FOR nearly three centuries Scotland has been ruled from London, the English capital. But now there is evidence that half of the people living "north of the border" want their nation to go it alone.
Scottish nationalists are comparing their own aspirations with those of other European peoples, such as Yugoslavia's Croats and the peoples of the three Baltic republics, who lately have achieved independence.
They point to an opinion poll in the daily Scotsman newspaper showing that for the first time 50 percent of Scots want their nation to break away from England - a 10 percent jump within a month.
Alex Salmond, leader of the Scottish Nationalist Party and one of five SNP representatives in Westminster, described the poll as "compelling testimony to a growing mood."
"Change is now inevitable," Mr. Salmond says. He foresees a time when an independent Scotland will apply to become the European Community's 13th member. British parties respond
Political pressure building in the nation of 5 million people that surrendered its independence to England under the 1707 Act of Union has already forced Britain's opposition Labour Party to promise the Scots a measure of self-government. But the ruling Conservatives are facing the coming general election without such a policy - and opinion polls suggest that they may pay a heavy political price for their neglect.
Labour says that if it wins power it will give Scotland its own parliament within a year. It would probably be sited in Edinburgh, the Scottish capital, and have powers of taxation.
Magnus Linklater, editor of the Scotsman, sees a marked change of mood toward Scottish nationalism. Last month his paper organized a televised public debate on the issue.
"The hall we chose seats 2,500 and we wondered whether we could fill it. On the night, we had to turn at least that number away," Mr. Linklater said.
In the debate, dozens of pro-nationalist speakers compared Scotland's political position with that of Croatia and Slovenia, which last month gained independence from Yugoslavia, and with Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia on the Baltic Sea, all now free of Moscow's control. One speaker opined: "If it is good enough for them, it should be good enough for us."
A week later the Scottish edition of the mass-circulation Sun newspaper switched to a pro-independence editorial policy, and ran a Page 1 headline, "Rise Now and Be a Nation Again," against the background of the blue cross of St. Andrew - Scotland's national flag. Tories examine policy
For Prime Minister John Major, the nationalist surge in Scotland is politically embarrassing. His government appears to have been caught off balance. Leading Conservatives held a special meeting Feb. 1 to discuss their party's Scottish policies.
The meeting decided that no policy change would appear credible until after the general election expected in April or May.
Scotland has 72 of the 650 members in the London Parliament. Of these, Labour has 48 and the Liberal Democrats 10. The Conservatives have nine - only four more than the SNP - and political analysts regard several of them as marginal.
A senior Conservative, asked to comment on the Scotsman poll, admitted that it was "discouraging" for his party. He said it arose from "Scottish frustration" and reflected the severe impact of economic recession in Scotland, including last month's decision by British Steel to close its huge mill at Ravenscraig.
Salmond pointed to the "irony" of Scotland being ruled by a government in London that holds only one-eighth of Scottish parliamentary seats.
The Scotsman poll prompted some heart-searching among Labour strategists too. As well as showing 50 percent support for outright independence, it indicated that only 27 percent favor devolution, or limited self-government - the official Labour policy.
This raises the possibility that Labour supporters in Scotland may swing over to the SNP and its all-or-nothing approach. Donald Dewar, Labour's spokesman on Scotland in Parliament, said the SNP had "yet to prove that it can do well except in isolated areas." He noted that in the Scotsman poll only 26 percent said they would vote for the SNP.
Labour officials admit privately, however, that the apparent shift of voters' mood in Scotland raises questions about their party's election performance. Volatile mood
Conservative Party analysts point to the volatility of Scottish political opinion and argue that the current mood is likely to change.
Ian Lang, Mr. Major's secretary of state for Scotland, recalled that pressure for the devolution compromise had been strong in the early 1970s, but that a referendum on the question in 1979 failed to produce a decisive majority for devolved government.