The momentum is with the SNP. These could be the last days of Britain

As a Scottish National Party conference virgin and an incorrigible unionist to boot, I have several preconceptions of what the flora and fauna of this event will look like. I text a friend, a Scottish Nationalist veteran, that I expect the kilt count to reach triple figures. She responds with scorn and claims that there would be no more than a handful. Not a minute has elapsed since my disembarking from the Glasgow-to-Inverness train when a kilt duly sashays into view; its bearer is an elderly but sprightly chap, who also wears an anorak and the telltale black ribbon logo of the Scottish Nationalists. Vindication, I think, and I prepare myself for a weekend of Andy Stewart, claymores, tartan bonnets, porridge for breakfast and haggis for dinner. There will be bagpipes.

Stoked Salmond

The SNP headed into its annual conference in Inverness in robust health. In May, the party had achieved a landslide victory in the Scottish election - something that had not been thought possible by the architects of the intricate voting system, designed to deliver consensus government. The previous week, a UK-wide opinion poll had indicated majority support on both sides of the border for the idea of Scottish independence. And, on the eve of the conference, the coalition government in Westminster handed Scotland's First Minister, Alex Salmond, a neatly wrapped gift in the form of the announcement that a space-age £1.3bn carbon capture plant at Longannet Power Station in Fife had been cancelled for want of an additional £300m. Salmond swoops on it in his opening address: thank you, Prime Minister.

Sins of the father

It is scarcely believable how far Labour has fallen in Scotland. The late Donald Dewar must bear his share of responsibility. Dewar, Scotland's first first minister, was touchingly referred to as the "father of the nation" on his untimely death in 2000 - but only by those in the exclusive coterie of media luvvies and fluffers who gathered around him. Before the first Holyrood election after devolution in 1999, he established an unholy inquisition to root out candidates unsuitable to contest it. Unfortunately, the party was left with lobby fodder and too many dull time-servers, devoid of the capacity for original thought. Within a decade, this has reaped a bitter harvest, as the SNP's smart and committed front bench has regularly put Lab­our to the sword in the Holyrood chamber.

Missionary position

In public, SNP chiefs are cautious about their chances of winning a referendum on independence but there is no doubt that the momentum is now with them. The vote is likely to take place after the Westminster election in 2015 when, they expect, a majority Conservative government will be returned. As usual, this will have little or no mandate in Scotland. By then, Scotland's sense of nationhood will have been ignited by three major events: the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, the Ryder Cup at Gleneagles and the 700th anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn, all in 2014.
There is no such thing as an ordinary supporter of the SNP. They are all missionaries, ready to put heart and soul into something they consider sacred. Labour activists have never had to defend the Union and it's probably too late for them to start learning how to do so now. And the sight of a Scottish Conservative campaigning for the Union would make even the Queen vote for independence.

On your marks

Angus Robertson is the SNP's MP for Moray and the party's campaign director. He appears at a fringe event sponsored by the Daily Telegraph and chaired by Alan Cochrane, the paper's wily and formidable Scottish editor.

Cochrane is hoping to engender a newsworthy schism in SNP ranks over which questions should be asked when the referendum prospectus is brought forward. Should it be outright independence or "devolution max", with Scotland controlling all but defence and foreign affairs? The SNP's discipline is ferocious and the event is worthy of note only for Robertson's quiet hint that his party's resources are gathered at the top of the hill and that its commitment is implacable. The race for independence has begun and the parties of the Union have not even heard the starting pistol.

Bring it on home

Salmond engenders mixed emotions among politicians, the public and the press. His facial expression, even in repose, suggests someone who holds the winning ticket while the rest of us are scrabbling around underneath the sofa, yet he is not unacquainted with matters of the turf and is no stranger to Edinburgh's curry emporiums. He is passionate about football, plays golf and will not flinch when alcohol is placed before him. In short, he is a Scottish Everyman, but also a strong debater. He delivers a characteristically bravura performance in his final speech to the conference and lays down the gauntlet to the unionist parties. His message is clear: 304 years after the Treaty of Union took effect, the battle to end all battles for independence is upon us. The rapture that greets him is of Led Zeppelin-reunion proportions, and there is not a kilt to be seen.

No exit strategy

The SNP has caught the main parties of the Union at their lowest ever ebb in Scotland and this shows no sign of changing any time soon. Each is embroiled in a thorny leadership contest, none of which will produce anyone capable of challenging Salmond or his front bench.

Yet the unionists must soon develop a narrative stating specifically how and why the Union has been good for Scotland and its people. They could start by challenging Salmond's implication that the UK government's annual £13bn North Sea oil tax windfall is somehow obtained through force by the rapacious English, never to be seen again. Do they think that the maintenance of the armed forces, our representation abroad and the management of the benefits system are self-funded?

However, there has been no indication that a precise, cogent and intellectual prospectus for the Union will emerge soon. Tam Dalyell once described the prospect of Scottish devolution as a motorway to independence with no exits and no U-turns. His prophecy is coming true before our eyes.

Kevin McKenna is the Scottish columnist for the Observer

This article first appeared in the 31 October 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Young, angry...and right?