But is it already dead in the water?

On a sublime morning in April 2007, its curving glass and steel formed the ideal backdrop for the SNP’s manifesto launch -- energetic, forward-looking, a symbol of Scottish potential. Tomorrow Alex Salmond will return to Napier University’s Craiglockhart Campus for the launch of his White Paper on an independence referendum.

This time the omens could hardly be worse.

In recent weeks, the SNP has seemed to stumble from one unhappy event to the next.

Crushing defeat in the Glasgow North East by-election was followed by opinion polls showing a broader decline in support, followed by flagship plans for the minimum pricing of alcohol being torpedoed by Labour.

This weekend, Salmond’s much-vaunted concordat with local government is in freefall, after a continued drop in teacher numbers prompted education secretary Fiona Hyslop to reach for the nuclear option and threaten to take education out of council control altogether.

Not surprisingly, local government is now in rebellion at the thought of losing some £4.5billion, or 43%, of its spending.

The past week has also seen the UK government set out its stall on Scotland’s constitutional future, pledging to implement most of the ideas in the Calman Commission’s recent report on devolution.

Labour’s promises have a distinct air of fantasy football to them -- they all depend on Gordon Brown being re-elected, for starters -- but the timing was still cute, pre-empting Salmond’s own White paper.

As if that were not enough, as we report today (on page 5), Salmond’s government is now caught up in a dirty-tricks row after a ministerial aide was found smearing political rivals on his blog.

Any politician would have to be on miraculous form to get back on the front foot amid such mess.

Unfortunately for Salmond, his White Paper may well prove his biggest dud yet.

As things stand, the arithmetic at Holyrood means he has no chance of passing the legislation needed for his referendum.

Salmond argues independence is needed to free Scotland’s potential and boost her economy in the future.

But the three Unionist parties -- Labour, the Tories and Liberal Democrats -- all say a referendum would be a distraction when the present economy requires so much attention.

“Concentrate on jobs, not your own obsessions,” they chorus.

Following the White Paper, a referendum bill is due out in January, and all three parties have vowed to vote it down at the first opportunity.

Salmond’s response tomorrow will be a last-ditch bid for support by offering his opponents the chance to put their own questions on the referendum ballot paper. The move is a marked shift for Salmond.

In August 2007, he published a draft referendum bill as part of the government’s “National Conversation” on Independence.

Then, the yes-no question to be put to the public was clear: should the Scottish Government “negotiate a settlement with the Government of the United Kingdom so that Scotland becomes an independent state”.

The first minister has now been forced to drop this to have any chance of the bill proceeding.

Last month the LibDems appeared to kill off all hope of a referendum this parliament by deciding not to support Salmond’s preferred question.

By offering the LibDems the chance to insert their own question, Salmond hopes they may yet be persuaded to change their mind.

The White Paper will therefore not prescribe any question, but instead discuss four constitutional options: the status quo, the limited transfer of powers proposed by the Calman Commission, “devolution max”, and independence.

The main change under Calman would be Holyrood getting control of around £4bn of income tax and £500m in other taxes -- stamp duty, aggregates levy and landfill tax.

Powers over air weapons, drink drive limits, and the speed limit would also move to Edinburgh.

Devolution max would see Scotland given full control over taxes and spending (known as fiscal autonomy), and almost all other powers, while staying within the United Kingdom.

Salmond’s version of independence would see Scotland retain the pound and the monarchy, but otherwise stand alone from the UK.

“Ultimately it’s for the parliament to decide any question on the referendum. If opposition parties have constructive suggestions then we are open to that,” said a government source.


Writing in today’s Sunday Herald (opposite), Salmond claims a referendum would be the next “historic step in Scotland’s democratic journey” and gives the LibDems “credit” for wanting more powers.

However his opponents are holding out.

Alastair Carmichael, the LibDem shadow Scottish secretary, said Salmond was only pressing ahead with the referendum to prevent a civil war in the SNP between the independence fundamentalists, or “ fundies”, who never wanted the extra step of a referendum in the first place, and the gradualists, who wanted a slow build up to one.

“I didn’t come into politics to make life easy for Alex Salmond. If, in trying to address the divisions within his own party he has created a situation which becomes untenable, I will happily watch that. I’ll sell tickets.”

Jim Murphy, the Scottish Secretary, said the SNP had an “unhealthy” obsession with separation that put them out of step with the public, who didn’t want independence and who were now suffering “buyer’s remorse” after backing the SNP.

“I have always been of the view that they did not have any of the big answers and now it seems as if they don’t even have a question. They don’t know what they’re doing. They have lost their way in a really deep way.”

He added Labour would not rule out a referendum “forever” but said the general election should be seen as the proper test of public opinion.

Annabel Goldie, the Scottish Conservative Leader, also urged Salmond to kill off his bill.

“The SNP are finally starting to realise that the people of Scotland do not share their obsession with independence. Mr Salmond is now too scared to even come clean over what the question would be in a referendum. His referendum would cost -- by the SNP’s own estimate -- £9 million of taxpayers’ money and his attempts to get his bill through Parliament will waste hundreds of hours of parliamentary time. It is a disgrace.”

When he steps up to the podium tomorrow, Salmond will face his toughest test as First Minister.