LONDON -- Alex Salmond has plenty to smile about these days.
He is the head of the Scottish National Party, and standing on the brink of a general election -- possibly to be called this week by Prime Minister John Major -- he sees his party's fortunes rising in virtually all polls on how the vote will go in Scotland.
In a January poll, some 38 percent of Scottish voters registered approval of the central proposition of the Scottish National Party: independence from the United Kingdom and within the European Community. Another 12 percent endorsed the more drastic option of independence from the United Kingdom and outside the EC.
That adds up to 50 percent. A little more than a year ago, it was only 35 percent, all of which suggests that the most seemingly feckless quest can sometimes verge near reality. The SNP's goal a couple of years ago was regarded as impossible. Today it has advanced to the improbable.
To Mr. Salmond, who has run the party only a year and a half, should 50 percent of Scots vote as they say they plan to, independence would be virtually assured. This is because the ruling Conservative Party has already said that if a majority of Scots vote to dissolve the 1707 Act of Union between Scotland and England, there would be nothing to do but accept it.
"We intend to take them at their word," Mr. Salmond said yesterday, grinning an apology for arriving late to a speaking engagement because of a bomb blast in the Wandsworth station of British Rail. It was a reminder of the Irish Republican Army's promise that it also intends to play a role in the election campaign.
Mr. Salmond believes that even the most rigid political circumstances can change and move, and that one should expect them to. Nowhe sees movement in his favor. "Our interest in the coming election," he says, "is to transfer Europe's invisible country into a very visible country indeed."
Chief among the favorable circumstances that Mr. Salmond perceives is the growing disenchantment in Scotland with the Conservative Party. Last year, the Tories slipped into third place in the number of seats that Scotland holds in the British Parliament. Of Scotland's 72 seats, 48 are held by the Labor Party, 10 by the Liberal Democrats and five by the SNP. The Tories have only nine -- an embarrassing number for the party
that runs the country. The SNP has picked up two in the past year.
The Tories are in decline in Scotland for a variety of reasons but mainly because the poll tax was implemented in Scotland a year earlier than elsewhere.
And he interprets the international climate as favorable: the "new small-nation nationalism" that has seen the Baltic and Yugoslav republics come into new roles, the emergence of what his party calls the "submerged European nations."
He has no doubt that should Scotland leave the union that makes up the United Kingdom, it would go automatically into the European Community. It would come with Scotland's acceptance of all treaty obligations agreed to as part of the United Kingdom.
Nor would Mr. Salmond expect any strong resistance from EC member states. "I just couldn't see the EC cutting itself off from 70 percent of all of Europe's gas and oil [in the North Sea] or a third of the region's fishing stocks," which thrive in Scotland's coastal areas, he said.
While there is not much room in Mr. Salmond's makeup for compromise, this is not to suggest that he is utterly inflexible. Asked who might be the chief of state in an independent Scotland, he smiled and said, "There's no reason the queen can't continue to be the queen of Scotland. She's still the queen of Australia."
He paused, obviously recalling the expressions of republican sentiment during the queen's Australian tour last month, then added, "at least she is for now."