Behind the scenes with Alex Salmond, the man who would break up the United Kingdom

A bitter March wind is whistling off the Clyde, hurrying the last few commuters onto their trains at Glasgow Central Station, but a floor above, in the golden ballroom of the Grand Central Hotel, the man who would tear the United Kingdom apart is bathing in a warm glow of love.

"Alex," says a middle-aged woman at the front, trying not to cry, "you took the nation into your hands. You helped us go forward. When we lost, I went up to your house and sat there for an hour and a half, crying my eyes out..."

"Oh, Alex," says a neatly suited man in a trembling voice, "September 19th was such a day of heartbreak. How did you find the strength and resources to come back?"

"Alex," shouts a young woman at the back, holding up a phone, "can you say happy birthday to me nan?"

Tonight's event is to launch Alex Salmond's book, The Dream Shall Never Die, based on a 100-day diary he kept during the 2014 referendum campaign on Scottish independence. Salmond and his Scottish National Party (SNP) lost that vote 55.3% to 44.7%. Yet tonight he is putting on a winner's performance. Walking off stage into the audience, he draws them into a huddle to tell them about the day, 19 September 2014, that he lost the vote for independence and resigned as First Minister of Scotland and leader of the SNP. He and his wife, Moira, bade goodbye to his staff and caught a helicopter home to the small northern Scottish town of Strichen, where the couple live in a converted mill on the edge of the Highlands. The pair left Edinburgh, he says, in bright evening sunshine and flew north up Scotland's icy coast. As they passed Dundee, into Salmond's head came Robert Burns's reworking of an old Jacobite song, Bonnie Dundee:

Then awa' to the hills, to the lea, to the rocks,

E'er I own a usurper, I'll couch wi' the fox!

Then tremble, false Whigs, in the midst o' your glee,

Ye ha' no seen the last o' my bonnets and me.

Salmond reads the poem quietly. The audience cranes in to hear. As he speaks the last, defiant line, they erupt in a swell of clapping, stomping and yelling that lasts a full minute. When the applause finally dies, Salmond tells them how Dundee gave him the seminal moment of his political life. He is canvassing in the city when he comes across a queue of hundreds of people registering to vote. Many are doing so for the first time in their lives. "This is the first time there has been anything worth voting for," a man tells Salmond.

This is for what Salmond has worked for 40 years. Finally, the longed-for Scottish Awakening is happening. He compares it to the dawn of black freedom in South Africa 20 years before, at the first free election after apartheid, when people queued for hours to exercise their right to vote.

He wipes away a tear. "The country which started the referendum campaign is not the same Scotland we are living in now," he says. "The people who emerged are different from those who embarked on this journey. They are more energised, more mobilised. That's why they are likely to take the first opportunity to move this country forward."

Salmond stares out at the audience, then looks up.

"And it's coming soon!" he roars.

Holding the balance

Scotland's opportunity is coming, in fact, on 7 May. Polls ahead of this year's British general election suggest the two main British parties, the ruling Conservatives and opposition Labour, will each attract only around a third of voters' support, leaving both short of the parliamentary majority they need to form a government.

The same scenario presented itself at the last election in 2010. Then the Conservatives linked up with the third-biggest party, the Liberal Democrats. This time around, the peculiarities of the British voting system should mean the range of potential partners is wider. The Scottish nationalists, for instance, are projected to win just 4% of the total vote, behind the Liberal Democrats, the Greens and the Right-wing UK Independence Party (Ukip).

But because Westminster is elected constituency by constituency and because the SNP's support is not dispersed across Britain but concentrated on the mere 8% of the population who live in Scotland, the SNP should win around four-fifths of the 59 Scottish seats. That would make one of the least electorally popular parties in Britain the third largest in its parliament and a likely kingmaker for any would-be government.

And that means, nine months after he quit, that Alex Salmond is back.

