NICOLA Sturgeon has put Boris Johnson at the heart of her campaign to win another SNP majority at Holyrood and claim a mandate for an independence referendum, trashing the Prime Minister and his record on Covid.
In her closing speech to the SNP conference, the First Minister said the pandemic had shown how the PM and Westminster could not be trusted with Scotland’s future.
She said: “The Scottish Government hasn’t got everything right – far from it.
“But I doubt there are many people in Scotland who would have wanted Westminster to be more in charge of our pandemic response.
“In the depth of crisis, we have looked to and trusted our own government and Parliament to steer us through.”
Calling independence “essential” to the recovery, rather than the distraction her opponents claim, she said: “Who do we trust to rebuild our economy for the future?
“A Scottish government elected by us, accountable, outward looking, internationalist, and with Scotland’s interests at heart? Or Boris Johnson’s band of Brexiteers?”
In an extended attack, Ms Sturgeon also accused the PM of using Brexit to “fundamentally undermine” the Scottish Parliament with intrusive new laws, a tactic made plain by his recent gibe about devolution being a “disaster”.
She said she knew many voters wanted a stronger Holyrood instead of independence, but she said that was simply not on offer from Westminster.
“Far from it. They intend to take away powers our Parliament already has.
“So the choice for Scotland is pressing. Are we prepared to have the powers we voted for stripped away – at a time when we need them most?
“Are we prepared for our Scottish Parliament to be undermined and dragged down by Westminster? Or will we decide to make our Scottish Parliament independent?”
She said she would ask voters in next May’s election for the authority “for a legal independence referendum to be held in the early part of the new Parliament”.
She said: “Then, collectively, we can answer those fundamental questions I have posed today. Who is best placed to lead Scotland’s recovery and build a better future.
“Westminster governments we don’t vote for? Or independent Scottish Governments – of whatever party – chosen by us and with Scotland’s best interests at heart.”
The timing is crucial, as the midpoint of the next Holyrood parliament would be autumn 2023, shortly before the next scheduled UK general election when the possible arrival of a Labour government could upend a strategy based on demonising the Tories.
Ms Sturgeon made five references to Mr Johnson and Brexit, but didn’t mention Labour or Sir Keir Starmer.
Recent polls show Mr Johnson is hugely unpopular with Scots, while Ms Sturgeon enjoys high trust ratings.
Brexit, the cause Mr Johnson championed in the vote four years ago, is also disliked by most Scots.
Despite the divisions across society and within families caused by the 2014 referendum, Ms Sturgeon also said independence could unite Scotland.
Skating over lingering questions about the public finances and currency, she presented independence as essentially downside-free, saying it could be “good for all of us”.
She said: “The independence case is a powerful one.
“More and more people in Scotland are being persuaded by it. And I believe – passionately – that it is one with the power to unite.
“An independent country, where those of us who live here shape the future and work together to overcome our challenges, will be good for all of us.
“A country fairer and more equal than it is now will be good for all of us.
“An economy that provides greater job and income security will be good for all of us.
“A Scotland that is an equal partner with our friends in the rest of the UK and across Europe will be good for all of us.”
The First Minister also spoke about the personal toll the Covid pandemic had taken on her.
She said : “I don’t mind saying that these last nine months have been the hardest of my life.
“I’ve had many dark days and sleepless nights, struggling with the horrendous choices the pandemic has forced upon us.
“At times I’ve felt completely overwhelmed – as I’m sure many of you have.
“And I feel a deep sadness for the lives that have been lost.
“Not a single day passes that I don’t think of families who are grieving.”
Scottish Tory leader Douglas Ross said: “The rank hypocrisy from the First Minister on all fronts was galling. She now bends the truth on a daily basis.
“Nicola Sturgeon grandstanded about ‘fundamentally undermining’ the Scottish Parliament – the same Parliament that she has disgracefully ignored twice in the last month.
“She grandstanded about social security when the only people tying the Scottish Government’s hands are the SNP. They’ve handed powers back to the UK Government because they can’t deliver.
“She grandstanded about putting “independence on hold”, which would be a lot more believable if she didn’t launch a new Referendum Bill in September as a second wave of Covid was beginning.
“And all weekend she’s been talking up another divisive referendum next year while we’re in the middle of a pandemic. It’s completely out of touch with people across Scotland.
“Over the years a litany of SNP conference promises have flopped – from the Scottish Growth Scheme to the infamous Sturgeon Energy company – so I sincerely hope these new commitments materialise but I don’t have much faith that they actually will.”
Labour MSP Anas Sarwar MSP said: “Nobody should now be in any doubt – Nicola Sturgeon’s only priority is to further divide our nation at a time when we should be healing.
“Her obsession with independence – mentioning it over 20 times in her speech – is shameful when people are losing their lives and livelihoods.
“On the UK stage she pretends that she has paused the independence campaign to focus on the pandemic, but the truth is that indyref2 remains her top priority.
“We can’t come straight out of a pandemic and go straight into a divisive referendum. Instead we should be pulling our people together and rebuilding our economy, protecting jobs, fixing our education system and delivering an NHS that never again has to choose between fighting a virus or treating cancer.”
Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie said: “The First Minister has put independence first. Everything else that needs to be done in Scotland, the mammoth task of recovery in front of us, all of that will have to wait for years in the queue behind another referendum.
“People who need urgent NHS care, who’s future depends on our education system back getting back to being the best in the world or who are counting the down the days for mental health support on long wait lists can’t afford to wait years or endure more division.
“What the people of Scotland need in this period of intense uncertainty is a focus on recovery not referendums.”
Pamela Nash, chief executive of Scotland in Union, said: “This was a divisive, negative speech from Nicola Sturgeon who ignored the priorities of the people of Scotland.
“Holding a divisive second independence referendum in the ‘early part’ of the next Parliament would be reckless and irresponsible, when the entire focus should be on recovering from the pandemic.
“Voters want their politicians to focus on uniting us because we are stronger together and weaker apart.”