Nicola Sturgeon SNP conference speech: First Minister says time is coming for Scottish independence vote, but call for agreement on indyref2 ruled out immediately by Downing Street

A plea by Nicola Sturgeon for co-operation rather than confrontation between her government and that of Boris Johnson, in a bid to agree a second independence referendum, has been dismissed.

The First Minister made the appeal to the UK Government during her speech on the final day of a virtual SNP conference, but the Prime Minister’s official spokesman rejected the message before she had finished speaking.

In a speech that was pitched at firing up SNP members, Ms Sturgeon again reiterated her pledge that a “legal referendum” would be held in 2023.

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She said her approach to government and politics had changed in the light of the pandemic and the challenges faced, and was now “as far as possible, co-operation not confrontation”.

Nicola Sturgeon gives the virtual conference address

“So it is in that spirit of co-operation that I hope the Scottish and UK governments can reach agreement – as we did in 2014 – to allow the democratic wishes of the people of Scotland to be heard and respected,” she said.

"But, this much is clear. Democracy must – and will – prevail.”

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However, despite her appeal for consensus, she then threw out a challenge to Boris Johnson’s government, declaring the result at the May elections “an unarguable mandate to implement the manifesto we put before the country”.

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon at her home in Glasgow preparing her speech.

"And that is what we intend to do. It is called democracy,” she said.

Ms Sturgeon went on: “The United Kingdom is after all a voluntary union of nations.

"Until recently no-one seriously challenged the right of the people in Scotland to choose whether or not they wished to become independent.

"Frankly it is not up to a Westminster Government which has just six MPs in Scotland to decide our future without the consent of the people who live here.”

While Ms Sturgeon was speaking, a briefing for journalists in Downing Street was told by Mr Johnson’s spokesman the focus of all governments in the UK should be on Covid recovery and “now is simply not the time” to consider a referendum.

The spokesman said: “We’ve said this many times before, Ministers and officials across the UK Government departments are focusing on tackling the Covid-19 pandemic and supporting the economic recovery.

“Scottish people have been clear they want to see the UK Government and devolved governments working together to defeat pandemic, that’s our priority.

“Last week we announced further investment in health and social care across the UK, including £1.1 billion to Scotland by 2025, and we’ll continue to work closely with our Scottish counterparts.”

Downing Street also refused to back the idea of a referendum “in principle” as Michael Gove and Scottish Secretary Alister Jack have both recently done. Mr Jack said a vote could be held if support for staging a referendum was consistently running at 60 per cent.

The official said: “We’ve never set a position on that. We haven’t said any sort of target. Our view, as set out, is that now is simply not the time to be dealing with this.

“The public are looking to governments and leaders across the UK to focus on dealing with this ongoing pandemic and recovering the economy.”

Elsewhere in her speech to rank-and-file party members, Ms Sturgeon warned the “damage” being done to Scotland by Brexit, could be used by the UK Government to thwart arguments for independence.

Describing Brexit, along with a UK Government cut to overseas aid as “obsessions of the Tory right”, she said: “There’s a double whammy that Scotland must be alert to – and resist with all we’ve got.

"Westminster will use all that damage that they have inflicted as an argument for yet more Westminster control.

"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. They know – and are 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. For countries of Scotland’s size, independence works.”

However she admitted that independence would bring “challenges”.

"No-one is saying there won’t be challenges to overcome,” she said.

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

Responding, the Scottish Conservatives said Ms Sturgeon was developing a “nationalist Project Fear” and claimed the UK Government had delivered “the largest Scottish budget ever, a furlough scheme that saved over a million Scottish jobs, and a world-leading vaccination scheme that the SNP didn’t want to be involved in originally”.

Tory constitution spokesman Donald Cameron said: “This speech – another one headlined by independence – might work wonders with the extreme elements of the nationalist base. But it does nothing for Scotland.

“Only the most fanatical SNP supporters will buy Nicola Sturgeon’s wild conspiracy theory that the UK is trying to make Scotland poorer.

“Instead of focusing on the NHS crisis and protecting jobs, Nicola Sturgeon has invented her own nationalist Project Fear. To distract from the SNP’s domestic failings, she’s ramping up division.

“At some stage, Nicola Sturgeon is going to have to find something new to say."

Ms Sturgeon also said she believed Scots wanted political parties to find “common ground” and "a better way to do politics”, then criticised the Tory, Labour and LibDem parties in Holyrood.

"Instead of adapting positions that voters have rejected time and again, they are doubling down and expecting voters to adapt to them,” she said.

"These parties demonstrate no sign at all of learning the lessons or making the changes necessary to move from opposition to government.

“Which can lead to only one conclusion – they don’t aspire to be in government.”

She said this was "bad for democracy” and added: “Oppositions hungry to be in government are more effective. And effective opposition matters in a democracy, but that is not what we have in Scotland.

"Instead, on virtually every issue, we have opposition simply for the sake of opposition. It’s not about achieving or improving anything, or even holding power to account. It is just about blocking the SNP at any cost.

It is crude, it lacks principle or consistency and it is utterly counter-productive. The country deserves so much better than that."

However, Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar said Scotland deserved better than the “same old rhetoric, slogans, and platitudes” from Ms Sturgeon.

He said: “Nicola Sturgeon’s spin does nothing to tackle the levels of child poverty on our streets, the numbers waiting for treatment in our hospitals, and the depth of the economic crisis facing Scotland.

"We are up against a global pandemic, a growing healthcare crisis, a jobs crisis and a climate emergency – there is no time to waste.”

Pamela Nash, chief executive of Scotland in Union, said the speech was “full of grievance and bereft of ideas”.

She said: “As always, Nicola Sturgeon’s solution to everything is to break up our country.

"She is not listening to the majority of people in Scotland who do not want independence and do not want a second referendum any time soon.”

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