Salmond puts independence at the top of the agenda
The marathon enterprise, to be paid for by taxpayers, will enable the First Minister to appeal directly to the public, bypassing politicians at Holyrood who do not back his plans.
The scheme was unveiled as part of the First Minister's launch of his "national conversation" on Scotland's future, a process he hopes will involve as many people as possible.
Critics attacked the drive for independence as a "sideshow" and the plans for a nationwide campaign a waste of money.
Opposition politicians warned they would not take part in the "conversation" until Mr Salmond dropped his plans for independence.
But the First Minister declared: "Today is the moment when, as First Minister, I ask every Scot to pause and reflect not on the kind of country we are, but on the kind of country we could be, we should be.
"And today is the start of the most wide-ranging, inclusive, imaginative and direct effort from any Scottish government to engage with every person in this country, and furth of Scotland, who has a view on the future of our nation."
He admitted the process had so far cost 40,000, a bill that will only rise if his plans for roadshows and exhibitions come to fruition.
Pat Watters, the president of local-government body COSLA, criticised the use of taxpayers' money. "I see little relevance in this exercise for local government and the people we deliver valuable services to. Like me, I am sure they would much rather see money being spent on services," he said.
But Mr Salmond defended the move, saying: "I think determining a nation's future, the price of democracy, is well worth the cost."
With a majority of MSPs implacably opposed to independence, Mr Salmond's strategy is to appeal over their heads directly to the people, inviting them to get involved and influence the process.
He said: "The days of top-down government, government delivered from on high to an unsuspecting and compliant population, are over. This debate, one focused on the question of the next stage of self-government, demands the attention of every Scot."
Mr Salmond published a glossy 48-page document called "Choosing Scotland's Future, A National Conversation" which set out the possible options: the status quo, more powers for the parliament or complete independence.
Members of the public were invited to contribute to the debate, either by writing to the Scottish Executive, registering their views online or taking part in one of the roadshows, meetings and events - sponsored by the Executive - that will take place around the country over the next four years.
By last night, nearly 5,000 had viewed the document online, 1,800 had downloaded it and 168 had contributed to it.
Mr Salmond was very vague on how these responses would be analysed, assessed and reviewed, but was adamant Scots would want to take part.
It also became clear yesterday that he is now playing a long game on the question of independence.
Before May's election, he was determined to put the question of independence to the Scottish people in 2010, or at least before the 2011 election. Yesterday, he said he "hoped" to put the question to the people in 2010, aware that, with no parliamentary majority in his favour, he may have to work towards more powers for the parliament first, and only get a referendum on independence when he wins greater parliamentary support, possibly after the 2011 election.
The initial response from the other main parties was far from positive.
The Liberal Democrats wanted a lot more "clarification and explanation" of the process before they contributed to the "national conversation".
Nicol Stephen, their Scottish leader, said: "The SNP obsession with independence is a road-block to consensus.
"The white paper is a waste of taxpayers' money. It should be withdrawn. That would allow progress to be made on the campaign to gain more powers. The SNP should join the cross-party talks on more powers for the parliament."
Annabel Goldie, the Scottish Tory leader,
said: "Don't be fooled. This white paper is about independence. However it is dressed up, and however many bells, whistles and frills are attached, at its core is the SNP's separatist agenda.
"If Alex Salmond wants a conversation about devolution, he can join ours. We don't need a white paper to have a chat."
Cathy Jamieson, deputy leader of the Scottish Labour Party, said: "Conversation is fine, but we don't support independence. The people of Scotland don't want it, nor do we.
"No-one should be under any illusion; today's white paper is about breaking up the UK, not making Scotland better."
Long game is Salmond's master stroke
JACK McConnell was sometimes accused of lacking the "vision thing". No-one would make the same criticism of Alex Salmond.
Scotland's fourth First Minister has so much of the "vision thing" it colours everything he does.
That vision is obviously Scottish independence but it really only became clear yesterday how the Nationalist government is prepared to play the long-term game.
One of the most revealing snippets from Mr Salmond yesterday was his statement that he "hoped" to put his referendum to the people of Scotland in 2010.
Before the election that idea had been a commitment, now it is an aspiration.
In itself, that reveals that the First Minister is prepared to wait until conditions are most favourable before going to the country on independence.
Some unionists might feel relieved by this, confident that they would win a referendum on independence at any time, but this would be to grossly underestimate the skills of the SNP leader.
Mr Salmond and his aides have thought this through very carefully and they are confident they will be able to move public opinion sufficiently far to win the referendum.
