Scottish nationalists committed to holding a referendum to take Scotland out of Britain are poised for victory in crucial local elections to the Scottish parliament next week.
With just five days left before the vote, public opinion polls show the Scottish National Party set to end half a century of Labour party domination by becoming the largest single bloc in the Scottish Parliament.
A nationalist victory would be a political earthquake with ramifications that will be felt throughout Britain.
The centrepiece of the SNP's platform is the establishment of a fully independent Scotland.
Alex Salmond, the party's leader, has promised to hold a separatist referendum by 2010, the 300th anniversary of the union of Scotland and England.
He has also vowed to devote his first 100 days in power to opening negotiations to control North Sea oil revenues of almost $2.23-billion a month, which the nationalists claim are rightly Scotland's.
Opinion polls show the SNP with a six-percentage-point lead over Labour, which, given Scotland's system of combined constituency voting and regional seats allocated by proportional representation, would translate into about 50 of the Scottish parliament's 129 seats.
That's not enough to rule outright, but it would enable the SNP to form a minority or coalition government.
The Liberal Democrats are running third in the polls and could win 16 seats. But they are unlikely to form a coalition with the SNP because they, too, reject Scottish separatism.
Labour is fighting a fierce antiseparatist campaign with posters that read: "Break up Britain, End up Broke."
The SNP is trying to soft-sell its plans for an independent Scotland, assuring voters a victory for the party next Thursday won't immediately result in the breakup of Britain.
By promising a straightforward referendum in 2010, SNP leaders hope to win people over gradually to their point of view during three years in power.
"It's try before you buy," says Angus Robertson, the SNP's election campaign manager.
So far, opinion polls show only about 25% of voters are prepared to seek independence. Up to 40% remain undecided.
Tony Blair, the British Prime Minister, and most of his cabinet have been campaigning daily against the SNP in Scotland since last fall, but it has done little to help the local Labour party's fortunes.
As in England and Wales, which also hold local elections on Thursday, Labour is expected to take a beating at the polls. Some experts predict the party will turn in its worst performance in two decades.
Factors influencing Scottish voters are a growing disenchantment with Labour after a decade in power under Mr. Blair, lingering anger over the Iraq war and opposition to the British government's recent decision to renew its Scottish-based nuclear weapons arsenal.
For the most part, however, the SNP and Labour have squared off over separatism.
The SNP has trotted out a stable of Scottish celebrities, including actor Sean Connery, who lives in the Bahamas and is best known for portraying the British spy James Bond, to endorse Scottish independence.
Mr. Connery opened the SNP's daily political television program on its Web site this week, with the assurance: "I know that the SNP is Scotland's party and it has the right ideas to make positive things happen for Scotland. Together, we can open the door to a new era of optimism and progress for all."
Labour countered with warnings an SNP government will increase taxes and create turmoil inside Britain. It has also recruited its own list of celebrities who reject Scottish independence. The party took out ads in the sports pages of Scottish tabloids, featuring a raft of Scottish soccer heroes, including Alex Ferguson, coach of Manchester United.
"When Scotland calls, we answer," the ads read. "We are proud that Scotland has always stood on its own two feet, but we also believe that Scotland stands taller because we are part of the United Kingdom."
One Scotsman who is nervously awaiting Thursday's election results is Gordon Brown, the Chancellor of the Exchequer. He hopes to become Britain's first Scottish prime minister since Ramsay MacDonald (also the country's first Labour prime minister in 1924 and 1927-35).
Mr. Blair is expected to resign soon after Thursday's elections, triggering an eight -week succession race for the Labour leadership.
So far, Mr. Brown is the only serious candidate to have declared his interest. But a bad result in Scotland could create problems for him, with critics suggesting he isn't up to running a national campaign if Labour can't win in his own backyard.
Nationalists poised to win in Scotland
SNP threatens to end half a century of Labour dominance in Parliament; Want referendum
Écosse et indépendance