Alex Salmond greets party delegates
Alex Salmond, leader of the Scottish National Party, reacts after delivering his speech to delegates at the party's spring conference

Striving to boost support among women for Scottish independence, Alex Salmond has announced the promotion of two more female ministers to his cabinet and promised action to increase their representation on company boards.

In a confident and upbeat speech to his Scottish National party spring conference, Scotland's first minister defied opinion polls showing a pro-union lead ahead of September's referendum even as he sought to reach out to still sceptical segments of the electorate.

All the momentum was with the nationalists, he told an enthusiastic crowd of SNP faithful at the party’s last gathering before the referendum, adding mockingly that the Better Together pro-union campaign was struggling.

“The more the people of Scotland hear the case for ‘No’, the more likely they are to vote ‘Yes’,” he said. “They are the most miserable, negative, depressing and thoroughly boring campaign in modern political history.”

SNP strategists say they are increasingly confident support for independence is growing, despite polls that suggest a narrowing of the pro-union lead has stalled.

Headline conference speeches by Mr Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon, deputy first minister, aimed both at firing-up activists and widening the appeal of independence.

Voters should not see a ‘Yes’ vote as support for the first minister or Scottish National party, Mr Salmond said. “It’s a vote for a government in Scotland that the people of Scotland choose, pursuing policies the people of Scotland support.”

He announced that two women, equality minister Shona Robison and youth employment minister Angela Constance, would be made full members of the Scottish cabinet, leaving it 40 per cent female.

The appointments will sharpen the contrast with female representation in the UK cabinet, where only three out of 22 ministers are women.

Despite making better childcare a central plank of their vision for post-independence policy, polls suggest the SNP is still struggling to build support for independence among women. One survey this week found 52 per cent of men said they would vote yes, but just 35 per cent of women.

“In an independent Scotland we will want our companies to aspire to at least 40 per cent female participation on their boards,” Mr Salmond said. “The Scotland we are seeking to build will be an equal Scotland”.

Margaret Curran, Labour’s shadow Scottish secretary, dismissed Mr Salmond’s speech as drivel.

“Women will see through his cynical attempts to win them over,” Ms Curran said. “Women’s rights have improved during my lifetime because of, and not in spite of, Scotland being part of the UK.”

Independence activists have been buoyed by what they see as a pro-union campaign unable to match their grassroots activity and criticised even by some of its own supporters for being overly negative.

Nationalists have seized on comments from George Robertson, a former Nato secretary-general and Labour defence minister, who warned in a speech in Washington this week that Scottish independence would be “cataclysmic in geopolitical terms” that would be welcomed by the “forces of darkness”.

Pro-union campaigners were “already out of touch with the people and are now losing touch with reality”, Mr Salmond said.

Better Together insists it has an effective campaign machine that is targeting key undecided voters and that it is not negative to expose the failings of what they say are sketchy and unrealistic SNP promises for an independent nation.

Sir Menzies Campbell, Liberal Democrat member of the UK parliament, said Scots did not want independence, but greater devolution that would follow a ‘No’ vote.

“All we have heard today is more of the same from a party who seem reluctant to answer the big questions over what independence would truly mean for Scotland,” Sir Menzies said.

Nationalist strategists say concern about possible continued UK government by the Conservatives - who are deeply unpopular in Scotland - could sway many undecided Labour voters.

On Friday, Ms Sturgeon 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”.

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