Salmond is now standing for election as a Westminster MP for the Aberdeenshire constituency of Gordon. While his protégée Nicola Sturgeon, as the new First Minister of the SNP, is the official face of the election, Salmond is likely to lead the tartan bloc in any post-election negotiations. He has already ruled out any deal with the Conservatives. To Labour, he has made clear his preference for an informal centre-Left alliance, a Labour government that the SNP would support in parliament on a vote-by-vote basis, with possible further backing from other centre-Left parties like the Welsh nationalist Plaid Cymru, the Irish nationalist Sinn Féin, plus the Greens and the Liberal Democrats.

The prospect of a Left-leaning London government beholden to Scottish nationalists fills more southern, more Right-wing and altogether more English Brits with dread and fury. Three days after his Glasgow book launch, Salmond is in London to tell a BBC interviewer: "If you hold the balance, you hold the power."

Asked to respond, plummy Conservative minister Anna Soubry all but chokes on her outrage. "I've met Alex a few times and he seems to be a very charming man," she says. "But [what he says] is absolutely terrifying. The thought that we are in a position whereby you [Salmond] could be actually controlling, in the way you have described, this United Kingdom fills me with absolute horror. The audacity is astonishing! There was a wonderful debate in Scotland. You lost it! We're a United Kingdom. [And] you guys are now in the position whereby you would be the power-broker."

Salmond smiles. "So we haven't lost after all, then," he says.

"Exactly!" exclaims Soubry. "It's a back-door way of breaking up the Union!"

"It's actually sort of daft," says Salmond. "I wanted Scotland to be independent. I wanted to leave Anna to her own devices in the House of Commons. She wanted us in the House of Commons. And now she's complaining that we're going to have too many seats!"

In a week with Salmond on his book tour and the campaign trail around Scotland and London, his "visceral contempt" for the southern British elite emerges as a favourite theme. In Glasgow, he pokes fun at the arrogance of "the Westminster Establishment". "The votes at Westminster will not be in the usual hands, and they absolutely hate it," he says. "'What an awful thought! That Salmond guy here!'"

It's the sort of fiery underdog talk that delights his audience. "Wasn't that fookin' brilliant, eh?!" says a supporter at the bar afterwards. "So fookin' gallant and fookin' Scottish and fookin' cheeky bastard!"

Salmond admits to relishing the prospect of making mischief in Westminster. But ultimately, he says, it would be a distraction. The true significance of the referendum and his party's coming general election triumph is, he says, that years from now they will come to be seen as the watersheds after which Scottish independence became merely a matter of time.

He will try to negotiate with Labour for a more "progressive" politics in Britain – free education for all, nuclear-free defence, fairer land and income redistribution. Sturgeon will push for more powers for her regional government. But Salmond's eye will remain on the prize of fashioning a new nation, final link in a progressive northern European ring that would include Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Ireland, Norway and Sweden.

With polls showing rising support for independence, and the nationalists only needing to win once, Salmond predicts a formal split from Britain within a decade. "I think it's inevitable," he tells his audience. "The stars are aligned."

It's a bold claim. It might even be true. So how did a provincial, minority leader from Britain's wild north manage to make one of the world's most venerable democracies, a world power with centuries of history and a €2.5 trillion economy, dance to the tune of its own dismemberment?

Self-taught boy

Alexander Elliot Anderson Salmond was born the second of four children to Robert and Mary Salmond on Hogmanay in 1954 in Linlithgow, a few miles west of Edinburgh. Following the custom of the time, his parents, both civil servants, took the names of their Church of Scotland minister for their son's middle names.

This divine endorsement did little to protect their boy. Salmond turned out to be allergic to almost every form of protein. As a baby, he was covered from head to toe in eczema, requiring constant slathering in sulphurous jelly. When, at the age of three, Salmond's scabs began to abate, they were replaced by severe asthma, a condition from which Salmond still suffers today. Mumps and measles made the asthma worse. When Salmond was chosen for an experimental asthma treatment, he had an allergic reaction to the drug, ephedrine.

Mary refused to give her son any reason to think he was different. "I'd be wheezing and she'd just fling me out to school, and over the day, the attack would wear off," he says. Salmond sang in the choir as a soprano. Mary also took him swimming twice a week, an exercise especially hard for her boy since his nose was always blocked.

