Alex Salmond has always liked a gamble. By age 10, the future leader of the Scottish National Party had backed his first winning horse. Later, after becoming a prominent politician, he wrote a racing column. But his biggest wager came as a student in the ’70s, when he signed up with the Nationalists, long-odds outsiders committed to the unlikely goal of independence.
It’s a gamble that’s paid off handsomely. In May, Salmond’s party scored an overwhelming victory in elections to the Scottish Parliament. These days, Salmond finds himself the U.K.’s most popular party leader and an idol for peaceable separatists from Catalonia to Quebec.
An independent Scotland looks like more than just the fantasy of Braveheart-fed romantics. For the first time since Scotland’s Parliament was reestablished in 1999, a single party holds a majority, allowing Salmond to promise a vote on ending the country’s 304-year union with England. In Salmond’s words, Scotland’s years of “self-doubt and negativity” are over. “A change is coming and the people are ready.”