SNP shrugs off attack on `dark side of nationalism'

Labour's pre-emptive strikes miss targets as campaigners for Welsh and Scottish independence open conferences in confident mood

For the second time this week, Labour yesterday attempted to upstage a rival conference when party leaders in Scotland accused the Scottish Nationalists of stirring up extremist, violent nationalism.

On the eve of the SNP's annual gathering in Perth, George Robertson, the shadow Secretary of State for Scotland, said nationalist leaders were revolutionaries "fuelling the dangerous, crazy nationalist fringe". In a leaked memo, published in the Scotsman newspaper, Mr Robertson argued that by describing Labour MPs as "tartan traitors and unionist "Uncle Toms", the SNP "top brass" was fomenting "the darker side of nationalism".

In the past year, Mr Robertson said, he and other prominent unionist politicians across Scotland had received death threats from so-called tartan terrorists, fighting for independence. "The SNP publicly stands back from these extremists but the fact is that the fringe exists and feeds on the rhetoric and prejudices of some prominent nationalists in public life ... We need to to make people aware of the darker side of nationalism," he said.

The intervention came three days after Tony Blair forced Paddy Ashdown on to the defensive on the opening day of the Liberal Democrats' conference by using an interview with the Times to call for increased Labour/Lib Dem co-operation. But this time Labour's spoiling tactic backfired.

Nationalist leaders ridiculed Mr Robertson's "cheap and crude smear". Opening the party's conference, Alex Salmond, the SNP leader, dismissed Mr Robertson's comments as a bad joke. "Voters find this offensive. They know that we have a 60-year record of impeccable democratic politics. Scotland has nationalist extremists but guilt by association is pretty cheap. I don't know whether George still describes himself as a socialist. Stalin was a socialist. But I don't go about saying George Robertson adopts the same tactics as Stalin."

Meeting in a city represented for the first time by a nationalist after Roseanna Cunningham's victory in the Perth and Kinross by-election in May, delegates were in buoyant mood yesterday. Support for the SNP is at its highest level since the 1970s.

Nationalist leaders said they would use the conference as a "launch pad" for the general election. Following his decision to use Mel Gibson's new film Braveheart, which tells the story of the 13th-century Scots nationalist leader William Wallace, to win new recruits, Mr Salmond unveiled a "Brave Hearts and Wise Heads" campaign. He said the SNP had won the emotional argument for independence, with up to 40 per cent of Scots expressing support. But it had failed to convince enough ordinary Scots to vote for SNP in general elections. The party would use the conference to persuade voters that an independent Scotland would be better off by up to pounds 200m a year.

"The job of this conference is to put forward the `head' part of the `heads and hearts' campaign," he said. "The economy will be the main battleground of the next general election. We need to win the economic argument for independence."

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