By Belinda Goldsmith
EDINBURGH (Reuters) - Scotland's nationalist leader Alex Salmond has more than independence on his mind. The combative politician has come to embody self-rule, always sporting a lapel pin or tie with Scotland's white-and-blue crossed Saltire flag. Cartoonists depict him in tartan, his face painted with the flag.
But with polls showing that Scots remain doubtful about separation from the rest of the United Kingdom in a September 18 referendum, people who know Salmond well say he has positioned himself to come out ahead no matter what happens in the vote.
The rest of Britain may view the leader of the Scottish National Party (SNP) as a rebellious hot-head who was thrown out of the UK parliament in 1988 for protesting at plans to try out a new tax on the Scots, and who last month called UK lawmakers "thieves" for their management of North Sea oil off the coast of Scotland.
But those close to him say such theatre is merely part of his political canniness.
"A 'No' vote in September will not be the end of his career," said an SNP source close to Salmond, who, like several people in this article, asked not to be identified.
"He wants independence, but more than that he wants a better, more socially just future for Scotland. His eye is on the next Scottish elections in 2016."
Despite several months of requests, Salmond did not make himself available to be interviewed for this story.
The 59-year-old, nicknamed "Wee Eck" (little Alex), has spent almost a quarter of a century as on-and-off leader of the SNP, doing much to build his fellow citizens' sense of identity.
Ask any Scot about their first minister and they start by praising his political nouse and nationalism, then either enthuse about his wit and passion, or dismiss him as an arrogant opportunist.
Kenneth Roy, founder of the Scottish Review magazine, said Salmond unified and strengthened a party made up of a hotch-potch of Scots who wanted independence for varying reasons.
So far, though, that hasn't convinced everyone. Polls consistently show the 'No' vote to the question "Should Scotland be an independent country?" to be around 20 percentage points above the 'Yes' vote.
David Torrance, author of an unauthorized 2010 biography of Salmond, said it is hard to see behind his political persona as he guards his privacy fiercely.
"He isn't much of a policy person - to him campaigning and tactical prowess is the most important thing," he said. "To him the fight is the main thing and beating his opponents to a pulp. He is a political addict."
CREDIBILITY FROM OIL
Salmond has always had a popular touch. He entered politics full-time as a member of the UK parliament in 1987 and joined Scotland's first devolved parliament in 1999. Over time his style has mellowed and become more conciliatory; his quick charm easily wins over a crowd and his speeches today are lightened with witticisms and Scottish slang.
For years he wrote a weekly racing column for a Scottish newspaper, establishing a connection to the common man; he was also an enthusiastic guest at the 2011 wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton. If Scotland does vote to end 307 years as part of the United Kingdom, Salmond has promised to keep Queen Elizabeth as head of state.
"He gives people hope and has given Scotland a voice," said Dean Byle, 24, a lifeguard who lives in Salmond's former family home in Linlithgow.
Salmond was born on New Year's Eve - the Scottish festival of Hogmanay - in 1954, to civil servant parents, and raised in government-subsidized housing in Linlithgow, near Edinburgh.
Described by former school friends as clever and quiet as a boy, he won a place at the prestigious St. Andrew's University in Scotland, where he studied medieval history and economics, and encountered the perks of privilege. St. Andrew's has always been popular with upper-class English students, and people close to Salmond said the experience instilled in him a resentment of wealthy southerners directing Scotland - a view common among Scottish voters.
Salmond joined the SNP in 1974 while he was at university. The political landscape in Scotland was shifting and the party, founded in 1934, was ripe for change. The North Sea started to produce oil in 1975, giving Scotland an unprecedented financial footing and making independence seem credible.
"Being a nationalist was no longer seen as crazy and for the first time ever, with oil money, the idea of independence gained some credibility," Torrance said.
The SNP was the perfect vehicle for Salmond, who has made prosperity and Scotland's right to decide how to spend its wealth a cornerstone of his independence campaign. He continued as a party activist while working at the Department of Agriculture and Fisheries, where he met his wife, Moira, who is 17 years his senior; and later at the Royal Bank of Scotland.
Former colleagues there describe him as a workaholic, fiercely competitive and possessed of an almost photographic memory.
"He always had this amazing confidence bordering on arrogance," said one. "He is without doubt incredibly smart but he is also a fantastic opportunist."
In a fractious party, that helped. In 1979, the SNP was riven by factionalism after a Scottish vote on devolution failed. Some wanted all-out independence; others were content with more powers. Salmond was pragmatic, arguing that devolution was a step towards the real goal, independence.
By the late 1980s, with many Scots angered about a new poll tax by Margaret Thatcher's Conservative government, Salmond seized his chance. SNP members united in opposition to London and he emerged as a modern leader ready to reposition the party as more socially democratic and pro-European.
Without a deep ideology, Salmond grabs his chances.
At last year's Wimbledon tennis tournament, he stood behind British Prime Minister David Cameron and unfurled an enormous Saltire flag, possibly in breach of tournament regulations, to support Scottish player Andy Murray, who went on to win. Newspapers said he had smuggled it into the ground in his wife's handbag. In a magazine this month, he interviewed Murray's mother. The player himself has kept his views on independence quiet. Actor Sean Connery is a high-profile ally.
But some people say Salmond can be bullying and bad-tempered. He fell out with party colleagues in 1999 and quit as SNP leader for four years to focus on Westminster. This month, members of the Aberdeen city council tried to have him banned from official city premises for "acting like a bully".
"He's quite a difficult character to deal with in private," said one Scottish lawmaker. "In public it's the jovial face - Scotland's champion - that he likes to portray in the media. But I think there is very much a hard-nosed, bullying mentality."
Salmond returned to Scottish politics a decade ago, and capitalized on growing unhappiness with Tony Blair's Labour to beat the national ruling party by a single seat in 2007. Deftly working the hung parliament, he spent the next few years cutting deals and co-opting the most popular policies from other parties. In 2011 the SNP won a thumping victory.
Salmond is well aware he can polarize opinion, his advisers say, and for this reason delegated much of the early referendum campaigning to his deputy, Nicola Sturgeon, in the hope she can win over undecided voters, especially women.
Salmond has consistently refused to speculate about his future post-referendum. At an event in London earlier this month he insisted he is "entirely focused on victory". (In the past few months he has countered concerns about his health by slimming down on the 5:2 fasting diet.)
If voters do reject independence, many expect him to stay on and push for greater devolution of powers from Westminster as the next best thing.
Pundits note that Salmond unsuccessfully called for a second question to be put to the Scots, asking if Edinburgh should have more power over every area of policy except defense and foreign policy. Some political commentators expect London to come up with proposals along those lines ahead of the referendum, to sway undecided voters.
Until the vote, Salmond, is saying nothing.
(Additional reporting by Matt Scuffham in London; Edited by Sonya Hepinstall and Sara Ledwith)