Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “Alex Salmond says independence means a ‘first-class ticket’ for Scotland” was written by Severin Carrell, Scotland correspondent, for The Observer on Sunday 21st October 2012 00.22 Europe/London

Alex Salmond has accused Labour of forging a destructive alliance with the “Lord Snooties” of the Tory party to undermine the welfare system as he seeks to galvanise his party for a difficult, two-year campaign to win independence.

In a combative speech at the Scottish National party conference in Perth on Saturday, Salmond said that both Labour and the Tories had become allies in a “death-grip programme” to roll back the social and political gains of devolution.

He claimed that only independence could protect and build on those gains, which had seen Scotland introduce free care for the elderly, free prescriptions and free university places – policies now being threatened by the Tories and Labour.

In one of a series of quips at the expense of chancellor George Osborne, who on Friday was chastised for refusing to pay for a first-class train ticket, Salmond said: “Westminster would put this first-class nation in the second-class carriages. No more second best for Scotland.”

The first minister, in a comparatively sober message to party activists, began his speech by conceding that the independence campaign faced a challenge in convincing a majority of Scots to support leaving the UK. He said their task was to convert support for greater devolution into support for independence.

“What we strive for as the government of a devolved Scotland, we can achieve as the government of an independent Scotland,” he said. “With devolution, day after day, year after year, we can take small steps forward, when what Scotland needs is bigger, bolder strides. It is time for Scotland to move up a gear.”

Earlier last week, as Salmond signed a historic deal with David Cameron in Edinburgh to hold an independence referendum in late 2014, a series of opinion polls disclosed that support for independence has slumped to about 30%, with opposition growing to 58%.

He attempted to reposition the debate about independence by staking out a claim for the votes of the majority of Scots who support greater devolution instead of independence, who would vote to increase the Scottish parliament’s powers while remaining in the UK.

Salmond said the independence movement had to persuade those voters that leaving the UK would deliver those greater powers, while defending devolution and Scotland’s social democratic traditions against attacks from the pro-UK parties.

Several times in his address, he sought to redefine the independence referendum as simply one step on a longer journey. “We seek independence for a reason. It is not for me. It is not for this party. It is for new opportunity for every person in Scotland watching today. Independence is about family and future. It is for a more equal Scotland, the opportunity to change our nation for good,” he said.

Earlier Salmond’s opponents in the pro-UK Better Together campaign had released their own polling data, gathered by YouGov, which they said showed a “lack of confidence” among supporters of independence.

The poll found that although 31% of Scots supported independence – a figure which is very close to three other negative polls on independence last week, only 16% of voters “strongly supported” independence. The remainder “tend to support” it. By contrast, 37% of the 56% of voters who opposed independence “strongly” opposed it.

Johann Lamont, the Scottish Labour leader, said Salmond was talking “nonsense” by claiming Scotland would “at a stroke be better off with independence when he knows it would push costs up”.

Under Salmond’s plans, an independent Scotland would allow the Bank of England to control its interest rates and monetary policy, while failing to explain how free personal care and a council tax freeze could be funded as costs escalate in future.

“This is a man who believes in cheap slogans but won’t fund the policy behind them,” she said. “Alex Salmond won’t end the nonsense because he can’t be straight with the Scottish people.”

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