NICOLA Sturgeon dramatically put the fight for Scottish independence at the centre of the SNP’s election campaign yesterday, saying she will renew her arguments for the cause and is “confident” her party can persuade a majority of Scots to support it.

The First Minister made the announcement as she launched her fight for her party to remain in power at Holyrood after May, arguing she believed independence offered the best future for Scotland. Opening the New Year debate in the Scottish Parliament her comments prompted cheering and clapping on the SNP benches.

“Of course, I believe today as strongly as I ever have that independence is the best future for our country,” she said. “That’s why in the months to come we will also lead a renewed debate about how the enduring principle of that case, that decisions about Scotland are best taken by people who live here, is relevant to, and demanded by, the circumstances of the world we live in today.”

Sturgeon added: “We will make that case positively and powerfully and we will do it in a realistic and relevant way and in doing so I’m confident that over the next few years we will build majority support for that proposition.”

Her intervention was the most significant reaffirmation of her party’s commitment to independence since the September 2014 referendum which was lost by 45 per cent to 55 per cent. However, since then support has grown for independence with opinion polls suggesting the split is now around 50 per cent each way.

Last year former First Minister Alex Salmond said a second referendum was “inevitable” and could be triggered by the Tory Government’s continued austerity agenda, plans to allow only English MPs to vote on English legislation, or a British exit from the European Union, following a referendum on membership due before the end of next year.

While SNP MSPs yesterday applauded the First Minister’s commitment to independence, the Scottish Labour and Conservative leaders rounded on her arguments.

Labour’s Kezia Dugdale said while the SNP was focused on trying to gain independence, standards were weakening in frontline services, including health, education and policing.

She also claimed it was not clear what the SNP stood for, claiming it was Labour who cared most about education, welfare and issues such as housing. “The [SNP] stands for independence. We know that. We respect that.

“But what else? Who in Scotland do they stand with? What do they stand for? Who do they stand up to?” Dugdale said in her speech responding to the First Minister.

“On the bedroom tax, on the living wage, on the education gap, on the social care crisis, on living rents, on fairer tax. Every time we have pressed them, pushed them.”

With polls suggesting a significant win for the SNP in May, Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson turned on Labour in a move that signalled her ambition for her party to become the main opposition at Holyrood.

She criticised Labour for being “naive” on Scottish independence after some Labour candidates were revealed to have voted for independence. “I am not as naive as the Labour Party leader,” Davidson said.

“The SNP must be held to its pledge to guarantee there will be no second referendum for a generation, and I will never apologise for standing up for the Union. And – unlike with some parties – I can assure people that that goes for every Scottish Conservative candidate.”

Davidson rammed home her pitch for the Tories to become the second party by blaming Labour for the increase in strength of the SNP since 2007. “The Labour Party has had nine years – and six leaders – since this SNP Government came to power to act as a competent and effective official opposition, with all the extra parliamentary time and resource that entails.

“And in those nine years, they have comprehensively failed in the only two duties an official opposition has. They’ve failed to hold the Government to account and they’ve failed to put forward a positive alternative vision for our country. I stand ready to do both.

“I think something in Scotland needs to change, and if the electorate doesn’t change the Government in May, they should consider changing the official opposition.”

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