Alex Salmond tells SNP conference 'the nonsense ends in 2014'

  • @hamishmacdonell

Alex Salmond rallied the SNP at its annual conference in Perth today by telling activists that “in 2014 the nonsense ends”.

The First Minister was quoting from a poem written by George Robertson, brother of Hearts legend John Robertson, which ends: “Eat well my trusty, honest friends, in 2014, the nonsense ends.”

Having come to the conference fresh from the success of signing the deal formalising the referendum for the autumn of 2014 with David Cameron, Mr Salmond used his welcoming words to the conference to insist that the vote would be won.

“Delegates, conference, in 2014, the nonsense ends,” he declared.

The First Minister claimed this week had been a “pivotal one” in the history of both the SNP and the country.

He claimed the completion of the referendum deal  had “changed the game dramatically” and put the SNP “within reach” of achieving its dream of Scottish independence.

Mr Salmond also claimed that, even on the most basic figures, independence would leave Scots £1,000 a year better off - simply because Scotland was getting less back in its block grant than it paid out in taxes.

He declared: “In economic terms, if we stay within the Westminster straightjacket we can be ingenious, we can be clever, we can develop new schemes - but we are still within that straightjacket.

“That fact tells us that an independent Scotland will have the resources to invest in the economy and defend the services of the people.

“The only way to defend the social fabric of Scotland - to consolidate the gains from devolution, to make sure we can advance the social welfare of Scotland - is through Scottish independence.”

And he added: “Our job now is to persuade the people of Scotland that our future lies as an equal, independent member of the family of nations. And if we win the argument, we will win the referendum.”

Mr Salmond will address this issue more fully in his main conference speech when he will use the referendum deal to galvanise activists and send them out around Scotland on a two-year campaign of persuasion and canvassing.

But Mr Salmond also knows he has to use the conference to sort out the last remaining policy blip which he believes, if left unchanged, could undermine his attempts to portray his party as a sensible, moderate and responsible political group.

The SNP has long held a position of opposition to Nato and has an official policy of keeping an independent Scotland out of the western military alliance.

Aware that this policy has been seen by many in Scotland as left-wing, idealistic and impractical, Mr Salmond has decided to change it.

He and Angus Robertson, the SNP's defence spokesman, will lead the charge in a major policy debate tomorrow during which they will try to get the party's support for a pro-Nato policy.

Both Mr Salmond and Mr Robertson have insisted that an independent Scotland would remain firmly anti-nuclear and that Trident submarines would be banished from Scottish waters.

But they argue that Scotland could - and should - remain both part of the Nato alliance and anti-nuclear.

Attempting to win over the members of the strong but vocal minority who oppose the change, Mr Salmond declared this week: “An independent Scotland would be a good citizen of the world - and a good friend to our neighbours and allies. That is why, as Scotland prepares to take our place in the world, I believe that it is right that Scotland continues our Nato membership as a full member state of one of 29 - subject to an agreement that we will not host nuclear weapons, in line with the vast majority of current Nato members.”

Mr Salmond and Mr Robertson want an independent Scotland to appear co-operative and welcoming to the UK's existing allies and do not want to give the impression of being isolationist.

They are adamant that there is no conflict between remaining in Nato and forcing the UK to remove Trident from Scottish waters.

But Mr Salmond does have an internal fight on his hands. To counter it, he suggested writing a ban on nuclear weapons into the constitution of a independent Scotland.

And although this has some support among the ani-Nato lobby, it has not bought them off.

One of the critics is Cumbernauld MSP Jamie Hepburn. He described the non-nuclear clause in the Scottish constitution as “a great idea”, but he added: “It's not entirely relevant to the debate about whether or not we remain in Nato after independence.

“Are we against nuclear weapons just because they happen to be in Scottish territory or are we against them in principle?” he asked.

“Are they a mistake here but okay in Germany or Holland? Nato would continue to possess nuclear weapons through its other member states.”

Another anti-Nato MSP, Dave Thompson, said that he would expect the Scottish constitution to include a non-nuclear clause in it anyway and added: “It does not address the Nato issue.”

An amendment, tabled by Mr Hepburn and  calling for an independent Scotland to remain outside Nato has been signed by eight MSPs, a number of councillors and local party organisations.

These opponents are not expected to have the numbers necessary to embarrass the SNP leadership by defeating Mr Salmond's policy change but they are sure to turn the debate into a fiery and interesting session nonetheless.

Mr Salmond is hoping to get the Nato issue dealt with and changed tomorrow, leaving the stage clear for him to rally his activists for the independence campaign with his main address.