Nicola Sturgeon has launched a thinly-veiled attack on Alex Salmond as she marked the start of the SNP’s campaign for May’s Scottish Parliament elections.
“I don’t have much time these days for the ‘who’s up/who’s down” approach to politics,” the first minister said in a pre-recorded address as she reflected on leading Scotland throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.
“And I definitely have much less patience for those who treat politics like a game – and for indulging anyone who puts self-interest ahead of the country’s best interests.”
He insists the move will not harm the fight for Scottish independence and is designed to build a “super-majority” for a second referendum.
But Ms Sturgeon said last week that now was “not the time to gamble” with Scotland’s future and added there were “significant questions” about her former mentor’s return.
The dramatic development comes after Mr Salmond’s recent battles with the Scottish government, led by the first minister, over its handling of harassment allegations against him.
Ms Sturgeon has promised to push ahead with her plans for a second independence referendum if the SNP wins a majority in May’s elections.
Critics of the first minister’s renewed drive for independence say the SNP’s focus should be on the pandemic and recovering from that.
But Ms Sturgeon said the independence push is “not a distraction” from recovering from COVID – and the real gamble is “leaving our future in Westminster’s hands”.
“I believe Scotland’s recovery should be in Scotland’s hands,” she said.
“Independence is not a distraction from recovery. It is essential to secure a recovery that is made here in Scotland and based on the values the majority of us subscribe to.”
Ms Sturgeon added that securing independence is “about putting Scotland’s recovery from COVID in Scotland’s hands”.
“In this election I am asking you to re-elect me as first minister – to lead us through and out of this crisis, and then on to recovery,” she said.
“We must focus – first and foremost – on the difficult decisions that are still needed to make sure we don’t give COVID the upper hand again.
“We have come too far to slip back again – so we must not take our eye off the ball.
“But this campaign is also an opportunity to think about, and debate, the kind of country we want to build after the pandemic.”
Discussing the situation with the virus generally, the first minister said coronavirus “is down and we have much more reason now to be hopeful for the future”, but it is “not yet out”.
“The sacrifices we are all making – each and every day – are saving lives,” she said.
Ms Sturgeon also criticised Boris Johnson’s initial recommendation of a 1% pay rise for NHS staff, saying: “I knew we had to do better here in Scotland.”
Health service staff in Scotland are being offered a pay rise of at least 4%.
And on the prime minister’s reported assertion that “capitalism” and “greed” are behind the success of the UK’s vaccine programme, Ms Sturgeon said she “couldn’t disagree more”.
“The success of the vaccination programme is not down to greed – it is down to the brilliance of our scientists and the magnificence of our National Health Service,” she said.
The first minister announced in her speech that her government, if re-elected, would set up at least one new fast track cancer diagnostic centre in every health board area.
And on the Scottish Child Payment – a payment of £10 per week currently given to low income families for every child up to the age of six – Ms Sturgeon promised bridging payments for all children under the age of 16 until the extension to cover that age is introduced at the end of 2022.
But Ms Sturgeon said she wanted to go further and “end the scandal of child poverty”, describing it as a “driving mission”.
“So I can confirm that if we are re-elected on May 6, we will – over the course of the next term – increase the Scottish Child Payment from £10 per week for each eligible child to £20 per week,” she said.
Responding to the speech, Liberal Democrat campaign chair Alistair Carmichael, said the first independence referendum “completely occupied the bandwidth of the Scottish government in the run-up to 2014”.
He added: “Every single civil servant who is working on an independence bill is one who could be working on the recovery from the pandemic so for the first minister to claim that independence is not a distraction is clearly baloney.”
Douglas Ross, leader of the Scottish Conservatives, said: “Nicola Sturgeon’s conference speech ultimately all came down to one single issue – the SNP’s obsession with another, divisive, independence referendum.
“When all our focus should be on rebuilding Scotland, the SNP are intent on dividing Scotland all over again.”