But Salmond remembers the trips to Falkirk pool as a treat: afterwards his mother would buy him fish and chips, one of the rare meals to which he was not allergic. "She gave the appearance of total normality," he says. "She told me not long before she died it was the most difficult thing she had ever done."

Despite Mary's efforts, Salmond estimates he missed half his schooling until he was 12. Confined to the modest pebbledash family home on a hill above Linlithgow Loch, he became an autodidact, teaching himself about the world from books. He learned by heart a set of 12 encyclopaedias his father bought one Saturday from a door-to-door salesman. Even today, he says, he can describe the exact state of astronomical knowledge as it stood in the mid-1960s.

"I wouldn't wish my illnesses on anyone," he says. "But there is no question that kids who overcome illness or disability, it makes them much stronger."

This childhood of isolation and resilience reveals much about Salmond and the nation he says he wants to create: a place of flinty self-sufficiency and adamant independence; but also a community with compassion for the least well-off and able. Above all, the boy who rarely stepped outside is anchored by a notion of rootedness: that if you know where you're coming from, you know where you're going to; that a sense of place and identity allows you to extend understanding outwards to others; that in a world where so many governments and companies have let themselves become driftwood on the tides of globalisation, you keep your principles by holding fast to the land that made you.

For Salmond, Linlithgow town, sitting in the shadow of the melancholic ruins of Linlithgow Palace, was formative. Scotland is littered with battlefields and castles commemorating seven centuries of fights with the English. But, in that history, Linlithgow holds a central and tragic place – the bruised heart of a wounded nation.

Scotland's kings had lived at Linlithgow Palace since the early 12th century. Much of the current palace was built by James IV, widely considered Scotland's greatest Stewart monarch. James died in 1513, aged 40, charging on foot at the English cavalry at Flodden in northern England. His death seemed to set a wretched destiny for his successors: James V also died at war with the English, in 1542. After him came Mary Queen of Scots, executed by her English cousin, Elizabeth I, in 1587.

Salmond's own love for Scotland began as a boy, walking the lanes of Linlithgow with his grandfather. Alex Salmond senior was a plumber. Alex junior carried his tools. As the pair walked from job to job, the old man would tell the boy how Robert the Bruce's men captured Linlithgow castle in 1313 by blocking the portcullis with a hay cart.

"More than that," writes Salmond in The Dream Shall Never Die, "he named the families involved: local folk in the town, families that I knew – the Binnies, the Davidsons, the Grants, the Bamberrys, the Salmonds and the Oliphants. Oliphants were the local bakers. In my child's eye, I imagined the boys in the bakehouse making the bread, dusting off the flour and then charging off to storm the palace."

In this way, Salmond learned history. Robert the Bruce, James IV, Queen Mary – it all happened in his hometown. Its triumphs and defeats were those of the families he knew. "Of course my grandfather wasn't really teaching me history," Salmond wrote, "but about life. How ordinary people could make a difference."

Local hero

At Waterstones in Salmond's adopted home city of Aberdeen, the ordinary people are queuing around the store, out the back, down a side-alley and 100 yards up the main street. Most are holding two books or more. Salmond's staff – three aides and a bodyguard – know what's coming. "He'll be here till midnight if necessary," sighs one.

For four hours, Salmond signs his books at a table set up in the middle of the shop and chats and poses for selfies, asking his staff to email pictures to those who haven't brought their own camera. He seems to have all the time in the world. He also appears to know an astonishing number of people in the queue. "Kenneth?" he asks one man, holding up a dedication request. "Dave, is that your son? What age is he now?"

The two start talking. The man mentions a recent amateur dramatics production in a local theatre. "Ah, James is a great lad," says Salmond. "And Greta! One of the funniest plays I've ever seen. Do you want a picture? Great! Do you remember that night in the beach ballroom? I thought that was one of the best they'd ever done. Then James Fallerdine's cousin told that story about his amorous adventures and his mum was standing right there! Brave lad! Thanks for coming. Good luck to you, son. Give your dad my best regards. Eileen! How're you doing? It's your birthday? Brilliant ..."

