Nicola Sturgeon plays down chance of snap second vote on independence

Nicola Sturgeon chairs Forum meeting

Nicola Sturgeon has dampened her supporters’ hopes of a quick second vote on Scottish independence as she admitted that future tax rises could be needed to fund the country’s stretched public services.

The Scottish National party leader disclosed she could raise income tax revenues by freezing tax thresholds, reversing her current policy of cutting taxes for higher earners after she decided to link tax rates to inflation, so raising the threshold for 40p tax payers.

There were a series of other significant policy changes in her party’s manifesto: giving school headteachers greater freedom and more direct funding; ending a fixed target of 1,000 extra frontline police officers; reversing cuts in support for poorer students; and adding £500m to Scotland’s squeezed health budgets.

In a rally to launch the manifesto with 1,400 party activists, Sturgeon won rapturous applause when she referred to the quest for another early referendum within the next five years by stating: “I would like that – very much.”

But she immediately qualified that hope by warning that a vote may not be held until the 2020s and only if there was “clear and sustained evidence” that a majority of Scotland’s voters backed independence. SNP sources say that threshold would be polls showing 60% support for at least a year.

In a comment that could be interpreted as criticism of her party’s decision to pursue a referendum in 2014, when only a third of Scots said they would vote to leave the UK, , she added: “Setting the date for a referendum before a majority of the Scottish people have been persuaded that independence [is] the best future for our country is the wrong way round.”

With the SNP on course for a third consecutive Holyrood election victoryon 5 May, the manifesto made a series of spending commitments aimed at cementing its near insurmountable lead in the opinion polls.

It included pledges, many already announced, to double free childcare for three- and four-year-olds; investing £750m in raising poor attainment levels for children from deprived areas; a £600 maternity grant for new mothers; spending £200m more on social security; and setting a tougher target for cutting greenhouse gases at 50% by 2020 instead of 42% while at the same cutting air passenger duty in Scotland by 50% - risking an increase in aviation emissions.

Despite the manifesto stating that the SNP wanted to “re-elect” Sturgeon as first minister, even though she has never fought a Holyrood election before as head of the government, Sturgeon said the document “represents my job application”.

“I am asking the Scottish people to give me a personal mandate to implement these policies and make our country even better,” she said.

The manifesto, which featured Sturgeon very heavily and made little reference to her current ministerial team, disclosed the SNP will expect Scottish universities to cut entrance grades needed by poorer students to increase student numbers from deprived areas.

Reinforcing a wider theme of improving educational performance and opportunities, she added: “We’ve got to challenge our universities and some of that will be controversial along the way.”

Questioned about her refusal to follow Labour and the Scottish Greens by increasing the additional rate tax bands to 50p or 60p to help stave off Treasury funding cuts, she said it was wrong to penalise Scottish taxpayers by asking them to “write a cheque” to pay for Tory austerity.

The Institute for Public Policy Reform has estimated the current SNP policy would mean only an extra £300m for Holyrood by 2021, compared with £1.2bn under Labour plans or £950m under Scottish Green plans.

Sturgeon admitted the SNP could change tack on income tax by freezing future rates at their same level, rather than increasing them by inflation – a strategy that means higher rate tax payers will pay £177 less in Scotland next year.

“That extra revenue we would raise would be considerably higher than” raising it by inflation, she said.

With the latest unemployment figures showing Scotland’s joblessness rose by more than 2%, exceeding the UK average, the manifesto committed £20bn for new roads, upgrading rail lines and water pipe investment – a strategy that will increase Scotland’s borrowing and use of private financing.

In a further significant policy shift, similar to changes in England, she said the SNP would bypass local councils by increasing the direct funding of schools, giving headteachers money to raise attainment and set their own policies, and allowing schools to create “school clusters” and “educational regions” to decentralise management.

Sturgeon denied she was following the English academy model but said she wanted to “give schools more freedom to make the difference in their own learning environment”.

  • This article was amended on Wednesday 20 April to clarify Nicola Sturgeon’s remarks.

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Severin Carrell Scotland editor, for theguardian.com on Wednesday 20th April 2016 18.30 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010