Salmond: Scotland “in an irreversible process of independence”

The latest news from day one of the nationalist knees-up in Inverness.

Scottish First Minister and leader of the Scottish National Party, Alex Salmond, yesterday opened his party’s annual conference in Inverness, declaring Scotland was “now in an irreversible process of independence, and closer to it than ever before”.

The conference, the last before the general election, comes amidst a sea of tricky headaches for the SNP administration such as a tough draft budget; accusations the Education Secretary, Fiona Hyslop, has backtracked on promises over classes sizes; and the decision by Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill to release the Lockerbie bomber, Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed Al Megrahi, on compassionate grounds and send him to a hero’s welcome back in Libya.

If Mr Salmond was feeling any pressure, he wasn’t showing it, giving a typically buoyant opening address, setting out an ambitious target to triple the number of MPs the party has at Westminster to 20 after the next election.

He said:

“Our objective is clear. By winning a platform of 20 Scottish National Party MPs, we can transform the terms of politics.

“I want a hung parliament because a Westminster parliament that is hung on Scottish votes will at long last swing in Scotland’s direction.”

Were his aspirations to be met, it could lead to the intriguing possibility of a party committed to the break-up of the Union as we know it could hold the balance of power in who forms the very same United Kingdom government whose legitimacy to rule they question.

Doubts, however, have been cast over how realistic the SNP’s goal of vastly increasing its representation at Westminster are, with an article by Lesley Riddoch in the Guardian pointing out the huge challenge the nationalists would face in reaching their targets under the first-past-the-post electoral system.

Despite such challenges, a recent Ipsos Mori poll for Holyrood magazine has the SNP leading all other parties just eight months out from the next election. What is more, the same poll sees 55 per cent of Scots satisfied with the First Minister’s leadership – up 18 per cent – compared with 40 per cent for David Cameron and 38 per cent for Gordon Brown.

Given such results, perhaps Mr Salmond can relish the fight he is now gearing up for against a future Conservative government unlikely to have increased much the one seat it currently holds in Scotland.

Meanwhile, Education Secretary Fiona Hyslop has used her conference speech to regain the initiative following accusations of a u-turn on class size numbers in the first three years of school and her decision to cut spending on teacher training. Speaking to delegate, Ms Hyslop announced that the Scottish Government would provide an extra £8.6 million to support an additional 3,000 students over the course of the current academic year.

Elsewhere, delegates at the conference passed a motion urging broadcasters to include the First Minister in any leaders debate in Scotland between Gordon Brown, David Cameron and Nick Clegg. Mr Salmond will give his keynote address to the party conference on Saturday, and Left Foot Forward will report on the key points that arise from his speech.

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