When he entered politics 40 years ago, Salmond was driven by anger. He joined the SNP at university in St Andrews after a row with his then girlfriend, an English Labour supporter, which ended with her telling him: "If you feel like that, go and join the bloody SNP!" Salmond did ... the next day.

On graduating, his professional and personal life assumed a conventional path. He became an economist, first for the Scottish Office, where he met his wife, Moira, 17 years his senior; then for the Royal Bank of Scotland. He reserved his fire for politics. Soon after joining the SNP, he became a member of a far-Left faction. In 1982, unable to tolerate their dissidence, the SNP expelled the group in its entirety.

Chastened, Salmond returned to the SNP six months later a pragmatic and purposeful centrist. Henceforth his maverick instincts would express themselves in serious and ruthless opportunism. No longer would he try to impose his views on others. Now he believed that he – and the SNP – should surrender to the people of Scotland.

Salmond had concluded that the engine of human progress through the ages was not Marx, nor the proletariat, nor even kings nor clan chiefs, but "ordinary people". He did not mean unremarkable. He did mean everyday Scots. "Folk are really interesting," he says. "All my best lines and thoughts come from people."

Salmond returned to a party in crisis. From nine MPs in 1974, the SNP was cut back to two by Margaret Thatcher's victories in 1979 and 1983. Salmond offered his party reassurance. They were in a long game, he said. Scottish independence wasn't a lost cause but "a cause unwon".

In his speeches, he began to trace a line of sovereignty and proud accomplishment that ran for 700 years through Scots history. It began in the 12th and 13th century with the rebellions of William Wallace and Robert the Bruce, and the 1320 Declaration of Arbroath, a letter declaring Scotland's independence to Pope John XXII, signed by Robert and 44 Scots barons. Salmond reasoned that King Robert's rabble-rousers were able to produce one of the great democratic manifestos not because of any innate Scots brilliance. Rather, he said, their secret was education.

The advantage of education was apparent, too, during the reign of James IV, a polyglot who spoke Latin, French, German, Flemish, Italian, Spanish and Gaelic. James presided over an early northern Enlightenment at Linlithgow whose achievements included building Europe's biggest ship, Scotland's first printing press, a ballistics factory, an alchemist's laboratory that investigated gold and flight and a medical research faculty that eventually became the Royal College of Surgeons. During a Scottish Enlightenment in the 18th and 19th centuries, as Salmond says, "Scotland seemed to have invented just about everything worth inventing – television, telephone, tarmacadam, teleprompter – and that was just the ts!"

When Salmond was a boy, his grandfather showed him the plaque on a wall of the Four Marys pub in Linlithgow to David Waldie, 19th-century pioneer of chloroform. Like his fellow Scottish inventors, Waldie was a local lad of humble origins. The achievements of these innovators, says Salmond, sprang "from our most important invention of all: compulsory universal elementary education".

Salmond argued that the movers of Scotland's history were its people. They just had to be unleashed. His new insight gave weight to the lessons of his childhood. He began to evolve a new nationalist ideology, based on an unshakeable belief in "the sma' people".

As Salmond's stock rose within the SNP in 1980s, especially after he won election to Westminster in 1987, he began to mould the party's identity to his ideas. The SNP was to be expressly populist. Its identity had to capture "the mainstream, the heart of Scotland. And a social democratic ethos carries a lot of Scotland". As a creed, it was mildly progressive rather than radical. Gentle change for gentle folk. It was, however, explicitly anti-elitist. At the time Salmond called it "not just taking Scotland's side, but taking sides within Scotland".

This faith in the wee folk is the key to understanding the SNP today. It informs the party's vow to end tight government spending. It is the reason the SNP refuses to end free university education, like the rest of Britain, and rejects privatisation of the National Health Service, as also happens south of the border. It even explains Salmond's preference for social media over the establishment press: he sees bloggers and tweeters as the pikemen of Bannockburn, "peasants who once again have a fair chance of unseating the horseman".

