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Scottish nationalists crank up independence drive

But as the country prepares for a historic vote on whether to leave the UK next year, the numbers aren’t looking good.

PERTH, Scotland — Alex Salmond isn’t subtle about getting his message across.

Standing on stage in front of a Saltire, the Scottish flag, and a digital clock ticking down to September 18, 2014 — the date set for a referendum on his country’s leaving the United Kingdom — the Scottish first minister and leader of the ruling Scottish National Party said the time has come for Scotland’s “independence generation.”

“In less than one year’s time, we can stop imagining and we can start building,” he told a packed auditorium during a keynote speech at the party’s annual conference in this small, central city earlier this month.

Salmond said the government would unveil a detailed case for independence next month, and taunted British Prime Minister David Cameron for refusing to debate him on live TV.

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“Step up to the plate or step out of this debate,” he said.

Although the message was rapturously received, the bravado masks a grim reality for Scotland’s nationalists: most Scots don’t want to leave the UK.

Although the SNP holds the levers of power in the devolved government in Edinburgh, the nationalists are far more popular than their flagship policy of pushing independence. Opinion polls suggest only around a third of Scots currently support the move.

“If Alex Salmond and his advisors could translate support for the SNP into support for independence, they’d be home and dry,” says David Torrance, author of Salmond: Against the Odds. “But as yet they haven’t managed that kind of political alchemy.”

Next year’s vote will be the culmination of decades of ground-laying.

Salmond has led the SNP for two stints amounting to almost 20 years, during which the party emerged as a genuine political force, Torrance says.

“The year Alex Salmond was born, the SNP barely figured in elections, contesting just two seats and its conferences small, eccentric gatherings with lots of kilts,” he said.

Founded in 1934 after a merger between two minor parties, the SNP contested eight seats in the following year’s UK general election and won none.

The nationalists struggled to gain a toehold in Scottish politics for decades. Then, in 1967, the SNP shocked the political establishment by winning a by-election in a nominally safe Labour Party seat.

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Campaigning under the slogan of “It’s Scotland’s Oil” in the 1970s, the SNP sought to exploit newly discovered North Sea reserves as the basis for independence.

It nevertheless struggled to make sustained electoral inroads.

When Salmond — who was briefly expelled from the SNP for membership of the left-wing ’79 Group — took over as leader in 1990, he inherited the party at an especially low ebb. Far from power in Westminster and still struggling for votes, the nationalists faced an uncertain future on the political margins.

But the establishment of a devolved Scottish parliament at the end of the decade proved a turning point. The party first won a minority administration in 2007 devolved elections.

In 2011, the nationalists achieved the seemingly impossible: an absolute majority along with the chance to realize the long-held dream of a vote on independence.

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Once minor affairs held in small towns, the SNP’s annual conferences have become national events. Some 1,500 delegates attended the latest one in Perth.

In the lobby, stalls sold SNP tee-shirts and “Yes Scotland” mugs, and corporate sponsors chatted to attendees.

It’s a far cry from the tartan and bagpipes that were once the staple of SNP conferences.

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“There’s no stopping us now,” said Ronnie Black — a middle-aged party member with an SNP pin fixed to his checked shirt — despite the poor outlook for victory in next year’s vote. “We’re going to get there — it ’s just a question of when.”