ALEX Salmond is on track to take Scotland to the brink of independence, according to a startling new poll which shows the SNP has opened up a clear lead over Labour.
With just eight months to go until the Holyrood elections, the party has established a four-point lead over its nearest rivals, and appears to be pulling away.
The SNP claims that if the poll result was repeated at voting booths next year it would eradicate Labour's majority at the Scottish Parliament.
If Salmond becomes First Minister, he has pledged to introduce a bill for an independence referendum within 100 days of taking up office.
The poll is the first major test of public opinion in Scotland since Tony Blair incensed many within his own party over his support for Israel during the conflict in Lebanon.
Both the two main parties in Scotland that oppose Blair's foreign policy, the SNP and Liberal Democrats, appear to have gained as a result, with Labour well down on their 2003 showing.
Polling experts said the results confirmed that next year's election race would be the closest yet for control of the Scottish Parliament.
In an interview with Scotland on Sunday today, the SNP leader set out his plans for his first few weeks in office, declaring he will govern with "a hard head and a soft heart".
But Labour insisted that once voters had assessed the cost of separating from the rest of the UK, support for the SNP would dissipate.
The poll, conducted by Scottish Opinion, asked 1,000 Scots who they intended to support next year. It did not, however, break the question down into first and second votes to reflect the Scottish electoral system.
Scottish Opinion carried out the poll to determine the correct balance of public opinion on focus groups which it carries out for the SNP. The party passed a copy of its findings to this newspaper.
A total of 58% expressed a preference for a political party. Of those, 33% said they supported the SNP, up from the 24% who backed them in 2003. Labour secured 29% of support, down six percentage points from 2003. The Liberal Democrats won 19%, up four points. The Tories have slumped to 10%, down seven points.
Following the turmoil of the Tommy Sheridan trial, the Scottish Socialist Party secured just 2%, down from 6% in 2003. The Greens are on 5%.
Salmond said last night: "We are delighted with the progress we have made but we are taking nothing for granted. There are eight months to go to the election and you don't win elections by winning opinion polls."
However, he said he was "more confident" of victory this time round than in 1999 when he last led the SNP's Holyrood campaign.
John Curtice, professor of politics at Strathclyde University said: "This poll is a further straw in the wind. It shows that Labour have a real battle on their hands for next year.
"We discovered two months ago that Labour were having problems and this shows that apparently the SNP are still ahead of Labour."
Curtice added that the findings were equally promising for the Liberals.
"This is further evidence that the balance of power within the coalition is shifting towards the Liberal Democrats.
"But, on these numbers, the Labour-Liberal coalition will be struggling to get a majority and may have to go to the Greens," he added.
The parties offered a mixed response to the results.
A Labour party spokesman said: "The nationalists have been ahead before in these types of polls at this time in the electoral cycle and every time they have gone on to lose, because when people are given the choice at the election, voters recognise the one thing an SNP victory is certain to deliver is independence.
"The fact remains, the SNP's plans for independence would damage the Scottish economy and halt Labour's record investment in schools, hospitals and tough action on anti-social behaviour."
A spokesman for the Liberals said that the party still aimed to become the biggest party at Holyrood next year.
"When it comes to real votes in real elections, it is the Liberal Democrats who have proven time and again to be the party with momentum," he said.
A spokesman for the Conservatives said: "It is real polls that matter, and in council by-elections over recent times, we have an unrivalled record in picking up seats and losing none."
A Green party spokesman added: "This is another indication that our vote is solid and growing."