ALEX Salmond gathered his MSPs together last night after the final Holyrood session before the independence referendum and told them: “Go out and win.”
The First Minister gave SNP MSPs a private pep talk intended to boost their morale as they embark on the most intense political campaign Scotland has ever seen.
A team photo followed the rallying call from Mr Salmond, who reminded MSPs how far the modern SNP had come since Winnie Ewing won the Hamilton by-election in 1967.
According to MSPs at the meeting, the First Minister told his parliamentary party that in 1967 no-one could have possibly predicted that Scotland would stand on the verge of an independence vote in 2014.
During the 15-minute meeting, held in a committee room near the main chamber after parliament had risen to let the referendum campaign begin, Mr Salmond said SNP MSPs could take encouragement from what they had achieved.
He addressed his troops amid speculation that he would resign as SNP leader and First Minister should he fail in his bid to break up the United Kingdom on 18 September.
Mr Salmond has said he will continue in the event of a No vote, but others in the party believe defeat next month would mean the SNP’s future would be best served with the current Deputy First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, at its head.
The SNP meeting took place after the First Minister had spoken in a fiery Scottish Government-led debate on the country’s future.
The Nationalists’ majority at Holyrood ensured that the parliament backed calls for an independent Scotland by 61 votes to 47.
In a jovial mood, Mr Salmond urged his MSPs to secure the same result across Scotland, although he joked that if the referendum result ended up as 61 per cent Yes and 47 per cent No, “there would be questions asked”.
During the heated debate, Mr Salmond claimed next month’s vote was a “precious opportunity”.
The session also saw his opponents make the case for remaining in the United Kingdom.
Mr Salmond’s vision contrasted with his pro-Union rivals, who spoke of their pride at Scotland’s role in a Britain which had stood up to fascism during the Second World War.
There were also calls for all politicians to accept the outcome of the vote and work together, after two years dominated by division over Scotland’s constitutional future.
With less than 28 days to go, Mr Salmond hailed the referendum as the “greatest opportunity we will ever have” to achieve independence.
He set aside recent difficulties over currency and his North Sea oil reserve estimates to argue that leaving the UK would lead to a better and more prosperous Scotland.
Opening the debate, he described the referendum as a “very rare” and “very precious opportunity”.
He said: “Let’s use this occasion, this national debate, to celebrate our country, our people and our potential.
“Scotland is one of the world’s wealthiest nations; our GDP per head is higher than the UK as a whole, it’s higher than France, higher than Japan.
“We have contributed more in tax revenues per head of population than the rest of the United Kingdom for each and every one of the last 33 years.
“We have creative genius, we’re a nation of innovators, we have a brilliant manufacturing industry, we have a truly world-class food and drink industry, we have astonishing natural resources, huge potential in renewables and, yes, an oil and gas industry which will be producing many billions of barrels of oil for many decades to come.”
The Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont responded by saying it was vital for Scotland to agree on a settled constitution.
She said the country had been “on pause” over the past two years as arguments over the constitution played out, and she called for a new kind of politics to emerge after 18 September.
“It is incumbent on all of us to find a way through this debate without leaving us so damaged at the end that we cannot go back to democratic debate and policy,” she said.
“So I embrace the opportunity that this referendum presents – the opportunity finally to answer the constitutional question and agree among us the settled will of the people of Scotland.
“So, whatever happens on 18 September, Alex Salmond can claim this important legacy: that the question of Scottish independence will have been put to the Scottish people and they will have been given a fair opportunity to answer it.”
She called on both sides to accept the result. “If there is a Yes vote, I will accept it; if there is a No vote, I demand an equal commitment from the people on the other side of the chamber.
“We need another kind of politics. We need a parliament to mature, to do its job, to open up its thinking to the challenges facing people in the real world.
“We stand at an important moment in the history of our country, but the challenge for all of us in here is we cannot go back to the politics of the last few years.”
Ms Lamont said she believed in maintaining the Union with both her “head and her heart”.
The “head” arguments centred around the economy, jobs and pensions. “The arguments of the heart are every bit as strong. I believe in working in co-operation with our friends and neighbours, whether they are in Liverpool or Manchester, Belfast or Cardiff, Glasgow or Edinburgh,” she said.
Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson also invoked the record of the UK, including its overseas aid, contribution to scientific and medical research, and the role it has played in conflicts such as Kosovo.
She said she felt as though independence supporters wanted to take her “Britishness” away, “to tell me that it is bad or broken or wrong and throw it in the bin, and to give me something less in return”.
She went on: “I think, if you look around the world, we are one of the good guys, we are one of the countries that other people aspire to be like. I think we make a huge contribution to this planet, and I want to keep doing it, and keep doing it together.”