressive positive image for itself and for the country, an optimism, which Unionists seem unable to match. But does it actually require independence to realise that vision of Scotland? Is it not happening already? Can Scotland not be positive and forward looking, social democratic and peaceful, while remaining a part of the United Kingdom? This is the question that must be posed at tomorrow's meeting of various groups – the STUC, churches, voluntary organisations – who will discuss different constitutional options.
Critics say they don't know what devo max means. Well, all they need to do is look at Canada, Australia and Germany, where federal systems, often set up by the British, work extremely well. Quebec may never secure independence, but is has a form of independence-lite that allows it to raise any taxes it wants, and remain prosperous while implementing policies such as universal childcare for seven dollars a day. There is little doubt that a form of federalism is a viable option. It essentially means Scotland raising, in tax, the money it spends on policies it sees fit, while agreeing that macro-issues such as defence, foreign affairs and currency should be left with the UK.
Asymmetrical federalism, of the kind advocated by Reform Scotland, the conservative-leaning think tank, would allow Scotland to feel that it was in control of its destiny, while retaining links with the UK. And on reflection, Salmond's vision of independence is not all that different, since he talks of a new "social union" with the rest of the UK, keeping the Queen, the pound, the BBC and the NHS.
Yes, he wants it both ways, but perhaps so does Scotland. In his very ambivalence, the First Minister may simply be accurately reflecting what Scotland is thinking and feeling about this question at this moment of national transition. The status quo is not an option, that's clear – Tory England has become too politically alien for most Scots to feel comfortable about sharing a Union. Scotland and England are on different paths and need to go their own way. It looks right now as if the momentum might be towards the independent route to Scottish self-realisation. But in this fascinating process of national self-discovery, none of us is exactly sure where Scotland stands, and only a gambler – like the First Minister – would put money on it.