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Alex Salmond, Scotland’s first minister, is seeking to widen support for independence by telling voters that a ‘Yes’ vote in September's referendum should not be seen as support for him or his Scottish National party.
Mr Salmond’s comments reflect a drive to broaden support for independence beyond traditional nationalist supporters – a task made more urgent by opinion polls that suggest the recent narrowing of the ‘No’ camp's lead may have stalled.
The SNP leader will tell the closing session of the SNP’s spring conference that the government of an independent Scotland might be led by the SNP, Labour or a coalition – but would not be under the sway of the Conservatives.
“A ‘Yes’ vote in September is not a vote for me, or for an SNP government in 2016,” Mr Salmond will say according to extracts of the speech released in advance. “It’s a vote for a government in Scotland that the people of Scotland choose, pursuing policies the people of Scotland support.”
“The era of unelected Tory governments handing out punishment to the poor and the disabled will be gone and gone for good,” Mr Salmond says.
Nationalist strategists say concern about the consequences of continued UK government by the Conservatives – who are deeply unpopular in Scotland – could sway many so far undecided Labour voters.
In a speech to the conference on Friday, Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland'’s deputy first minister, said independence would allow Labour supporters to take back control of a Scottish party that had become a “pale imitation” of the Tories and was “dancing to a Westminster tune”.
Ms Sturgeon said she had joined the SNP in the 1980s because of the damage she saw being done to her community by a Conservative government under Margaret Thatcher that was not supported by Scottish voters.
“Nearly 30 years later, the fabric of our society is again under threat from a government that has no mandate in Scotland,” she said, adding that even when Labour governed the UK, Scottish priorities did not prevail.
“For everyone out there with Labour in your heart, the message is clear: don’t vote ‘No’ to stop the SNP, vote ‘Yes’ to reclaim the Labour party,” Ms Sturgeon said.
The SNP’s spring conference, which marks the 80th anniversary this week of the party’s founding, is its last full gathering before the September 18 referendum and an important chance to build momentum for the ‘Yes’ campaign.
However, opinion polls carried out in the last few weeks suggest that a narrowing of the pro-union lead since the Scottish government released its vision for independence last November could have petered out, with the nationalists still trailing.
“The progress that the ‘Yes’ side made during the winter may, for the time being at least, have come to a halt," said leading psephologist John Curtice.
Analysts say around a third of voters who backed Labour in the last election to the Scottish parliament may vote ‘Yes’ and SNP strategists see promoting the social benefits of leaving the UK as a way of attracting more.
In her speech, greeted with enthusiasm by a full hall of party faithful, Ms Sturgeon stressed the SNP’s commitment to softening the impact on Scotland of Conservative welfare cuts, opposing privatisation in the National Health Service and maintaining free university education.
Pro-union campaigners say that Scotland’s devolved government already has considerable powers to set its own social policies and would gain more if it votes ‘No’ in September.
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