Alex Salmond is as smart a political operator as they come.

His choice of January 25th - when Scots around the world celebrate the birthday of national bard, Robert Burns - to take the first steps towards an independence referendum was not coincidental.

Nor is the proposed date of the vote, autumn 2014, the 700th anniversary of a famous Scottish victory over English forces at Bannockburn. It's a battle commemorated in a song sung before most Scottish sporting events, recalling how the Scots sent King Edward and his army 'home tae think again". 

Since Salmond's Scottish National Party was founded 80 years ago, its goal has been the break up of the UK with the establishment of a sovereign independent state.

The United Kingdom is made up of four separate national entities: England the most populous and dominant part Northern Ireland, the six counties in the north east of the island of Ireland, not part of the Republic (which has separate and well documented political issues) Wales and Scotland.

When the SNP won a majority in elections for the devolved Scottish parliament last year - it has limited powers over things like policing, education and transport - it was an historic moment. Not only did it signal the end of the left-leaning Labour Party's domination north of the border, but it opened up the prospect of the SNP pursuing the idea of a referendum.

But Alex Salmond has problems. Firstly the five million population do not appear ready to make the leap. Most opinion polls give independence at most the support of just one-third of voters.

Then there is the row about who has the right to call a referendum. British Prime Minister David Cameron insists only the UK national parliament in London has the legal power to set up a vote, which could break up Britain. He insists London can also set the terms and the timing of a vote. He wants it before 2014 - aware of the historical resonance - and he believes the uncertainty deters investment in Scotland.  He also knows his government is deeply unpopular in Scotland, which feeds the nationalist idea of going it alone.

Salmond believes the Westminster parliament will simply have to fall into line. "The terms of the referendum are for the Scottish parliament and the people of Scotland to decide," he said in a statement to the Scottish parliament, which was repeatedly interrupted by applause from members of his own party.

Salmond's view is of a Scotland prospering as "equal partners" with England.

He believes Scotland, with 90 per cent of the UK's oil reserves coming under its control, could be rich enough to go it alone. He suggests keeping Queen Elizabeth II as head of state, keeping the British pound as currency and Scotland moving swiftly to membership in the EU. Economic and constitutional experts suggest there may be problems with all of that.

But Alex Salmond is an astute and clever politician. I've interviewed him many times. We first met almost 30 years ago when I was a junior reporter and he was a prospective MP for the UK parliament, standing for a seat in the North East of Scotland. He won. 

The 57-year-old former oil economist is a keen football fan and a horse racing enthusiast - watching rather than riding - who has been known to place the odd wager.

He is charismatic and smart. He has a personal popularity in Scotland that is unmatched by any politician. And he is an accomplished campaigner and debater.

When he's asked about the opposition to independence, he points to his party's stunning win in Scottish elections last year. The polls suggested until the last minute there would be a hung parliament. But a surge in support gave his party a majority.

He believes independence is Scotland's destiny. The odds may seem to be against Alex Salmond and the SNP, but it would be foolhardy to bet against him.

For more, click here to see this video from 2007 on the Scottish Nationalist Party's pledge to bring independence for Scotland.