Alex Salmond has a soft spot for horse racing, and I've just seen some odds that could make the First Minister a very rich man: William Hill is offering 9/1 on Scotland being independent by the end of the decade. The SNP is traditionally bold in its predictions: ‘Free by '93’ being one of the more memorable. Salmond himself predicted that the Union of 1707 would not live to see its 300th birthday. But if he holds a referendum by 2015 then Hill's say a 'no' result is the 2/5 favourite. And 'yes' is 7/4. Money would be refunded if Salmond bottled out of holding a referendum within the next four years.
So how seriously should we take the bookies? David Cameron may take the fight to Salmond, framing the argument in a different way: do you want to stay in the union? Asking Scots to vote ‘yes’ to the union may work better than asking them to vote ‘no’ to independence. But Scotland now has more pandas than it does Tory MPs, so Cameron may not be giving the issue too much thought.
And, to be honest, neither may William Hill. When the London bookmakers offer on Scottish politics, sometimes based simply on a reading of newspaper headlines, it's often a good chance to make some money. When I was at The Scotsman, I remember Salmond re-entering the leadership race, and bookies (not Hill's) giving him odds of 3-1. Many of my colleagues rushed to put down whatever they could borrow, and made a killing.
Salmond was the Spectator/Threadneedlle Politician of the Year in 2011, and while I wish him nothing but failure, I also regard him as one of the most formidable and effective politicians not just in Britain but Europe. If that sounds like hyperbole, then ask yourselves: who else has started an election campaign 14 points behind — then went on not just to win, but take an outright majority in a PR voting system? His victory last year was staggering, enough to give even Nick Clegg hope. Not many political leaders enjoy a defeat so crushing that that their three main rivals are thrown into leadership contests.
Scotland would be far worse off outside the union, which is why a minority of Scots want to separate. But personality matters in politics, especially so in Scottish politics where Salmond often seems to be the only big beast in a parliament of pygmies. The SNP, with their campaigning iPhone Apps to help them pound doorsteps, are technologically streets ahead of their London rivals. Their morale is sky-high, their network of volunteers is vast. If Salmond fronts the 'yes' campaign with, say, Sean Connery then who will front the 'no' campaign?
Until a convincing answer is found to that question, I, for one, would not bet against Salmond.