All these things – identity, roots, an awe for the potential of emancipated folk – combine in Salmond's contention that when it comes to countries, small is beautiful. As an independent nation, he says, Scotland would be free to fashion public education and health and redistribute land and wealth according to its people's own priorities.

Salmond also sees big material benefits from littleness. He points out that all 10 territories with the highest standards of living in the world are small places like Qatar, Luxembourg and Singapore. On rankings of happiness, he adds, tiny nations dominate too, generally sparsely populated and progressive Scandinavian states.

"There's a lot in that," he says. Happiness is not about "thrusting, cutting edge, low-tax hyper-societies. People look for the package. Particularly in the world of globalisation, people are searching for a defined culture, a meaning beyond a balance sheet, [a country] aware that there is more to this life, and more to politics, than Mammon alone".

Salmond regards losing the referendum not as a lesson that Scots don't want it – that wouldn't make sense – but as a reminder that it will take a while for some Scots to undo centuries of accustomed subservience to the English elite. "After the referendum, people told me two things," he says. "Thanks and sorry. Sorry that they were not able to find a way to vote YES."

Impeaching Tony Blair

In a Westminster hotel coffee shop, Salmond is winding down after back-to-back interviews on British Sunday morning TV. In a few hours, his comments about holding the balance of power after the election will make headlines in the London press about angry, marauding Scots holding Britain to ransom. For now, Salmond has a few hours' downtime ahead of another book event, and he is relaxing by reminiscing about how he once tried to impeach Tony Blair.

"It struck me that merely having a motion of censure wouldn't cut it," he said. "We needed something that captured the public imagination. So we hit on impeachment. And when it came to the Commons vote, we only got beat by about 25 votes."

Blair left public office in 2007. Even then, Salmond wasn't finished with him. "In my early days as First Minister of Scotland, somebody sent in a motion to see if we could arrest him if he came to Scotland," he says. "We sent it to the Lord Advocate to have a look at. It was a close run thing."

He pauses. "I like to think the process of trying to impeach him helped to ruin Blair."

Suddenly he catches himself. "Look, can I just explain for a second, just in case you're one of those who think I have a natural venom against people," he asks. Salmond says he disagrees with many politicians over many matters. But he can do that and remain a respectful opponent, even a friend. He adds he's only too aware that all politicians spin their arguments. "I've done it myself. I'm reasonably adept at defending virtually any position." All's fair in love and politics, he says. But not war. "If you do that with why you're going to war, then that kind of goes beyond the pale," he says. "So that's why. Blair's beyond the pale."

Salmond's care to present a reasonable face is an acknowledgment of his reputation, both north and south of the border, as a modern-day William Wallace. Opening his book event that night, the barrister, fellow Scot and Labour supporter Helena Kennedy tells him London is terrified of the insurgent's imminent return. "It's this business about you being seen as this bruiser and you're going to arrive back in Westminster and play merry hell," she says. Why, with his rhetoric, give his enemies any more ammunition, Kennedy asks. For that matter, why, if he is sincere about pursuing social justice, split the progressive vote? Why, at a time that the world has never been more connected, propose a retreat into parochial nationalism?

Salmond parries ably, the London audience goes surprisingly easy on him and when he finally finishes signing another towering pile of books and steps out into the bright lights of Piccadilly, there is a bagpiper busking in kilt and sporran, playing the theme from Return of the Jedi.

The romance is shattered the next night after his book-signing in Edinburgh, at a dinner to which I am invited by a group of Anglo-Scot NO voters. They say what they felt in the last weeks of the campaign was not a rising sense of liberation but creeping, intense fear. "The last few weeks were deeply unpleasant," says one. "Terrifying at times. YES people would shout at you in the street. Right there at their campaigns stalls, right in front of your children, they'd tell you to fuck off and leave Scotland."

