SENIOR figures within the SNP now believe a full breakaway from the rest of the United Kingdom is no longer the best short-term option for Scotland.
The Scotsman can reveal Alex Salmond's party is aiming for an "independence-lite" constitutional settlement that could see Scotland sharing defence, social security and foreign policy with England, in the knowledge the SNP would struggle to win a vote on outright separation.
The sea-change in Nationalist thinking has even been embraced by key figures on the SNP's fundamentalist wing, who in the past have refused to compromise their vision of a separate Scottish state.
Many had expected the SNP would use its new majority in Holyrood to campaign for full independence. But writing in this newspaper today, the SNP's best-known fundamentalist, Jim Sillars, argues for a more pragmatic approach that would see an economically independent Scotland benefiting from oil revenue but paying England for shared defence, security and benefits payments.
Mr Sillars even suggests co-operation on defence should extend to keeping Trident at Faslane, a stance that would be an enormous U-turn for a party that has always been vehemently against nuclear weapons.
Mr Sillars acknowledges that the break-up of the UK causes "apprehension" for voters, arguing a more gradual form of independence that preserves links to England would soothe their anxieties.
The rethink comes at a time when the SNP has to develop a winning strategy for a referendum that most thought would never happen in this parliament.
Mr Salmond's unexpected majority means a plebiscite is now inevitable, as the other parties no longer have enough MSPs to block it.
Despite the SNP's landslide victory, recent polls show fewer than one-third of the population supports independence. If there is a "No" vote in an independence poll, the SNP has admitted that would shelve the constitutional question for a generation.
Stewart Stevenson, the SNP's former transport minister, who is close to Mr Salmond, said Scotland would co-operate with the rest of the UK on defence and added that he could envisage Scotland sharing embassies with England.
"It would obviously depend on shared interests in particular countries. I think one of the things that is very clear is that nations of the United Kingdom will continue to have substantial shared interest," he said.
SNP MEP Alyn Smith agreed that there was potential for a joint approach with the rest of the UK on foreign policy and defence. "We are hundreds of years away from the 18th-century model of what an independent state should be. This is not about having a Scottish airline or having a Scottish everything," he said.
"The focus is on what works for us. There are lots of examples within the EU of member states co-operating. For example, the Scandinavian countries have a degree of defence co-operation. It is about what works for the people of Scotland and what delivers the best services for the best value for public money."
One influential SNP figure told The Scotsman: "The party has always argued for full independence, largely because we were unlikely to get any progress. What is really striking to me is the total groundswell in Scotland - probably 80 per cent plus right across society - for progress, but short of a completely new state."
Mr Sillars made a similar argument saying that in order to succeed in a referendum Mr Salmond must pursue a more gradualist independence option that is more acceptable to the Scottish people and that would not break all ties with England.
"Alex Salmond is now in the world of the politics and the art of the possible, not the politics of perfection," Mr Sillars said.
He added: "There is no point in being as pure as the driven snow, and defeated in a referendum that will settle things for more than one generation."
The emergence of a consensus around a more gradualist road to constitutional change has been backed up by research conducted by James Mitchell, Professor of Politics at Strathclyde University.
He interviewed anonymously 80 senior figures within the SNP and found strong evidence of a new approach.
Many of those interviewed agreed with Mr Sillars and were in favour of a "confederal arrangement" within the UK. A confederal state is one in which sovereign powers rest with its component parts, which then hand back control over some portfolios, such as defence and foreign affairs, upwards to a federal government.
Although the SNP's official position is still anti-Trident, Mr Sillars suggested that particular SNP sacred cow should be slaughtered. He also argued that, contrary to SNP policy, Scotland should embrace a "quasi-Nato relationship" in order to keep the defence link with England.
Although his position is likely to be opposed by many fellow members, Mr Sillars suggested an independence-lite Scotland could lease the Trident base to England, so Trident could remain at Faslane.
He told The Scotsman: "We have had Polaris and Trident for 50 years. If the price for getting English agreement for Scottish independence without any hassle is another ten to 20 years [of Trident], it is a price worth paying. These are very difficult things for the SNP membership to swallow."
Joan McAlpine, one of Holyrood's new intake, said emphasising the "social union" between Scotland and England would help reassure those opposed to complete independence. "In my view, [the UK institutions] are not threatened by independence. In fact, they could improve them. I think in this day and age we can exist as equal partners.
"It is not about cutting yourself off. The social union is important to people and we need to reassure them."
Mr Salmond's opponents were scornful. Shadow Scottish secretary Ann McKechin said: "The SNP know how unpopular their main policy of separating Scotland from the rest of the UK is. It is a minority pursuit.
"Trying to tone down the language around independence isn't going to fool Scots, and the SNP is looking pretty desperate for trying. Either we are part of the UK, or we are not."
David McLetchie, of the Scottish Tories, said: "The SNP was formed in 1934. It is extraordinary that 77 years later they still don't know what independence means. Unfortunately for the SNP, the people of Scotland do."
PROFESSOR James Mitchell carried out a study on the concept of independence that is being used by the SNP in a radical reform of its core strategy on forming an independent Scotland.
His research involved interviews with 80 senior figures in the party, including MSPs, MPs and executive committee members. He also polled about 1,000 party members.
He said he found more consensus than expected and a willingness by senior officials to be pragmatic.
People will still be able to watch the X-Factor: Nats envisage independence
"(Defence and foreign policy] are both matters where we would be likely to co-operate with others … in particular in defence, participating in and working with the United Nations and hence with other countries."
Stewart Stevenson, former SNP transport minister
"We are not talking about breaking (the social union] up - people will still be able to watch the X-Factor."
Joan McAlpine, pictured, new MSP for South of Scotland
"It is about Scottish control, but if that means that we have a joint DVLA, then so be it. Let's keep our options open. There are lots of examples within the EU of member states co-operating."
Alyn Smith, SNP MEP
"Our relationship with England and Wales would be rather like the relationship between Norway, Sweden and Denmark - a very co-operative relationship."
Christine Grahame, SNP MSP for Midlothian South, Tweeddale and Lauderdale