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Momentum is building behind the campaign for Scottish independence, Alex Salmond said, as he declared September’s referendum “Scotland’s Hour”.

Delivering the New Statesman lecture in London, the first minister said the Yes campaign was gaining on the No side at a rate of 1 percentage point a month, which he said would put it in a position to win a historic victory.

Polls have consistently shown Mr Salmond’s pro-independence cause trailing behind its opponents by a factor of two-to-one. But certain polls have shown a slight narrowing of that gap in recent months as more undecided voters side with separation.

Mr Salmond said: “If we continue at [our current] rate of progress we would just miss a magic majority. But as you move into the campaign proper the pace of change accelerates.

“I believe we are moving in the right direction but I also believe that if you put a positive message up against a negative message you will win a referendum.”

The SNP’s figures show the Yes side has moved from 30 per cent on average in November to 35 per cent in February, fuelled by a fall in the number of undecided voters.

But those figures have been challenged by Peter Kellner, president of the YouGov polling company, who said: “YouGov has conducted four surveys in the past three months. Stripping out the (modest) number of don’t knows, each survey has shown 39-40 per cent in favour of independence and 60-61 per cent against.”

Mr Salmond said he believed September’s vote would provide a “moment of clarity” for most voters, at which they would finally make their mind up over the most important issue affecting the union for a generation.

He said: “This moment of opportunity, this moment of engaged sovereignty; this moment of clarity, and for many of reassessment, will come on 18 September. Let’s call it Scotland’s Hour. Because on that moment – and I believe from then on – Scotland’s future will be in Scotland’s hands.”

The first minister was making a broader appeal to leftwing voters in England to support Scottish independence, even though they do not have a vote in the referendum. He said an independent Scotland would act as a “beacon of progressive opinion” and a “northern light” balancing the power of the “dark star” of London and the south of England.

But he was attacked by Labour after refusing to back the opposition’s plan to raise the maximum income tax rate back to 50p.

The first minister said: “We are not going to put ourselves at a tax disadvantage to the rest of the UK.” But he hinted he could follow Labour’s example if Labour win the 2015 general election and implement the policy.

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