Nor is this division as clean as rich-poor, Anglo-Scot. The next day, killing time in Inverurie, the small town north-west of Aberdeen where Salmond has his modest constituency office, I get a haircut. The women at Esquire in Chelsea Lane don't want to talk about the vote. "Tore families apart," sighs my hairdresser. "Tore this place apart. People still aren't speaking."

Much of the division centres on statistical disputes. Salmond believes "you can put a gloss on statistics or any economic figure" to build a political case. His opponents say pretending independence will profit Scotland – focusing on £400 more a year in tax paid by the average Scot, while ignoring the £1,200 per head in state spending received in return – is not gloss but deceit.

When I see Salmond at his office, I ask him about division, his hero Nelson Mandela and the parallels he often makes to South Africa's vote in 1994. There are parallels between the Afrikaners and the absentee landlords of Scotland's grand estates. The same historic righting of a long wrong; the heartswell of freedom. But the reason Mandela is revered is because he reached out across the divide, to the other, to the enemy. Salmond may be right about the historic significance of the referendum, but the problem with his talk about the people awakening is that it's not all the people – not even half of them, in fact, by most polls.

"Look," replies Salmond. "I'm not impatient with this, but after 100 years of seeking self-government, home rule, independence, devolution to the max and all the rest of it, we've managed to get through 100 years with nobody dead. And for all that 100 years," he says, "we've had nonsense spoken by people saying 'Oh, the darker face of nationalism. The unpleasant aspects. Person against person'. I'm not saying we're the nicest people on God's earth. I'm saying it's something to be noted."

Salmond acknowledges that the debate over independence is dividing some communities and even some families, but he adds the damage is temporary and that, anyway, he has deeper wounds to heal. "Who are the people just now who are feeling uncomfortable?" he asks. "Who are downtrodden? Whose families are being divided?" Those queuing up at foodbanks. Those trying to have their welfare claims assessed. Sons and daughters forced to leave town to find work. "Families divided?" he asks. "We've got 90 million Scots across this planet and five and a quarter million in Scotland. Families divided? Yeah, we've had a lot o' that."

Those who accuse the SNP of prejudice and sowing division "are often in leadership positions who want to keep things as they are. They like the idea of divide and rule because they're ruling". But doesn't that – divide, if not yet rule – also apply to him? Isn't he setting people against each other? Only in one way, replies Salmond. His beliefs are not "a condemnation of Englishness." I'm an Anglophile! I am! There are few countries in history that have had the range of cultural, literary contributions that England has made to the world". But he loathes a certain type of establishment Englishman who personifies "an assumption of entitlement. The attitude that Scotland is a property. That there are some people who are fitted for government." Such people are "mad," "wrong" and "you must never, ever give these people an inch. Ever." There is a time for healing, he says. It is after Scotland wins its freedom. "In victory, magnanimity; in defeat, resolution," he says. "We're not in the victory yet."

On the hustings

A frost is settling over the grey stone parish church at Newhill outside Aberdeen, giving the walls a cold sparkle in the last of the evening light. From the hill on which the church stands, a milky sea-fog can be seen snaking around the western edge of the city, reaching up into the green marshes and sheep pastures below. A noticeboard in the church entrance reads: "The Beacon Cuppa, Monday and Friday, 9.30am- 12.30am. Tea/Coffee and a Bake: £1. Juice and a Bake: 50p." Inside, the church hall has been remade into a theatre, with a stage and seats for 200. Facing the audience is a long table at which five chairs are arranged behind five name cards: Emily Santos, Alex Salmond, Christine Jardine, Braden Davy and Colin Clark.

The voters of Gordon face a mixed field on 7 May. Salmond is the former SNP leader and former First Minister of Scotland. Jardine, a Liberal Democrat, also has considerable experience: she is an ex-journalist and a former ministerial special adviser. But Clark (Conservative) is a first-time candidate, Braden Davy (Labour) is a 23-year-old former McDonald's manager and Emily Santos (Ukip) is a nurse and, tonight, a no-show. A trout-tummied Ukip member explains she's on call at the local hospital.

