| 7.8°C Belfast

Salmond: It is time to say Yes


Scotland's First Minister Alex Salmond.

Scotland's First Minister Alex Salmond.

Scotland's First Minister Alex Salmond.

Scotland's First Minister addressed the final party conference before the country's independence referendum and declared it was "time to say Yes".

With voters in Scotland to decide the country's future in just over five months time, Alex Salmond insisted the momentum was with those campaigning to leave the UK.

"This is our moment to be a beacon of hope," he declared.

"In September it is time to say Yes."

He said the eyes of the world would be on Scotland when the referendum is held on September 18.

Mr Salmond said after that crucial vote has taken place "let's keep the eyes of the world on Scotland, not to see how we are voting but to watch in admiration at what we are building, building a new and better country".

He branded the campaign to keep Scotland in the UK as "the most miserable, negative, depressing and thoroughly boring campaign in modern political history."

Mr Salmond told the SNP spring conference in Aberdeen: "They are already out of touch with the people and are now losing touch with reality."

In contrast he hailed the campaign for independence as being "positive, uplifting hopeful" and said it "must always stay that way".

The First Minister said: "That is the basis on which we will win this referendum and our country's independence."

He told the conference: "Make no mistake - momentum is with this campaign. The people are coming towards us."

Mr Salmond told activists that the vote on whether Scotland should stay in the UK was not about the SNP or about him.

"This referendum is not about this party, or this First Minister, or even the wider Yes campaign," he said.

"It's about putting Scotland's future in Scotland's hands."

He added that a Yes vote was "not a vote for an SNP government in 2016", the year Scotland could become an independent nation.

Instead he said it was a " vote for a government in Scotland that the people of Scotland choose, pursuing policies the people of Scotland support".

Independence would bring about a Scottish Government that was "in control of tax, the economy, social security, employment, immigration, oil and gas revenues, European policy and a range of other areas currently under Westminster control", Mr Salmond said.

He added: "That may be the SNP. It may be Labour. It may be a coalition."

But with the Tories having just one MP north of the border, he said an independent Scotland would not produce " a government led by a party with just a single MP in Scotland".

Mr Salmond declared: " In an independent Scotland we can give this guarantee - the era of Tory governments unelected by the people of Scotland handling out punishment to the poor and the disabled will be gone, and gone for good."

Part of his keynote conference speech was aimed at persuading more women to support independence.

The SNP leader vowed to "transform childcare", saying: "High quality, universal childcare and early learning for all of Scotland's children, that's the independence pledge."

He told how leaving the UK would give the Scottish Government the "power to enforce the Equal Pay Act".

He also said that as an independent Scotland would aspire to having women make up 40% of company board members, the Scottish Government would "practice what we preach".

With just two of the the eight Scottish cabinet members currently female - Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and Culture Secretary Fiona Hyslop - he announced two female ministers were being promoted.

Shona Robison, the minister with responsibility for equality, will join the cabinet and will also be given a pensioners' rights brief. Angela Constance, the youth employment minister, is also being made a cabinet member and will take on responsibility for work training.

"These appointments underline our commitment to equality, to pensions and to helping the young people of Scotland into the workplace," Mr Salmond said.

The new expanded Scottish cabinet will therefore have 10 members, of whom four will be female.

To loud applause, he pledged to end housing benefit reforms that have been branded the "bedroom tax" and to remove Trident nuclear submarines from their base on the Clyde if there is a Yes vote.

"In the first year of an independent Scotland we shall abolish the bedroom tax," Mr Salmond said.

Meanwhile on Trident, he vowed: "A Yes vote in September is a vote to remove these weapons of mass destruction from Scotland once and for all."

Mr Salmond said that was a "cast-iron guarantee".

He told the conference: "I n September, the people of this wealthy country will face a choice between two futures.

" One future is to put our faith in Westminster. In a system where the five richest families own more wealth than the poorest 12.5 million people. Where charities are warning of a 'poverty storm engulfing Scotland'. Where families with children need emergency food aid."

But the First Minister said: "These aren't reasons to put our faith in the Westminster system. These are reasons to get rid of the Westminster system."

With the independence referendum now less than six months away, the First Minister repeated his challenge to David Cameron to take him on in a debate.

"Prime Minister, we can drum up a crowd for you in Scotland," Mr Salmond said. "All you have to do is say yes to a debate."

He referred to the debates between UK Independence Party leader Nigel Farage and Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg over whether or not the UK should remain in the European Union.

He said to Mr Cameron: "What can you possibly be frightened of? Just think how well your deputy did debating UKIP.

"And if the fourth and fifth parties in Scotland can have a TV debate, then why not the First Minister and Prime Minister.

"So let us at last have that debate about the future of this country, in a proper, open and democratic way. And let us agree to do it now."

The First Minister said that if there was a Yes vote in the referendum the "real work" would begin, as he revealed independence negotiations with Westminster would start within days.

Mr Salmond said a cross party " Team Scotland" negotiating group - which would include non-SNP members - would be set up.

This group, he said, would " secure expertise from across the political spectrum and beyond and indeed from Scotland and beyond".

He told the conference: "T hat group will begin negotiations with Westminster before the end of September.

"The discussions will be held in accordance with the principles of the Edinburgh Agreement. That means with respect and in the interests of everyone in Scotland and indeed the rest of the UK.

"The campaigning rhetoric will be over. The real work will begin."

Responding to the First Minister's speech, former Liberal Democrat leader Sir Menzies Campbell said: "All we have heard today is more of the same from a party who seem reluctant to answer the big questions over what independence would truly mean for Scotland.

"The one thing the polls show is that the majority of Scots want to stay as part of the UK family with a stronger Scottish Parliament.

"Most Scots want to see us build on the successes of devolution and secure new powers for Holyrood. That is what Liberal Democrat Home Rule plans would mean for Scotland. A positive vote to stay in the UK will help us deliver the change that people really want to see."

The Scottish Conservatives said Mr Salmond had "failed to provide voters with the real facts and costs of separation".

Party chief whip John Lamont said: "Experts said Alex Salmond must deliver the speech of his life today, but he fell far short of appealing to people beyond die-hard Nationalists.

"This was what we have become used to from the First Minister - full of assertions and repeating the same, tired divisive rhetoric of how everything is Westminster's fault.

"It was gripe and grievance politics without giving the people of Scotland the real facts or costs about independence."

They also accused the First Minister of making a "cynical" bid to woo women voters.

Mr Lamont added: "Alex Salmond knows he has a problem appealing to half of the electorate, but women can spot a dodgy chat up line when they hear it.

"He has had seven years to do something about childcare, but he is only now interested in the issue because he thinks there are votes in it for himself."

Labour's shadow Scottish secretary, Margaret Curran, said: "No one will be taken in by Alex Salmond's speech. Nothing is more negative than his message that Scots should break up the country we have built over three centuries and turn our back on our neighbours.

"Women will see through his cynical attempts to win them over. Women's rights have improved during my lifetime because of, and not in spite of, Scotland being part of the UK.

"Labour led the way on delivering rights for women. Now even Salmond's own officials admit that he has no policy on childcare and his figures don't add up.

"The message to the people of Scotland is clear. Vote no and you have a chance of getting reality back rather than this drivel from Alex Salmond."