THE vice-president of the SNP, Alex Neil, was said last night by the party's chief executive to be apologising and withdrawing remarks comparing Shadow Scottish Secretary George Robertson to the Nazi collaborator Lord Haw-Haw.

Amid calls for Mr Neil to resign his party post and candidacy in Kilmarnock and Loudoun, he was summoned to a meeting with party leader Alex Salmond to explain the remarks.

However, Mr Neil added to the furore last night by denying that he was apologising to Mr Robertson. He told BBC Scotland television: ``I am not going to apologise to George Robertson. He is the one who should apologise to the Scottish people.''

Blaming misrepresentation of his original remarks in the media, he said he had never intended to call Mr Robertson a Nazi or a traitor, but was still accusing him of deliberately denigrating the Scottish people and sapping their morale.

He argued that the specific comparison with Lord Haw-Haw as a propagandist who undermined the confidence of his own people remained valid.

His controversial speech had won a standing ovation at the conference in Inverness, including personal congratulations from party president Winnie Ewing. However, most of the leadership remained seated and the subsequent reaction was one of embarrassment.

Mr Robertson was enraged last night on seeing television coverage of the reception the remarks received.

He said: ``This was a deliberately scripted, despicable attack and no perfunctory apology from this man will extinguish the insult to me and the people in Hamilton who elected me.

``Alex Neil is clearly unfit to be a parliamentary candidate and any decent party would

remove him immediately.'' Mr Robertson added: ``If the SNP think the matter is closed when senior members on the platform, including MPs, applauded that part of the speech, then they are in cloud cuckoo land. ``It certainly will not be closed in the mind of the Scottish people. The apology should come from everyone in the hall who applauded the speech. Nothing less than that and Mr Neil's removal from office will suffice.''

Mr Neil, a former Labour Party high-flier who arrived in the SNP via the Scottish Labour Party, left the meeting with Mr Salmond without comment. However, party chief executive Michael Russell said he was withdrawing the remark and apologising to Mr Robertson.

The SNP hierarchy, which has been anxious recently to distance the party from extreme rhetoric and anti-English sentiment, moved swiftly to defuse the row, hauling Mr Neil in within two hours and issuing the withdrawal and apology soon after.

After a tense meeting between Mr Neil and Mr Russell, the policy vice-convener emerged to state that he wanted to clarify the situation.

``I withdraw the analogy as it is open to misinterpretation. It was a joke misfired. If George Robertson has taken the remark as personally offensive then I apologise. It was meant as a political comment.

``Of course the question of George Robertson running down Scotland is a legitimate criticism which I and the SNP will continue to make.

``I believe that George Robertson also has an apology to make for his constant campaign to run down our undoubted ability to run our economy and our country successfully. As far as I am concerned this concludes the matter.''

It was, said Mr Russell, an amicable meeting at which Mr Neil had conceded that his remarks were a joke which had misfired.

The incident seriously detracted from the presentation of the SNP's new highly detailed economic agenda, on which Mr Neil was speaking.

He electrified an otherwise humdrum gathering by declaring: ``George Robertson reminds me of someone who was prominent during the war, a guy called Lord Haw-Haw.

``He was an Englishman employed by Nazi Germany with one sole task - to sap the morale of his own people and undermine their confidence. We in Scotland have a new Lord Haw-Haw.

``His name is George Robertson. When he tells us we cannot afford to be independent, just say to George - haw, haw.''

Mr Neil's speech was peppered with pauses for applause and he went on to say that Scottish Secretary Michael Forsyth continued to insist that a country rich in oil, gas, soil, people, skill, fish and food was so impoverished that it was left ``a mess of debt, the pauper of the Western world.''

He was embraced by party president Winnie Ewing, but the standing ovation in the hall was in marked contrast to the glum reaction of many senior figures on the platform.

Mr Neil, delighted by the reception he received from delegates, said afterwards: ``The point I am making is the very narrow one that Lord Haw-Haw tried to undermine his own country.

``There is no way I am saying that George Robertson is a Nazi. I made only the very narrow point about denigrating your own country. It would be mischievous for anyone to suggest otherwise.''

Kilmarnock and Loudoun MP William McKelvey, whose seat lies eighth on the SNP list of target seats, requiring a swing of only 7%, called for him to be dropped as candidate, while party election strategist Brian Wilson said he should be stripped of his vice-convenership.

Glasgow Maryhill Labour MP Mrs Maria Fyfe said Mr Neil's comments came hard on the heels of a ``grossly offensive'' and allegedly anti-English leaflet by Young Scots for Independence.

Mrs Fyfe said Mr Neil was unfit to be a party candidate and should be made to resign.

East Kilbride MP Adam Ingram, who earlier this week claimed an SNP branch newsletter had referred to him as the ``evil Lord Ingram'', also said Mr Neil should be dropped as a parliamentary candidate.

However, the mood in the bars and foyers of the Eden Court Theatre in Inverness was that Mr Neil had made a typically barnstorming speech and the row was grossly exaggerated.

The irony is that the SNP leadership has spent much time and energy recently trying to shed the image of anti-Englishness which it has generated in the past.