SNP says hard Brexit could trigger referendum

Nicola Sturgeon has closed her Scottish National party‘s 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, Ms 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. 

Ms 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. 

But aides said the tough language did not mean Ms 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”. 

She announced a shift of funding in Scotland’s National Health Service toward primary care provided by general practitioners that would leave them with 11 per cent of the frontline NHS budget from under 10 per cent now. 

In a move intended to improve access to childcare for pre-school children, Ms Sturgeon said the Scottish government would adopt a new approach of allowing parents to choose a qualified nursery or childminder and then ask the local authority to fund it. 

She also announced a “root and branch review” of policy on children in state care, saying that only 6 per cent of those who came out of the care system went to university, nearly half would suffer mental health issues. 

“Worst of all, and this breaks my heart, young person who has been in care is twenty times — twenty times — more likely to be dead by the time they are 25 than a young person who hasn’t,” she said. 

Such pledges alongside Ms Sturgeon’s promise of a major rethink of primary and secondary education mark an implicit recognition of shortcomings in the SNP’s near decade in power. 

The first minister said her “defining mission” was to improve attainment in primary and secondary education and to close the gap between richer and poorer pupils. In pursuit of that goal, her government has announced plans to reintroduce standardised testing, give headteachers more control over their schools and direct funding toward pupils from deprived backgrounds.

The CBI big employers’ lobby hailed Ms Sturgeon’s focus on educational attainment and childcare as “vital ingredients” for the economy’s long-term health. 

“Placing inclusive growth at the centre of the Scottish government’s domestic agenda will be welcomed by businesses,” said Hugh Aitken, CBI Scotland director.

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