LONDON // For all the rousing rhetoric over independence at their annual conference, there were signs yesterday that Scotland's nationalists were preparing to hedge their bets when the country gets to vote in a referendum on leaving the UK in three years' time.
Amid conflicting signals from opinion polls this week - one apparently showing that Scottish independence is now as popular south of the border as it is north - the Scottish National Party's leadership indicated that a vote for or against a separate nation would not be the only option in the referendum.
The First Minister, Alex Salmond, who led his party to an outright victory in May's elections to the quasi-autonomous Scottish parliament, told the conference in Inverness yesterday that a second option would allow Scots to vote for something short of full independence.
This would give the Scottish maximum devolved powers - "devo-max", as Mr Salmond dubbed it - while remaining part of the UK as far as international affairs were concerned.
Mr Salmond said that while he would campaign for full independence and described devo-max as "not good enough", it was an option that should be offered to the electorate.
"Fiscal responsibility, financial freedom, real economic powers is a legitimate proposal," he told the conference. "It would allow control of our own resources, competitive business tax and fair personal taxation. All good, all necessary, but not good enough.
"Trident missiles [nuclear submarine] would still be on the River Clyde, we could still be forced to spill blood in illegal wars such as Iraq and we would still be excluded from the councils of Europe and the world."
Nevertheless, the fact the SNP was willing to put such a plan to voters illustrates the nervousness the party's leadership still feels over the chances of a majority of Scots approving a complete break from the 300-year union with England.
A week ago, a ComRes poll of 2,000 people for the Independent and Sunday Mirror newspapers showed support for Scotland going it alone had risen sharply in recent months.
Some 39 per cent of adults in England, Wales and Northern Ireland thought Scotland should become an independent state - up six points since May - while 38 per cent disagree.
The bulk of the interviews were carried out in England and Wales, indicating a sudden groundswell of support for independence among non-Scots - perhaps because of a perception by some that a disproportionate amount of tax raised throughout the UK is spent in Scotland.
While the same poll came up with a figure of 49 per cent in favour of independence among Scots-only voters, this finding was later dismissed when it emerged that only 176 Scots had been surveyed.
Nevertheless, the poll was enough to encourage Mr Salmond to tell ecstatic supporters on Friday that "with the growing support of Scots of all ages and from all backgrounds, we can make this generation of Scots the independence generation".
That particular bubble, however, burst later the same day when another poll, this time by Ipsos Mori and involving more than 1,000 Scottish voters, showed 60 per cent were against leaving the UK and only 35 per cent were in favour of breaking up Britain.
Significantly, though, a massive 83 per cent said they would back full tax-raising and other powers for the Scottish parliament, hence Mr Salmond's "devo-max" proposal yesterday afternoon.
The move was seized on by the Scottish Labour Party, the SNP's main opposition, as "an admission by the nationalists that devolution does work, most Scots support it, and that the SNP are now trying to move away from separation".
Iain Gray, leader of Scottish Labour, said: "Alex Salmond is afraid to go to the country with a straight question as he believes he will lose.
"He will try to rig any referendum to suit him, not Scotland.
"He has started talking about a fallback option because he knows he is losing the argument."
It had become clear during the four-day conference, which ends today, that the SNP would put energy at the heart of its efforts to win over unconvinced voters of their vision for an independent Scotland. With most of the UK's oil reserves in Scottish waters, along with much of the gas and vast potential for renewables such as wind, wave and hydro power, Mr Salmond told the conference that it was "unacceptable" that many Scots were struggling to afford fuel.
"Gaining responsibility for our own energy resources with independence is the key to ensuring that this enormous potential works for the benefit of the people and the economy of Scotland," he said.