Scotland First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has closed her Scottish National Party (SNP) conference with a speech balancing pressure for another independence push with pledges to act on more down-to-earth issues such as health and childcare.
The three-day conference in Glasgow has laid bare differences within the SNP on whether to seek an early second referendum that could allow Scotland to become independent before the UK leaves the EU.
In her closing speech, Sturgeon won cheers by suggesting that another plebiscite could come soon if the UK government continues to push for a hard Brexit that would take Scotland out of the EU single market.
“The time is coming to put Scotland’s future in Scotland’s hands,” the first minister said.
Sturgeon also drew applause by unveiling a de facto diplomatic push that would see Edinburgh appoint new trade and investment officials across Europe.
Scotland could not trust UK ministers to tell EU partners that it was open for business, she said.
She told party members at the SNP Conference in Glasgow: “Let me be crystal clear about this – Scotland cannot trust the likes of Boris Johnson and Liam Fox to represent us.
“They are retreating to the fringes of Europe. We intend to stay at its very heart where Scotland belongs.
“We are in a completely new era … a new political era and a new battle of ideas … a new era for our parliament, with new powers and responsibilities, and a new era for our relationship with Europe and the wider world.”
But aides said the tough language did not mean Sturgeon was committed to a second referendum, which more cautious members fear would lead to a defeat that would be disastrous for the independence cause.
The SNP leader herself sought to shift some of the political spotlight away from constitutional issues, telling members the key word of her address was “inclusion” rather than “independence”.
Sturgeon said Scotland could retain access to the European single market after Brexit.
“I think that is possible,” she said.
‘Access’ to the single market is a confusing term, as all countries anywhere in the world have access to Europe’s markets.
But to sell goods there with no tariffs whatsoever currently compels European countries to accept free movement of people too, something the UK government seems certain must come to an end.
Sturgeon said would “publish proposals over the next few weeks” on how Scotland could remain in the single market, which could include a second referendum on independence.
“We are going to work with others across the political divide to avert a hard Brexit not just for Scotland but for the whole UK,” she said. “I don’t believe there is a mandate to take the UK out of the single market and I don’t believe there is a majority in parliament.”
She said that Scotland retaining single market membership if the UK did not would “not be straightforward or without challenges.”
But, she added: “In the unprecedented circumstances we’re in just now, I think there’s an obligation on all of us to try to work out solutions that will allow the vote in Scotland to be respected, just as I understand that Theresa May wants the vote in other parts of the UK to be respected.”