Mr Salmond hailed the 22 per cent swing from Labour in Thursday's Hamilton South by-election as proof that "Labour's domination in Scotland is coming to an end".
The SNP's candidate, Annabelle Ewing, narrowly missed victory over Labour's Bill Tynan, cutting to less than 600 the majority of nearly 16,000 George Robertson enjoyed before his elevation to the Lords on becoming Nato secretary general The turn-out, more than 71 per cent in 1997, was 41.3 per cent.
Recalling the 1707 Act of Union, Mr Salmond told the party's annual conference at Inverness: "The Union whose boasted advantages grow ever more feeble has had its chance. It will not see its 300th anniversary. Our hour, Scotland's hour is at hand."
The timetable, which Mr Salmond has never detailed before, suggests that he expects the SNP to win a majority in the next four-yearly elections to the Scottish Parliament, due in 2003. Mr Salmond has previously promised that the party would serve a full four-year term running the Scottish Executive before holding a referendum on independence, meaning the earliest possible date for that poll would be 2007.
What is not clear is whether he also expects to secure a majority of the 72 Scottish Westminster constituencies - at present the SNP holds only six, whereas it has 35 of the 129 seats in the Edinburgh parliament.
His declaration yesterday reflects fresh urgency within the SNP to achieve independence, with many senior figures concerned that devolution may disappoint voters and discredit the cause. Whereas Mr Salmond steered clear of discussing independence during the May elections to the Scottish Parliament, it cropped up repeatedly in yesterday's speech. He also stressed the SNP's commitment to joining the European single currency and its support for higher spending on public services, rather than tax cuts.
The conference gave a standing ovation to Mr Salmond, who stood beside Ms Ewing, fresh from Hamilton South. Ms Ewing told the conference: "We transformed the fifth-safest Labour seat in Scotland into the most marginal. The result begs the question whether there are any safe Labour seats left in Scotland."
John Reid, the Secretary of State for Scotland, put his party's performance down to Labour voters staying at home, assuming it to be a safe seat.
The Liberal Democrats, who lost their deposit and came sixth, behind a single-issue party campaigning for the local football team to have its own stadium, were concerned that the poor performance might reflect disillusionment over their coalition with Labour in Scotland. t Plaid Cymru gave a tough warning to Labour yesterday that it will break off co-operation in the Welsh Assembly unless the Government gives extra funds to Wales.
The party president, Dafydd Wigley, told Plaid Cymru's annual conference, in Llandudno, that the nationalists were ready to try to force the resignation of the Welsh Assembly's First Secretary, Alun Michael, over Labour's failure so far to come forward with the matching money needed to access the pounds 1.5bn of European regional grants earmarked for Wales.
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