THE BLOG
22/10/2013 07:57 BST | Updated 22/12/2013 05:12 GMT

Salmond and the SNP Fire Up Their Engines

For Alex Salmond's part, he still clearly has his sights set on a debate with David Cameron, which would fit perfectly with a narrative of 'Scottish Government versus Westminster Government'. Only after Cameron has agreed to this, or else exited the debate altogether, will Salmond debate a "substitute" such as Alistair Darling.

As a morale-boosting rally for supporters of independence, SNP conference in Perth was clearly a major success.

In a barnstorming keynote on Saturday Alex Salmond told conference that this is Scotland's "independence generation". Coming after similarly crowd-pleasing addresses from John Swinney and Nicola Sturgeon on Friday, there is no doubt that delegates left with their tails very much in the "up" position.

Tails-up is one thing, but it's numbers up that the SNP and the wider 'Yes' campaign really need - the latest polling continues to show only around 25-30% support for independence. This conference set out a clear strategy for how they intend to boost this number: quite simply, contrast a popular Scottish Government with an unpopular UK Government.

The most crowd-pleasing lines in Perth focused on the unpopular measures that the SNP would repeal if they were governing an independent Scotland. Taking the Royal Mail back into public hands. Removing Trident submarines from Scotland. And of course, abolition of the 'Bedroom Tax'.

Alex Salmond's passage on the Bedroom Tax was particularly interesting, as he linked it directly to the Poll Tax introduced by the Thatcher government in the late '80s. This is an understandable tactic, as there is no doubt that the Poll Tax remains an incredibly emotive subject in Scotland. It is probably the single biggest reason for the Tories ongoing marginalisation in Scottish politics and is still a by-word for Tory-cruelty among many Scottish voters.

But will painting the Bedroom Tax as the heir-apparent to the Poll Tax be a successful tactic in persuading people of the need for independence? I have my doubts. Firstly, it will not affect anywhere near as many people as the Poll Tax. Secondly, Labour has also pledged to abolish it should they get into power. And thirdly, the Poll Tax was particularly despised in Scotland as it was introduced there before anywhere else in the UK. The perception that Thatcher's government used Scotland as a guinea pig for this most unpopular of taxes has never eroded.

Nevertheless, the SNP strategy is clear: paint the referendum as a straight choice between the popular policies of the Scottish Parliament - no tuition fees, free personal care for the elderly, protecting the NHS from privatisation - and the unpopular policies of successive Westminster governments. A recurring message in the keynote speeches was: if we can do this much with our limited powers, think what more we could do with FULL powers for decision-making in Scotland.

As an illustration of the extent to which this conference focused on contrasts with Westminster, it is notable that Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon mentioned the word "Westminster" 23 times in her speech. Sturgeon's address was particularly combative, warning that Westminster will "turn the screw" on Scotland unless it votes Yes. This may point to Sturgeon's likely role in the coming 11 months: as the Scottish Government's attack dog in chief.

For Alex Salmond's part, he still clearly has his sights set on a debate with David Cameron, which would fit perfectly with a narrative of 'Scottish Government versus Westminster Government'. Only after Cameron has agreed to this, or else exited the debate altogether, will Salmond debate a "substitute" such as Alistair Darling.

On Tuesday 26 November, the Scottish Government will publish its long-awaited White Paper on independence. Salmond says this will set out in detail both the "how" and the "why" of independence, while Sturgeon said it will "answer all your questions". Bold claims indeed.

The SNP still believe they can win this battle. They have a clear strategy and no shortage of soaring rhetoric to go with it. No one in the No campaign can afford to be complacent.