SNP leader Alex Salmond has unveiled plans to reduce the number of Scottish police forces, as public spending cuts take hold.
The first minister told his party's conference the country was facing "the most ferocious series of cuts witnessed in our lifetimes".
And he said that, if it came to it, he would put "bobbies before boundaries".
The SNP is seeking a second term in office after next May's Scottish Parliament elections.
Ahead of Chancellor George Osborne's Spending Review on Wednesday, the SNP administration warned more than £1bn could be cut from next year's Scottish budget.
Scotland has about 17,000 police officers in eight forces and the SNP says about 25% of the policing budget is spent on headquarters functions.
Mr Salmond told delegates in Perth: "If it comes down to a choice between cops and bureaucracy, between bobbies on the beat and the boundaries of police authorities, then for me it's simple - it's policemen first, safety first, communities first - bobbies before boundaries."
The first minister said the SNP had achieved much to help communities during its first term in office, including freezing council tax and cutting crime to a 30-year low.
But he added that Scotland needed full financial powers and independence to build the economy and escape the "Westminster straightjacket" of low growth and cuts.
Mr Salmond said that, as the storm clouds gathered, his first duty was to protect the people of Scotland.
He went on: "On Wednesday, the Tory Chancellor, cheered on by his Liberal deputy, will announce the most ferocious series of cuts witnessed in our lifetimes.
"There is nothing to be gained from sugar-coating this - it will be hard, it will be deep and it will hurt.
"It risks ripping the social fabric of our nation."
The SNP has already committed to extending the council tax freeze, in force since the party came to power, beyond the next election.
Mr Salmond announced every Scottish government-controlled wage packet, including those in the NHS, would meet a new "living wage target" of £7.15 an hour - matching an earlier pledge set out by Scottish Labour leader Iain Gray.
He went on to say that former STUC head, Campbell Christie, would chair a commission into public services - and announced that the Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz had agreed to advise the government on Scotland's economic future.
Turning to his political opponents, Mr Salmond blamed Labour for creating the financial crisis and accused the Tory-Lib Dem coalition of making it worse.
Recalling a newspaper article describing the first minister and his cabinet team as "the magnificent seven", Mr Salmond pondered: "I was thinking what film title would work for Labour's Holyrood team.
"The Night of the Living Dead? And as to their leader? It has to be, The Invisible Man."
Turning to the Tories, Mr Salmond defended universal policies, such as scrapping prescription charges, and decried what he called the "eBay approach".
He told members of the SNP party faithful: "Slap a price on everything and haggle your possessions away - to that I say no.
"Mr Cameron - hear me now and hear me well. Scotland is not for sale."
Mr Salmond told delegates it was time for Scotland to control its own economic destiny, adding: "Either Scotland stays in the Westminster straitjacket of low growth, public sector cutbacks and blighted futures - or we take responsibility and change our circumstances for the better."
The SNP dropped its plan for an independence referendum bill because of a lack of political support, but is now seeking to make it a central issue of the next Scottish Parliament election.
"The referendum we wish to have is first and foremost a jobs referendum," said Mr Salmond.
"The independence I seek is the independence to create jobs. The powers I wish for us all are powers to protect us all.
"This is not an arcane question removed from the people - it is the people, you and me, and how we protect our society and grow our economy."
Rallying party supporters ahead of the election, Mr Salmond declared: "I know where we are going - I am the first minister of Scotland and I intend to continue to be the first minister of Scotland.
"Not because I have all the answers, but because I have the absolute commitment, the experience and, above all, that sense of national purpose."