The four remaining candidates have drawn lots for speaking order. Salmond goes first. "I think it's possible and indeed probable Scotland can have a substantial influence in the next parliament," he says. "I will do two things with that influence. Make sure all the promises made to Scotland in the referendum campaign are redeemed in full. And push forward the case for progressive politics across these islands and ending austerity."

Over the next 90 minutes, something strange happens. The audience members are mostly here, it becomes clear, because they have questions for "the government". The candidates, too, offer criticism of "the administration". Salmond, despite his resignation, seems to represent both for everyone. Here, it seems, he is not the underdog on the attack but the Establishment on the defence.

Just as plain is how accustomed to that role Salmond is. He plays his part in conventional fashion, admitting a few mistakes but stressing improvements. "My local surgery used to be filled with people waiting for operations, but today it's nothing like that," he says. "We have 40% more dentists in Grampian."

Salmond, here, is the government elite, justifying his rule. His opponents are the protesters at the gates, shouting through loud-hailers. "Affordable housing is the most offensive phrase in the politicians lexicon!" declares Jardine at one point. "All housing should be affordable!" says Davy. Salmond responds dispassionately. "I think affordable housing is a perfectly satisfactory term ..." he says. Going by the expression on people's faces, Salmond may be risking more than his anti-Establishment credentials. There's even a danger he's becoming dull.

This is the reality of the SNP's seven-and-a-half years running Scotland's regional government. There was little drama. An inquiry into an underperforming health authority. Some new roads. A freeze on council tax. A glitch-free Commonwealth Games. Salmond even made public friends with the two people who define elitism and power in Britain: Queen Elizabeth II and media baron Rupert Murdoch.

As for The Awakening, it, too, may be at least partly rhetorical. The referendum certainly made independence supporters more vocal. But research shows it changed little else. Annual survey Scottish Social Attitudes records that though support for independence in Scotland rose from 23% to 29% to 33% in the years 2012, 2013 and 2014, it had fallen from 32% in 2011 and a peak of 35% in 2005. Scots' belief in the ability of independence to give Scotland a voice in the world, narrow its inequality and restore national pride is, in every case, declining.

"Rather than having increased support for independence to unprecedented heights," the surveyors noted, "the referendum campaign simply seems to have ensured that it currently stands towards the top end of the range within which it has oscillated since 1999."

A wider survey, British Social Attitudes, shows that Scotland is, as Salmond says, more progressive, more pro-Europe and more Left-of-centre than the rest of Britain – but only marginally. Around 40% of Scots believe Britain should stay in the EU, compared with 39% of those in England and Wales. Around 44% of Scots think tax and spending should rise, compared with 36.4% in the rest of Britain.

A matter of faith

All of which makes life in a Scotland run by Scottish nationalists rather similar to life south of the border. That raises a couple of questions. Is there much substance to Salmond's long campaign for a free Scotland? Or is it about something else entirely? Hope. Dreams. Anger.

Talking about how he rouses his audiences one day, Salmond explains: "Look, you're steeling people. And by and large the way to do that is to say, 'Look, this is what they did to us'. You rally people on the basis of the intimidation." Another time, talking about how much people enjoyed the referendum, he says: "But you enjoyed it all the more if you've ever felt excluded. If you've got something to oppose."

Writing in The Spectator, Scots journalist Alex Massie has compared the SNP to a faith-based party. "And the thing about faith," he writes, "is that, in the end, it's unfalsifiable. You either have it or you don't".

Salmond's assertions about Scots' inherent progressiveness, their love of freedom and how independence will pay for itself do not always overlap with reality – because they don't have to. Likewise, he can even keep styling himself as anti-establishment when, for seven and a half years, he was the Scottish Establishment.

Massie meant his words as criticism but Salmond doesn't take them that way. Freedom is a belief, he says. With the most vital of human causes, how could it be otherwise? He beams. "God is in heaven, the sun is in the sky and great times are to come!" he declares. "The people have awakened! They have become knights!"