Page last updated at 13:31 GMT, Saturday, 19 April 2008 14:31 UK

Salmond faces public questioning

Alex Salmond during the webchat
Mr Salmond said he aimed to have an independence referendum in 2010

Scotland's First Minister Alex Salmond has defended his party's record in its first year in power.

The SNP leader's comments came in a live BBC Scotland webchat, during his party's spring conference in Edinburgh.

Mr Salmond defended his government's record of supporting students, amid claims that a key pledge to scrap student debt had been dropped.

As the global credit crunch continues, Mr Salmond also criticised the Bank of England's response to the issue.

The conference came as the SNP prepared to celebrate its first year in minority government, after winning last May's Holyrood elections.

During the webchat, featuring questions from BBC readers, asked about the apparent dropping of the Nationalist pledge to get rid of student debt, Mr Salmond said scrapping the graduate endowment was a massive gain for Scottish students.

Alex Salmond and Brian Taylor during the webchat
Brian Taylor asked the first minister questions sent in by readers

MSPs voted to abolish the 2,300 fee in February, a move that will benefit about 50,000 students.

Mr Salmond said: "I acknowledge we can't do everything.

"We've made a huge substantial improvement in this direction, which has been welcomed across Scotland by every student."

A consultation on student debt, he said, was currently running.

He added: "There's certain things we can get through the parliament and there's certain things we can't."

The first minister also restated his aim to bring forward an independence referendum in 2010, even though the Scottish Government currently lacks enough parliamentary support for the move.

'Untenable position'

And he warned opposition parties that failing to support it may cause the issue to dominate the next Holyrood election campaign.

"The Westminster-based parties in the Scottish Parliament - the Labour, Conservative and Liberal parties - have said they're not in favour of allowing the Scots the ability to decide their own future in a referendum," he said.

"I think that's an untenable position.

"I'm absolutely certain that would become a huge issue, perhaps even the dominant issue, in the 2011 Scottish election campaign."

The first minister also detailed the potential logistics of the referendum paper, with three questions, and the possibility of it being held under the Single Transferable Vote system - where voters would list their preferences in order.

He said: "My preference would be to have 'Do you wish Scotland to become an independent country?'

"But the other parties said they wanted an option of an enhanced devolution proposal - so I was trying to be reasonable by saying they could have that on the ballot paper as well.

For nine months we've had little or no leadership from the Prime Minister in dealing with the credit crunch
Alex Salmond

"The idea that people in Scotland can't cope with deciding between three options is ludicrous."

When questioned on the economy, Mr Salmond turned his fire on the Bank of England.

He said it and the Financial Services Authority had been slow to react to the credit crunch, compared to the response of the European Central Bank and the American Federal Reserve.

"We're now nine months into the credit crunch and we're only now seeing emerging from the Bank of England a system for easing the problems in the financial sector," he said.

"That seems to me to be hesitation to the extent of complacency.

"The prime minister has been in America talking about world leadership but for nine months we've had little or no leadership from him in dealing with the credit crunch."

At the end of the webchat, Mr Salmond was asked the questions from readers "Why are you such a smug git? and "Why are you such a pompous oaf?"

The first minister responded: "I'll just have to agree to be myself - luckily that seems to be getting pass marks."


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