ALEX Salmond yesterday set the SNP the ambitious target of winning more than a third of Scotland's seats at the next general election, saying he wanted to make Westminster to "dance to a Scottish jig".
The First Minister believes the SNP could hold the balance of power at Westminster after the next election and he told his party to aim high and take 20 seats from both Labour and the Liberal Democrats.
Mr Salmond used a rousing speech to the SNP's spring conference in Edinburgh to stress his belief that the SNP could wield real influence in Westminster for the first time since 1979.
He said: "We are moving into a period where the balances of power can be fundamentally changed. Last year I charged the party to win 20 new seats in the new Scottish Parliament. Some said it couldn't be done. You did it; we are the government."
And he added: "Now I am charging the party to build a Scottish block of at least 20 MPs in the Westminster parliament, people ready, willing and able to defend our parliament and our people. If we can achieve that, then all the Westminster 'Noes' will suddenly becomes 'Yeses'. We can make Westminster dance to a Scottish jig."
Mr Salmond believes that there is likely to be a hung parliament following the next general election, with no party able to form an outright majority government.
In that scenario, an SNP block of 20 MPs – maybe even working with Plaid Cymru and possibly the Ulster Unionists to take the total to 30 or more – would have influence and would be able to extract policy commitments in return for keeping one of the bigger parties in power.
A spokesman for the First Minister stressed afterwards that the SNP was not looking for formal coalitions, but would be willing to trade support for policy commitments on an "issue by issue basis". The SNP has just six MPs at Westminster at the moment. It would need a swing of at least 14 or 15 per cent to take another 14 seats in 2010, which is when experts expect the next election to be called.
Angus Robertson, the SNP's chief election strategist, refused to name his target seats yesterday, but it is understood that Dundee West, Ochil and South Perthshire, Stirling, Argyll and Bute, and Edinburgh East are high on the SNP's most-wanted list.
But elections expert Professor John Curtice warned that Mr Salmond's 20-seat goal would be very hard to achieve.
He said: "The most recent poll which gave the SNP its best Westminster figures, by Market Research UK, put the SNP and Labour on even-stevens.
"But to get 20 seats, the SNP would need to be ahead, and Labour and the Liberal Democrats would need to be plummeting at the same time. It's a tall order."
Mr Salmond was cheered repeatedly by delegates in the small but packed hall at Heriot Watt University yesterday for his annual spring conference speech.
He stressed the achievements he said the SNP had delivered in its first year of government, from cutting the cost of prescriptions to abolishing tolls on the Forth and Tay bridges.
The First Minister defended his party's controversial local income tax plans, claiming it would be much fairer for more low-income Scots than the combination of the council tax and the Treasury's decision to cut the 10p tax rate.
He also answered Gordon Brown's argument that it was wrong to push for independence in an increasingly interdependent world.
Mr Salmond said: "The reality of the 21st century is that the processes of independence and interdependence are one and the same.
"As our world becomes ever more interconnected in terms of trade, international relations, the environment and security, the case for nations having a voice at global level becomes ever more compelling.
"It is by becoming independent that nations can maximise their influence in our interdependent world."
It was a bullish performance by a First Minister buoyed up by a year in government and ready to continue pounding opponents who have had trouble challenging the SNP in any meaningful way over the past 12 months.
It was a speech designed for the party activists, and the several hundred who came to Edinburgh clearly enjoyed it, giving Mr Salmond a tumultuous and sustained standing ovation after his 40-minute address.
Mr Salmond ended by warning the UK government not to bully the Scottish Government.
"The more that Westminster tries to lay down the law north of the Border in clearly devolved areas, to bully the Scottish Parliament, the greater the support there will be for independence and equality for Scotland," he said, to enthusiastic applause.
The SNP will seek to build on Mr Salmond's rhetoric by launching a major campaign offensive next month, even though there is not scheduled to be an election of any sort in Scotland before the 2009 European elections.
The Nationalists will send out nearly one million leaflets promoting the work of the Scottish Government and asking for feedback.
The aim is to build up the party's database ahead of the 2010 general election, allowing party strategists to target voters with as much precision and as much success as they did in the 2007 Scottish elections.
Pressure grows for commission to look at independence
WENDY Alexander is facing increasingly strident demands from inside the Labour movement for independence to be considered by the flagship commission that is reviewing the devolution settlement.
The Scottish Labour leader has championed the Scottish Constitutional Commission, and has been adamant it will not consider the possible merits of independence.
But now Steven Purcell, the Labour leader of Glasgow City Council, has admitted that his council will table submissions to both the commission and the rival "national conversation" on independence, set up by the Scottish Government.
It also emerged yesterday that the Public and Commercial Services Union will call this week at the Scottish Trades Union Congress in Inverness for the commission's remit to be widened to include independence.
The union's motion is particularly embarrassing for Gordon Brown, the Prime Minister, who will address the conference later today and who has given his backing to the commission but is firmly opposed to it discussing independence.
Mr Purcell, who was on Ms Alexander's leadership campaign team, said it was "legitimate" to consider independence as part of a review of devolution. "Post-devolution Scotland will always have a debate about the parliament, about the future and, yes, it may possibly include independence," he said.
A Scottish Labour spokeswoman said: "The vast majority of Scots have constantly rejected independence, therefore the commission will focus on reviewing the settlement within a UK framework."