THE tone was set for a bruising election battle in Scotland yesterday as a series of SNP big hitters launched a concerted attack on their opponents, urging party members to "get stuck in" to the Westminster fight.
• The deputy first minister Nicola Sturgeon saved her most vitriolic comments for the 'murky corridors' of Glasgow City Council's Labour administration, and claimed the city 'deserved better'
As their spring conference drew to a close, the Nationalist front-bench sparked the SNP election campaign into life, accusing Labour of a "culture of secrecy" and a "fear of transparency" laid bare by the scandal surrounding disgraced Glasgow council leader Steven Purcell.
They attacked their opponents' "shameful politicking" over knife crime, laid into Labour's "cynical refusal" to back plans to impose a minimum price on alcohol, and claimed the Tories were "on the run" over spending cuts.
As the party battles against a poor start to the year that has seen it embroiled in rows over parliamentary lunches and support offered to a convicted criminal, First Minister Alex Salmond and his team looked to steady the ship, issuing a series of assaults and invoking traditional nationalist symbols to enthuse the delegates, many of whom were downbeat about the party's prospects.
Despite playing down his boast the SNP was on course to win 20 Westminister seats in the election,Mr Salmond called on members to go out and "get a Saltire over the constituencies of Scotland".
Other dividing lines were drawn by finance secretary John Swinney, who maintained Scotland could no longer afford to stay in "bankrupt Britain" and Nicola Sturgeon, who echoed Braveheart by urging the party faithful to win the election and "move the country closer to freedom".
Ms Sturgeon used her closing speech to issue a venomous attack on Labour's handling of the Steven Purcell scandal, telling delegates in Aviemore that a "very bright light" should be shone into the "murky corridors" of the Labour-controlled local authority. "Today a political cloud hangs over that great city," she said.
"And it is not because of the personal circumstances of an individual. It goes much, much deeper than that. It is because of a culture. A Labour culture of secrecy. A Labour fear of transparency."
She went on: "Council functions have been hived off, one after another, to arms-length companies. Accountability to the citizens of Glasgow is virtually non-existent. It often seems like the interests of the few are given more importance than those of the people who provide and use the services of the council.
"Concerns of opposition councillors and trade unions are arrogantly brushed aside. The great city of Glasgow deserves better than this. It is time to shine a light, a very bright light, into the murky corridors of Labour-controlled Glasgow City Council."
Ms Sturgeon also claimed Labour MSPs should be ashamed of themselves over their failure to back minimum pricing, a decision she said had more to do with "cheap party politics". And she accused the two main UK parties of conducting a "phoney war" over spending cuts, insisting Labour and the Tories were "two sides of the same coin" that could not be trusted to stand up for Scotland.
Earlier in the day, justice secretary Kenny MacAskill took the fight to the Nationalists' opponents on crime, deriding campaigns by Labour and the Tories to impose mandatory minimum sentences for carrying a knife. He claimed the parties were engaged in a counterproductive "bidding war" over who could appear toughest on knife crime.
He said: "If it was a simple bidding war we could go to 40, 440 or any number. But it's not about a bidding war. It's about doing what works."
And he joined the attack on Labour's alcohol policy, claiming: "Labour talk tough on the blade but fail to take action against the booze, and yet as we know, in too many areas, as night follows day, cheap drink is taken and mayhem follows. Labour should hang their heads in shame."
At that stage, Mr Swinney had already said to delegates that Scotland had subsidised the UK for decades, and Alex Salmond told the BBC the Tories were "on the run" after George Osborne's announcement that any incoming Conservative government would not impose a cut on the Scottish Parliament's budget for 2010-11.
"On this issue of the Scottish Government and local authority budgets for next year we have had evasion after evasion over the last few weeks," Mr Salmond said. "We have been pressing the issue extremely hard and it even looks like the Tories are on the run over it."
But the attacks drew withering responses from political opponents.
Labour health spokesman Dr Richard Simpson said: "Nicola Sturgeon's speech shows how she lacks judgment on the big issues. The SNP have not even been able to show that minimum unit pricing is legally competent."
A Labour spokesman added: "Nobody will take lessons about secrecy from a party that refuses to publish the medical evidence showing why Abdelbaset al Megrahi was allowed to go free, or who was slapped down by the Scottish Information Commissioner for routinely withholding information which should be placed in the public domain. I do not know how Nicola Sturgeon can make those allegations without going beetroot red."
Meanwhile, John Lamont, the Tories' community justice spokesman, said Mr MacAskill's attacks could not hide the fact that the SNP was "soft on crime".
"The majority of those caught carrying a knife do not go to prison," he said. "The Conservatives want anyone carrying a blade to go to jail – for at least two years. It's time the SNP stood up for the victims instead of pandering to knife-carrying criminals."