They are already looking ahead to 2010 when their "national conversation" comes to an end. Consider that, by then, more than a million contributions have been received. More than half will probably be in favour of independence, but that will be a misleading figure - principally because everyone knows Nationalists will be more enthusiastic contributors than anyone else. But consider, also, that three-quarters of the contributors say they want a referendum to settle the issue and to decide whether the Parliament needs more powers.
This will put the opposition parties in a fix. They could keep going with their policy of refusing to have anything to do with Mr Salmond's referendum plans and uniting to defeat them at Holyrood.
But, if they did that, they would be going against the massive weight of public opinion with an election just around the corner.
Mr Salmond would be able to go into the 2011 election with an unhindered grasp on the moral high ground of Scottish politics.
He could go into the election asking for a mandate to hold a referendum on Scotland's future, pointing out that his political opponents are blocking the democratic rights and views of the Scottish population.
With such a weight of public opinion on his side, it is difficult to see the unionist parties fighting back - particularly when all three have agreed that some sort of review of the devolution settlement is now required.
Up until now, the Parliament has dealt with administrations content to deal with simple political fixes for Scotland's problems: they have thought in electoral cycles and monthly opinion polls. Now we have a government which is dealing with a much, much longer agenda.
The unionist parties thought they had isolated the SNP this week by ganging up against Mr Salmond's independence plans.
They had better get ready for the long game and start thinking what they are going to do when they are presented with a 1.5 million-contribution consultation paper in three years' time.
Otherwise they will have lost the war before they have even realised it has begun.
• ANYONE interested in finding out what really is at the core of the white paper on Scotland's future has to go right to the back of the 48-page brochure.
There, in annex B, on pages 44 to 48, is the bill which would authorise a referendum on Scottish independence.
The Referendum (Scotland) Bill is quite a striking document. Set out in legalese and parliamentary language, it specifies all the usual provisions for British plebiscites, from the roll fo the returning officers to the hours of polling.
But then, right in the middle, is the proposed ballot paper. Under the request: "Put a cross (X) in the appropriate box," there are then two statements.
The first is: "I AGREE that the Scottish Government should negotiate a settlement with the Government of the United Kingdom so that Scotland becomes an independent state."
The second is: "I DO NOT AGREE that the Scottish Government should negotiate a settlement with the Government of the United Kingdom so that Scotland becomes an independent state."
The first five-page chapter sets out the role and responsibilities of the Scottish Parliament, explaining how the devolution settlement has changed over the past eight years with the addition of new powers. These have been largely non-controversial, with Westminster handing over control of railway infrastructure, fireworks, food safety and the operation of power stations.
The second nine-page chapter deals with extending Scottish devolution, explaining which powers are still held by Westminster (national security, foreign affairs, monetary policy, broadcasting and benefits among others) and how Scotland could change.
Under sub-heads stating "A Stronger Scotland", "A Fairer Scotland", "A Greener Scotland", it sets out what the Executive claims would be the benefits of taking control.
The white paper then goes on to deal with the question of independence, setting out how Scotland would change and what benefits would flow from that.
It points out some potential problems - like the future of cross-border bodies like the UK regulators - but also jumps to some conclusions which are not agreed by experts.
It states that Scotland would continue to be a member of the European Union after independence, but even the European Commission has refused to take a view on that, realising that it is too difficult an issue to be decided now.
So, although the document has been drawn up by civil servants, it contains much of the SNP's pro-independence arguments; arguments which the SNP's opponents will undoubtedly take issue with during the "conversation".
The fourth chapter concetrates on the UK constitution as a whole, explaining how the constitution has changed.
It deals with legislation and referendums, providing the alternatives for Scotland: the status quo, more powers for the parliament or full independence, and how these could be achieved.
The final chapter sums up the ideas behind the national conversation and explains how members of the public can contribute.
But the white paper does not give any details of how the responses are to be assessed, what the timescale is for the consultation or when the Government intends to proceed with the bill.
McCONNELL SET TO GO TODAY
JACK McConnell is expected to stand down as Scottish Labour leader today. Mr McConnell, the First Minister between 2001 and this year's election in May, may well announce his decision after a meeting of the shadow Cabinet in Edinburgh.
His departure will spark a contest to succeed him, but Labour insiders expect only one candidate: Wendy Alexander, the former enterprise minister.
Ms Alexander, who considered standing for the leadership in 2001, already has a campaign team in place. She has the backing of several senior MSPs as well as the support of Gordon Brown.
Andy Kerr, the former health minister, and Margaret Curran, the former chief whip, are understood still to be considering their options but neither is expected to stand for the leadership.
There is some unease within the party over the prospect of a "coronation" of Ms Alexander but others want someone in place as soon as possible to mount an effective challenge to the SNP government.