Page last updated at 17:34 GMT, Saturday, 17 October 2009 18:34 UK

Bomber compassion 'like Gandhi'

Salmond: 'Kenny MacAskill made the right decision for the right reasons'

Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond has compared his justice secretary's actions to the principles of Indian peace champion Mahatma Gandhi.

It comes in the wake of the decision to release the Lockerbie bomber.

Mr Salmond told the SNP conference it should be "proud" of Kenny MacAskill's decision to free terminally-ill Abdelbasset Ali al-Megrahi in August.

In his keynote speech, the SNP leader also set out his objective to boost the number of SNP MPs from seven to 20.

And he attacked his political opponents in Scotland for having the "effrontery" to block a 2010 independence referendum.

Sometimes, someone has to break the cycle of retribution with an act of compassion
Alex Salmond
First minister

Megrahi, the only person ever convicted over the bombing of Pan Am flight 103 over the Scottish town of Lockerbie in 1988, had been serving his sentence in a Scottish jail before his release.

He was released on compassionate grounds.

Mr Salmond told delegates in Inverness of a recent visit by Mahatma Gandhi's grandson, Arun.

The first minister told the conference: "One of the things he told me is that his grandfather's philosophy is much misunderstood.

"His resistance was not passive, but active. His dedication to non-violence a strength, not a weakness.

Brian Taylor
Brian Taylor

BBC Scotland Political Editor

There are, of course, a number of obstacles in Mr Salmond's path.

The SNP is only in play at all if there is a hung or exceptionally tight parliament, if they have enough MPs to make a difference and if other parties, such as the Liberal Democrats, don't cut a deal first.

However, that would be for the future.

This is primarily about tactics now.

"Sometimes, someone has to break the cycle of retribution with an act of compassion - that is what Kenny MacAskill did and we should be proud of him for doing it."

Mr Salmond went on to reiterate his goal for a block of 20 Nationalist MPs which would wield power at Westminster on issues affecting Scotland, in the event of a hung parliament after the next election.

Setting out a shopping list of demands, the SNP leader said his party would require the release of the £160m fossil fuel levy, which was "sitting frozen in a London bank account" and a speeding up of capital funds from the Treasury to Holyrood to aid economic recovery.

And the first minister said the £100bn cost of replacing Trident nuclear submarines was three-times the Scottish budget, and could fund the health service north of the border for 10 years.

Mr Salmond told a packed conference hall: "Each and every SNP MP elected next year will join each and every SNP councillor, MSP and minister, member and supporter in this greater project to make our nation the place we all know it can be.

SNP conference
Delegates were told the SNP was aiming for 20 MPs

"To improve quality of life and life chances of Scots young and old, to protect the people of our nation, strong and weak, and to be Scotland's voice, Scotland's party, north and south, east and west, in Holyrood and Westminster."

Mr Salmond went on to outline the SNP's achievements as the Scottish government, saying the minority administration has what it takes to lift Scotland out of recession.

He said ministers had frozen council tax, boosted police numbers and, with the backing of the Scottish Parliament, passed "world-leading" legislation to tackle climate change.

He announced a further 30,000 children would be lifted out of crumbling school buildings and into "first-class accommodation" by the end of the next school year, in addition to the 100,000 which had already seen improvements to their buildings.

No political party can long deny the right of the Scottish people to exercise self-determination and survive
Alex Salmond
First minister

And he said £7.5m would be spent replacing 710 defibrillators in Scotland's ambulance fleet.

Turning to his political opponents, Mr Salmond claimed Labour was arguing for more public spending, while the party was cutting it in London.

He said: "Labour in the Scottish Parliament are less of an opposition, more of a comedy routine - but would I change them? I like them just the way they are."

On the independence referendum - which the Scottish government currently does not have enough support to pass - Mr Salmond declared: "Let me say to the London parties in terms that leave no room for misunderstanding - Scotland's voice will be heard on the great issue of the country's future.

"Labour want a referendum on the alternative vote, the Tories want a referendum on Europe, the Liberals on everything else, but they have the effrontery to refuse the people of Scotland the right to speak on their constitutional future.

"Let this party be clear. No political party can long deny the right of the Scottish people to exercise self-determination and survive as a political force in Scotland."

Mr Salmond went on to conclude: "After 10 years of devolution, the time is coming for this next step forward.

"Because Scotland's got what it takes for independence and the real fight is for Scotland."

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