NICOLA Sturgeon’s speech struck a bright note at the end of a conference which had seen a relatively muted three days.

While everyone was delighted to be gathering again in-person, there had been lack of major headline grabbing policy announcements, with the looming Supreme Court case seeming to have a dampening effect on the gathering.

But the hall was packed for Sturgeon addressing the close of the conference,in which she delivered a series of crowd-pleasing promises and statements.

With the cost-of-living crisis dominating the headlines, it was of little surprise that this was the first area in which the First Minister chose to make a new announcement.

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Following calls by campaigners, she said “bridging payments” for families with children receiving free school meals would double from £130 to £260 – emphasising this would bring vital financial help in time for Christmas.

With the Scottish Government recently facing a barrage of criticism over NHS waiting times, the second major announcement was the creation of two more “fast-track” cancer diagnosis centres in Borders and in Lanarkshire, with a pledge for one in every health board by the end of the current Parliament.

A big announcement for the future was kept until later on – a proposal to create an oil fund in Scotland which would deliver up to £20billion of investment in the first decade of becoming independent.

Sturgeon also took aim at the easy target of the chaotic first days of the new UK Government – saying it had taken the Tories just three weeks to realise Liz Truss was a disaster, compared to three years for Boris Johnson.

Continuing a theme of the conference, Sturgeon launched an attack on Labour and in particular, leader Keir Starmer’s stance on making Brexit work.

With Labour resurging in the polls, she said it was the same old party letting down Scotland, which was “willing to chuck Scotland under Boris Johnson’s Brexit bus to get the keys to Downing Street”.

In another swipe at unionist promises of the past, she said Scotland was not benefiting from the “so-called broad shoulders of the UK”.

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She reiterated a pledge “never to give up on Scottish democracy” - whatever the outcome of the Supreme Court case is.

There was an appeal to members to reach out to undecided voters and “move outside our ranks”.

And a big push to reassure those who are not yet persuaded listening in that independence would not mean “turning our back on the rest of the UK.”

There were plenty of references to the current tough times people have been through and are still living through, including that covid still poses a risk.

But there was also plenty of emphasis on the prospect of a brighter future ahead and the need for independence to deliver that.

The First Minister was keen to point out that independence was not a “miracle economic cure” – but that Scotland “can do so much better than this”.

She was greeted with applause and standing ovations when she attacked Home Secretary Suella Braverman for comments on her “dream” of seeing deportation flights to Rwanda and talked about the support being provided to Ukraine, while there was plenty of cheering of statements on the issue of independence.

She concluded with an uplifting message: “In tough times, let us inspire with hope in our hearts.

“Let us lift our eyes. Put our shoulders to the wheel and build a better future for this and generations to come.

“With optimism, confidence and determination.

“We can now finish the job. And we will.”

Sturgeon’s speech struck a balance between criticism and optimism, between hope for a brighter future and realism about the road to get there.

Now there will be some long weeks of waiting for the Supreme Court decision, to see whether a referendum can happen next year as planned.