Scotland politics

SNP conference: Alex Salmond says independence is a 'natural' next step

SNP leader Alex Salmond has urged Scots to grasp the chance of independence, describing it as "the most natural thing in this world".

The first minister told his party's conference that while Scotland's devolved government could "demand", an independent one could "deliver".

He also said "Home Rule with independence beats Tory rule from Westminster, any day".

The SNP wants to hold an independence referendum in autumn 2014.

Mr Salmond also made a pledge that his government would introduce a new Children's Bill which would enshrine in law the right to more than 600 hours free nursery education for every three and four-year-old in Scotland.

He told the Glasgow conference it was the "best package of free nursery education on offer anywhere in the UK".

Mr Salmond also delivered a sustained attack on Labour, saying the party had aligned itself with the Conservatives.

The SNP leader told delegates in Glasgow that, in government, his party had delivered for Scotland through policies like protecting health spending, keeping education free and encouraging companies to do business there.

This, he said, had come against a backdrop of UK government spending cuts and almost universal opposition from Labour to the policies of his party.

Mr Salmond demanded the Westminster coalition get behind the SNP's plans for economic recovery in Scotland, telling the conference: "In devolved Scotland we can demand - in an independent Scotland, we can deliver."

He went on: "On international representation, why would we wish to be isolated and ignored in Europe when we could be influential and respected."

On Trident nuclear weapons, currently based on the Clyde, Mr Salmond said: "On defence, why would this nation of five million people elect to waste billions on weapons of mass destruction, when we still have thousands waiting for a decent home and a life chance?

"Independence means real security.

"Westminster would spend on weapons which could destroy the world - Scotland should spend on social provision which could be the envy of the world."

Mr Salmond said most of the 10 countries which had joined the EU in 2004, many of them smaller than Scotland, had become independent, winning seats at Europe's top table.

He went on: "A right they cherish - a right Scotland too should embrace.

"Because being independent is the most natural thing in this world."

Turning his sights to the UK government, Mr Salmond claimed Prime Minister David Cameron had attempted to interfere with the running of the independence referendum at the start of the year.

Track record

He said the days of politicians in London telling Scotland what to do "were over", adding: "We should of course thank the prime minister - after his intervention SNP membership has surged, up over 2,400 in the weeks that followed.

Mr Salmond went on: "This support will continue to rise, because home rule with independence beats Tory rule from Westminster - any time and any day."

Turning to Labour, the first minister said his rivals had a track record in the Scottish Parliament of trying to block boosting apprenticeships, freezing council tax and increasing police officer numbers.

He said: "The only consistent thing about Labour in Scotland is that they now vote with the Tories at every opportunity.

"That is why the people of Scotland now vote against Labour at every opportunity."

Turning to May's local government elections - where the SNP wants to win control of Glasgow City Council from Labour - Mr Salmond said voters had the chance to call time on the party's "local fiefdoms".

He added: "And if there is any place that needs relief from a Labour Party that has lost its way, it is this city of Glasgow."

The first minister, who said the SNP's priority was creating "jobs and opportunities", also used his conference speech to announce £5m of funding to help an extra 2,500 young people into the world of work, focussing on volunteering opportunities at the various international events Scotland is hosting in the next few years.

These include the Ryder Cup golf tournament at Gleneagles and Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, both in 2014.

The Scottish government previously pledged to offer every unemployed 16 to 19-year-old in Scotland a work or training place.

Mr Salmond also announced a £10m fund to help modernise sports facilities across Scotland, from community hall renovations to multi-purpose sports fields.