Nicola Sturgeon will spearhead a renewed drive to build support for Scottish independence this summer, pledging to turn the 45% who voted to leave the UK in the 2014 referendum into “a strong and positive majority”.
To a rapturous reception from about 3,000 delegates at the Scottish National party’s spring conference in Glasgow on Saturday afternoon, the party leader and first minister cautioned supporters: “We will not achieve our dream of independence just by wishing that the outcome of the referendum had been different – or wishing that we could do it all again next week.”
With just seven weeks to go before May’s Scottish parliament elections, she said: “We will achieve independence only when we persuade a majority of our fellow citizens that it is the best future for our country.”
Insisting that the initiative, which will launch this summer, would not be an attempt to “browbeat” anyone, and that she still respected those who support the union, Sturgeon said: “I also know that many wanted to be persuaded in 2014, but ultimately didn’t find our arguments compelling enough. So we will listen to what you have to say.
“We will hear your concerns and address your questions and, in the process, we will be prepared to challenge some of our own answers.”
The first minister appeared to put the brakes on moves towards a second independence referendum at the party’s main conference last November by declaring that the Scottish government would hold fire until “strong and consistent evidence” emerged of a change in public opinion.
But on Saturday, directly addressing those who remain uncertain about leaving the UK, she said: “Patiently and respectfully, we will seek to convince you that independence really does offer the best future for Scotland. A future shaped not by perpetual Tory governments that we don’t vote for, but by our own choices and our own endeavours.That is how we will turn the 45% of September 2014 into a strong and positive majority for independence.”
With polling regularly indicating that more than half of Scottish voters will support the SNP in May’s Holyrood elections, Sturgeon promised not to take this for granted as she asked to be returned for a historic third term.
In another key announcement, she pledged not to raise the basic rate of income tax if the SNP was returned to power, saying: “I don’t think there’s anything leftwing about a competition over who can tax ordinary people the most.”
Speaking to a packed hall in Glasgow’s SECC, one of the only venues in Scotland big enough to contain the expanded SNP membership since the 2014 referendum, Sturgeon said: “Taxing the lowest paid doesn’t tackle austerity; it simply passes the burden of Tory austerity to the shoulders of those who can least afford it and that is not fair.”
It was “deeply wrong to give big tax cuts to the better paid as George Osborne is planning to do”, she said, adding: “We will not do that; our choice will be to invest more in our public services instead.”
From April 2017, Holyrood will be able to set the rates and bands of income tax for the first time. Scottish Labour and the Liberal Democrats have said that they would increase tax rates by 1p in the pound to pay for education.
Sturgeon said the Scottish government would set out its specific plans for income tax after next week’s budget, but promised “reasonable and balanced” decisions. “They will be fair to all taxpayers, they will be fair to our economy and they will be fair to our public services,” she said.
Sturgeon pledged to extend free school meals to children in nursery care, deliver superfast digital broadband to 100% of premises across Scotland and restore the Sure Start maternity grant cut by the Tories in 2010 , replacing it with an expanded maternity and early years allowance.
John Swinney, Sturgeon’s deputy and Holyrood election campaign manager, rallied the delegates as he opened the conference: “A couple of weeks ago, the prime minister came up to Scotland and talked about how much he feared an SNP victory in May. It seems the Tories don’t like having a government in Scotland which stands up to them. Now I think that’s good reason enough for us to get out there and campaign for a strong SNP victory.”
The new pro-independence drive comes at the end of a week which saw the release of the worst headline figures on Scotland’s finances for five years, fuelling critics to warn of the contrast between the rosy economic picture the SNP painted during the referendum campaign and the impact of the decline in oil revenues.
This article was written by Libby Brooks Scotland correspondent, for theguardian.com on Saturday 12th March 2016 17.23 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010