NICOLA Sturgeon closed her party's conference with a message to people in Scotland that Boris Johnson's Westminster government is "utterly terrified" of Scottish independence.

The First Minister, who was making her address online because of the pandemic, told Scots that "independence works" as she listed numerous small nations prospering in the European Union.

And she warned voters of the negative impact – including food shortages – that Brexit was already causing to the nation and said such damage may get worse.

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She described the decision to leave the EU as originally as an "obsession" of the Tory right, which was now the party's mainstream belief and one which was "imposed on Scotland completely against our wishes".

Addressing conference delegates and viewers across the country, she said Brexit is "now the defining article of faith for the hard-liners" in charge of the UK Government.

"Against Scotland’s will we have been taken out of the EU and the European single market," she said.

"The obsession is now so dominant in Tory ranks that they imposed a hard Brexit right in the midst of a global pandemic – when people and businesses were at their most vulnerable. It was an unnecessary and unforgivable act."

She added: "And the impact is now being felt. The short-term damage is all too real.

"Brexit is a direct Tory hit on some of Scotland’s key strengths. Our world-leading food and drink sector has been knocked for six. Our brilliant universities have been damaged. Manufacturers face increased costs. The impact on daily life is becoming clear.

"There are already shortages of some foods – yes, really, food shortages in one of the richest countries of the world.

"That is what this Tory government has done – and there may yet be worse to come ... So the short-term costs are very clear – and they are very bad. But even greater damage will be felt in the long-term."

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She then went on to consider the longer term risks presented by Brexit including decline in trade and falling working population before warning: "Westminster will use all that damage that they have inflicted as an argument for yet more Westminster control."

She said: "By making us poorer, they’ll say we can’t afford to be independent. By cutting our trade with the EU, they’ll say we are too dependent on the rest of the UK. By causing our working population to fall, they’ll say the country is ageing too fast.

"They want us to believe we are powerless in the face of the disastrous decisions they have taken for us and the damage those decisions is doing. They want us to look inwards not outwards."

The First Minister said Westminster would drive forward such negative messages because they were "utterly terrified by the prospect" of Scotland becoming independent. 

"They know – and are utterly terrified by the prospect – that when we look outwards we see all around us the evidence right there in front of our eyes. The evidence that independence works," she said.

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"That when we look outwards we see all around us the evidence right there in front of our eyes. The evidence that independence works.

"For countries of Scotland’s size, independence works. Our neighbours in north-west Europe are wealthier than the UK. 

"All of them. They are more equal than the UK. They have lower levels of poverty. They have higher productivity, which drives better living standards. All of them recovered better from the financial crash of 2008."

She added: "They have stronger public finances. As a proportion of pre-retirement wages they all have higher pensions. And of course they all get the governments they vote for. In measure after measure the evidence is overwhelming and conclusive – independence works. It works for Denmark, for Ireland, for Austria, for Norway, for Finland - and for so many others beside.

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"These are disparate countries with different resources and economies. But independence works for all of them."

She went on to say that "with all our resources and talent it will work for Scotland too" and that it was up to her party to show the people of Scotland how.

The First Minister's speech came almost a week after she revealed that civil servants are to work on a new prospectus for independence ahead of a new referendum which she wanted to take place by the end of 2023, so long as the Covid crisis has passed.

She told conference she wanted to make sure that people had a "fully informed" choice when the matter of Scotland's constitutional future was put to them.  

"No-one is saying there won’t be challenges to overcome. We will set those out openly and honestly. Nothing will fall into our laps. But, like all countries, we face challenges whatever path we take," she said.

"The question is this: which option – becoming independent or being governed by Westminster – equips us best to meet these challenges.

"The choice facing people in Scotland has never been clearer."

She added that in the spirit of co-operation she hoped the Scottish and UK governments can reach agreement – as it did in 2014 – over the holding of a new vote.

But she warned if co-operation was not forthcoming from the UK Government "democracy must – and will – prevail."