What keeps Alex Salmond awake at night?

A full war chest and a charismatic leader doesn't guarantee referendum success.

Asked by Shaun Ley on Radio 4's The World at One, if he thought "devo max" -- a souped up version of Scotland's current form of autonomy -- rather than all-out independence was a more likely outcome of a future referendum, Alex Salmond was characteristically defiant.

"No, I think we'll win the independence referendum," Scotland's First Minister and SNP leader said. And you would expect him to say little else. A seasoned politician, he knows the dangers of accepting the premise of a journalist's question such as this. Moreover, independence has been always been the goal -- and the dream.

But the runners-up prize -- which would give Holyrood control over tax and spend but not foreign policy nor defence -- may be as good as it gets for Salmond and his party. And even that is not a given.

There is little doubt that Salmond is a highly admired, and feared, political operator. As Jonathan Freedland points out in this morning's Guardian, this is a man who is fêted even by his opponents. And it was the Times which earlier this week named him Briton of the Year. (Given Salmond's separatist designs, the compliment was loaded, if not backhanded.)

The same paper carried a two-page feature (£) today on the possibility of an independent Scotland. To quote the introduction:

A full war chest, a charismatic leader and superior tactics -- can anything stop the SNP's independence campaign?

Turning John Rentoul's famed meme on its head, this is a question to which the answer is yes. The independence vote -- tipped to take place in June 2014 to coincide with the 700th anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn -- may turn out to be a double defeat, and here's why.

Firstly, Salmond's popularity doesn't necessarily equate to popularity for independence. As John Curtice, professor of Politics at the University of Strathclyde, notes in the Times article, those who jumped late on to the SNP bandwagon as last May's Holyrood elections approached were far from ideological. Support for the SNP doesn't always mean support for a clean break from the Union.

And after a post-election bounce, a familiar pattern to polling returned by late summer -- namely, those in favour of independence fell below 40 per cent. A TNS poll for the Sunday Herald in September, for example, had those who would vote yes at 39 per cent compared to 38 per cent who would vote no. A lead for sure, but far from decisive.

"Devo max", meanwhile, appears more popular, although don't be fooled by what UK Polling Report's Anthony Wells rightly describes as some "voodoo polling".

But here's the catch. The key gain from devolution max is fiscal autonomy but opinion polls are evenly divided between those who think the economy will perform better under Holyrood control, those that think it will make no difference, and those who think it will perform worse. As Curtice notes:

This is the most vital part of the argument that the SNP has still to win. Once you start trying to predict for and against independence, the economy is very important.

As a referendum gets closer, expect those fighting for the Union to exploit these doubts over the economy.

Jon Bernstein, former deputy editor of New Statesman, is a digital strategist and editor. He tweets @Jon_Bernstein. 

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Northern Ireland election results: a shift beneath the status quo

The power of the largest parties has been maintained, while newer parties running on nicher subjects with no connection to Northern Ireland’s traditional religious divide are rapidly rising.

After a long day of counting and tinkering with the region’s complex PR vote transfer sytem, Northern Irish election results are slowly starting to trickle in. Overall, the status quo of the largest parties has been maintained with Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionist Party returning as the largest nationalist and unionist party respectively. However, beyond the immediate scope of the biggest parties, interesting changes are taking place. The two smaller nationalist and unionist parties appear to be losing support, while newer parties running on nicher subjects with no connection to Northern Ireland’s traditional religious divide are rapidly rising.

The most significant win of the night so far has been Gerry Carroll from People Before Profit who topped polls in the Republican heartland of West Belfast. Traditionally a Sinn Fein safe constituency and a former seat of party leader Gerry Adams, Carroll has won hearts at a local level after years of community work and anti-austerity activism. A second People Before Profit candidate Eamon McCann also holds a strong chance of winning a seat in Foyle. The hard-left party’s passionate defence of public services and anti-austerity politics have held sway with working class families in the Republican constituencies which both feature high unemployment levels and which are increasingly finding Republicanism’s focus on the constitutional question limiting in strained economic times.

The Green party is another smaller party which is slowly edging further into the mainstream. As one of the only pro-choice parties at Stormont which advocates for abortion to be legalised on a level with Great Britain’s 1967 Abortion Act, the party has found itself thrust into the spotlight in recent months following the prosecution of a number of women on abortion related offences.

The mixed-religion, cross-community Alliance party has experienced mixed results. Although it looks set to increase its result overall, one of the best known faces of the party, party leader David Ford, faces the real possibility of losing his seat in South Antrim following a poor performance as Justice Minister. Naomi Long, who sensationally beat First Minister Peter Robinson to take his East Belfast seat at the 2011 Westminster election before losing it again to a pan-unionist candidate, has been elected as Stormont MLA for the same constituency. Following her competent performance as MP and efforts to reach out to both Protestant and Catholic voters, she has been seen by many as a rising star in the party and could now represent a more appealing leader to Ford.

As these smaller parties slowly gain a foothold in Northern Ireland’s long-established and stagnant political landscape, it appears to be the smaller two nationalist and unionist parties which are losing out to them. The moderate nationalist party the SDLP risks losing previously safe seats such as well-known former minister Alex Attwood’s West Belfast seat. The party’s traditional, conservative values such as upholding the abortion ban and failing to embrace the campaign for same-sex marriage has alienated younger voters who instead may be drawn to Alliance, the Greens or People Before Profit. Local commentators have speculate that the party may fail to get enough support to qualify for a minister at the executive table.

The UUP are in a similar position on the unionist side of the spectrum. While popular with older voters, they lack the charismatic force of the DUP and progressive policies of the newer parties. Over the course of the last parliament, the party has aired the possibility of forming an official opposition rather than propping up the mandatory power-sharing coalition set out by the peace process. A few months ago, legislation will finally past to allow such an opposition to form. The UUP would not commit to saying whether they are planning on being the first party to take up that position. However, lacklustre election results may increase the appeal. As the SDLP suffers similar circumstances, they might well also see themselves attracted to the role and form a Stormont’s first official opposition together as a way of regaining relevance and esteem in a system where smaller parties are increasingly jostling for space.