He came, he spoke, he conquered.  Despite having to clear his throat continually, fending off a cold.

He had MSPs dabbing their eyes, delegates cheering to the rafters, including the hundreds denied access to a full hall, watching it in the Eden Court cinema and huddled round screens in FIVE overflow areas.

This was the First Minister, master of all he surveyed and equal to the task.

One reckoned his speech had effectively fired the starting gun on the campaign to win the referendum.  And unequivocally, he set out, towards the end of his speech, that while full fiscal responsibility “could allow us to control our own resources, introduce competitive business tax, and fair personal taxation” it was not enough.

For “even with economic powers, Trident nuclear missiles would still be on the River Clyde, we could still be forced to spill blood in illegal wars like Iraq, and Scotland would still be excluded from the Councils of Europe and the world”.

Alex Salmond, First Minister of Scotland and leader of the Scottish National Party, announced to sustained applause and cheers that “this party will campaign full square for independence in the coming referendum”.

This was the most lyrical section of his speech.  It generated huge energy in the hall, had some in tears, reminded, as Fiona McLeod MSP was, “of the enormity of what we achieved in May.  We didn’t break the system in May, the Scottish people did, and it is good to be reminded of how momentous that was”.  The First Minister’s speech made her want to “come out of the hall, head straight for the train, and get out there campaigning”.

Jamie Hepburn MSP, meanwhile, reckoned the First Minister had laid to rest “all the murmurings about what independence means.  Which I think have been a deliberate distraction by some.  The First Minister set out clearly what it means and what the SNP will campaign on.  And that’s full blown sovereigny for the Scottish nation.”

It was a speech made less for the audience in the hall, and more for the audience out there in the country.  But it had some great lines and phrasing.  the First Minister acknowledged that “we have to take sides within Scotland, as well as taking Scotland’s side.  Particularly when times are tough we have to ask the rich to help the poor, the strong to help the weak, the powerful to help the powerless.”

Putting Scotland’s energy resources and potential firmly at the heart of the independence agenda, he highlighted BP’s announcement this week and made several of his own:  a new £18 million fund to support marine energy commercialisation, part of a £35 million investment over the next three years to support testing, technology, infrastructure and deployment of the first commercial marine arrays.  “The message is clear:  in marine energy, it’s Scotland who rules the waves”.

He framed the investment in and development of Scotland’s renewable energy potential as the “green re-industrialisation of the coastline of Scotland”  and termed it “central to our vision of the future”.

Within this context, he was scathing about the level of fuel poverty in Scotland “amid energy plenty” and promised a further 200,000 Scottish families access to energy efficiency measures by April 2012.  And he returned to a comfortable Nationalist narrative:  “London has had its turn of Scottish oil and gas.  Let the next 40 years be for the people of Scotland”, he boomed to loud cheers.

As Maureen Watt MSP commented afterwards, the First Minister “reminded us of the ambitions we had and still have for our country.  The SNP Government has been in power for four years – people have seen we can do things differently.  It has given Scotland a sense of control but also confidence in that we’re nae too poor, too stupid to run our country” – this last comment, of course, uttered in the Doric.

But the First Minister reserved his scorn, in passages which the conference audience lapped up, for the UK Conservative Liberal Democrat government, in a clear signal that he sees the fight over the independence campaign as increasingly personal for Scotland, pitting him against David Cameron.

First, he condemned the UK Government for forming a Cabinet sub-committee to attack Scottish independence, “working out how to do down Scotland” ignoring their responsibilities for economic recovery.  He targeted “Mr Cameron” several times:  “how little you understand Scotland”.

But he was at his most passionate when setting out his and the SNP’s agenda for the independence referendum.  It’s us against them, with Labour airbrushed out of existence.  It’s Scotland versus Westminster and warned “the days of Westminster politicians telling Scotland what to do or what to think are over.  The Scottish people will set the agenda for the future”.

And he finished by effectively firing the starting gun on the independence campaign, as one delegate styled it.  Rubbishing the UK Government’s approach to its own Scotland bill – “unloved, uninspiring, not even understood by its own proponents” – he attacked Westminster’s agenda of disrespect:

“… not disrespect to the SNP but a fundamental disrespect for Scotland.  The respect agenda lies dead in their throats.”

The First Minister concluded his speech by paying tribute to his party, its members and its activists:  “we stand where we do today because of generations before us, because of party workers and campaigners who never saw this day”.  And set out his and the SNP’s vision for Scotland:

“And we shall prevail – because we share a vision, A vision of a land without boundaries, Of a people unshackled from low ambition and poor chances, Of a society unlimited in its efforts to be fair and free, Of a Scotland unbound.”

The delegates are still bouncing with energy and dabbing their eyes now.

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