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Alex Salmond, Scotland’s nationalist first minister, may now regret granting a two-hour interview with Alastair Campbell, the strongly pro-UK former spokesman to prime minister Tony Blair.

The interview, spread across the pages of GQ magazine and including an unfortunately timed expression of qualified admiration for President Vladimir Putin of Russia, has helped shore up the morale of an ever more nervy pro-union campaign.

Mr Salmond’s Putin gaffe and a political pummelling over issues ranging from fishing access to longevity and pensions affordability are fuelling optimism in the cross-party Better Together campaign.

Scottish National party campaigners say Mr Salmond’s setbacks are mainly the creation of his opponents and a generally hostile Scottish media, noting that the first minister actually told Mr Campbell that he did not approve of “a range” of Russia’s actions or its intermeshing of business and politics.

But speaking days before Russia’s annexation of Crimea, Mr Salmond did say he felt admiration for “certain aspects” of Mr Putin. “He’s restored a substantial part of Russian pride and that must be a good thing,” he said.

While the first minister has refused demands from Ukrainian groups to apologise, critics say the comment cast doubt on his possible stewardship of an independent Scotland’s foreign policy.

He faces embarrassing reports that pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine are now looking to Scotland for support.

Pro-union campaigners have sensed the chance to wound the often impregnable-seeming first minister over a recent speech in Bruges. There, he said that if an independent Scotland were to be stuck outside the EU, as some European leaders have suggested, then EU fishing fleets would lose access to Scottish waters and “as a consequence, their access to Norwegian waters”.

Scottish government officials say the first minister was merely pointing out that fishing pacts between the EU and Norway depend on being able to offer Norwegian boats permission to fish in Scottish waters.

But pro-union politicians have interpreted his comments as a threat to defy international law and bar EU boats’ passage through Scottish waters. Tavish Scott, Liberal Democratic fishing spokesman, excitedly calculated on Wednesday that enforcing Alex Salmond’s “blockade” would require a “flotilla of 160,000 vessels”.

“No” campaigners have also jumped on SNP efforts to counter claims that Scotland would struggle to afford pensions for its rapidly ageing population. Nationalists point out that Scots on average have shorter lives than people in the rest of the UK, meaning they in general receive less in retirement benefits, but opponents say this suggests an acceptance of the status quo.

“For the nationalists to suggest the best way to be able to pay for pensions in Scotland is if we continue to die younger is frankly appalling,” Better Together said this week.

While such attacks appear to have given Better Together welcome momentum, repeated sniping from Westminster of its leader, former chancellor Alistair Darling, means the No campaign cannot afford to relax, analysts say.

Mr Darling hailed one weekend poll by Progressive Scottish Opinion that found 54 per cent of Scots voters wanted to stay in the UK, compared with just 34 per cent who did not. But the latest survey from TNS found a much narrower gap of 12 points between the two sides, and both polls made clear that Yes support has grown markedly since last year.

Tom Costley, head of TNS Scotland, noted that while Mr Salmond’s comments on Mr Putin excited the political classes, the impact was likely to be far less on ordinary voters. Concentrating on such perceived gaffes risked entrenching perceptions that the No campaign was overly negative, he said.

“For every vote Mr Salmond loses, he probably gains one somewhere else because people get annoyed at the overreaction,” Mr Costley said. 

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