INDEPENDENCE could happen “progressively” rather than as a “one-off cataclysmic event”, Alex Salmond told his cabinet soon after the SNP came to power.

It should be presented “as part of a continuum”, with a “multi-option referendum as one of a range of options on a journey”, he said. 

The First Minister put forward his thoughts in a cabinet paper on starting a “national conversation” about further devolution, up to and including leaving the Union. 

At the time, he was acutely aware that the SNP was the largest party by just one seat at Holyrood and had to operate as a minority government with 47 of the 129 MSPs.

Files released by the National Records of Scotland show Mr Salmond presented an initial version of his “white paper on independence and further devolution” on 24 July 2007.

Its aim was to “shift the debate on the constitution away from a polarised one between independence and the status quo to a national conversation on what responsibilities people in Scotland think the Scottish Parliament and Government should have".

Mr Salmond said it was “likely to be a steady and slow-burning process”.

The foreword by Mr Salmond said the Scottish Government believed independence would be best for the country but conceded that the “majority of MSPs in the Scottish Parliament do not support independence but prefer other forms of increased devolution”.

However it said there was “clear support” at Holyrood for further constitutional change.

In a section that could make uncomfortable reading for Nicola Sturgeon now that she has said the next general election will be a ‘de facto’ referendum on independence, the draft white paper stated: “Independence for Scotland would be the most significant change to the constitutional position of the country and the United Kingdom in over two hundred years, and it is generally accepted that the full, unequivocal consent of the people of Scotland would be required by way of a referendum”.

Mr Salmond said the paper’s tone was “neutral rather than a statement of party policy”.

In discussion at cabinet, Mr Salmond said the plan would be to publish the paper in mid-August “with a view to holding a referendum in 2010”.

He said the approach was “dictated by the reality of the Parliamentary arithmetic, which although it currently did not offer a majority for independence, did offer the prospect of support for further constitutional change”.

It was therefore intended to be “flexible” in case the political landscape changed, and “presented a range of options for further devolution and independence as the basis of a national conversation and was structured to present independence in context, as part of a continuum from the current position through other extensions of devolved responsibilities, as well as a distinct option in its own right”.

The cabinet response was to praise the paper as “challenging and thought-provoking” as well as “extremely well written” with a “neutral, balanced and dispassionate position”.

However ministers also suggested “some illustrative examples to bring it to life for the reader and enhance understanding”.

The minutes record: “The paper should also explore more fully the concept of a new relationship with the other parts of the UK and should explicitly open up the possibility of a multi-option referendum as one of a range of options on a journey."

The cabinet agreed the white paper “should open up expressly the possibility of a multi-option referendum and should open a debate on what the United Kingdom actually means”.

A week later, Mr Salmond brought a revised version to cabinet which said the national conversation should “make the intellectual case for a modern, 21st century definition of independence set within the context of an inter-dependent world, extracted from earlier, more rigid nation state models, and shown to be something that could be developed progressively by reviewing individual state powers rather than as a one-off, cataclysmic event.”

It also said the Scottish Government had “no fixed view” on what powers should come next to Holyrood, although it did believe in more powers and “eventually independence”.

Renamed Choosing Scotland’s Future, the paper's foreword by Mr Salmond now omitted the admission that most MSPs did not support independence, but recognised that there were “a range of other views in our country and represented in the Parliament”.

It did, however, include a section on a multi-option referendum.

It said: “It would be possible to design a referendum with more than one option, to give Scottish electors the choice between independence, the status quo and significant additional devolution.

"However, while this might become a valid option, there is not, at this stage, a sufficiently well developed proposal for further devolution to make such a multi-option referendum a realistic proposal. 

“The design of such a referendum would also raise technical issues on how support for each option is to be judged - for example, would there be a ranking of options. 

“Despite these considerations, proposals for a multi-option referendum might well be further developed during the national conversation.”

Although Mr Salmond did later put a version of the paper out to consultation, he abandoned his referendum bill plan in 2010 after the Unionist majority at Holyrood made clear they would vote it down.