Nicola Sturgeon declared now is the time to be “serious” about Scotland’s future as she defended her plan for an independence referendum in the next parliamentary session.
The SNP leader said she has learned tough lessons during the deadly pandemic and would not jeopardise the return to public safety.
Ms Sturgeon stuck to her timetable on the constitutional question in the final instalment of our exclusive series of in-depth Holyrood leader interviews, speaking to the editor of The Courier, David Clegg.
The First Minister opened up about the “dark moments” of the past year, the challenge to bring the country back to “dry land” in the Covid crisis and her “hunger” for another term in office.
But with the Scottish election a week away, Ms Sturgeon’s twin focus on recovery and a referendum has provided ready-made slogans for opposition parties.
Polls suggest support for independence and the SNP has been pegged back and a majority for either hangs in the balance.
Ms Sturgeon said recovery and independence are linked but her experience of the past year frames the timetable.
“For as long as it takes, getting us through the acute phase of Covid is my absolute priority,” she said.
“Getting the recovery under way is absolutely, vitally important but when we get to a point where the crisis is behind us, it really matters that we get to choose what kind of future we want.”
She conceded there is a lot of work to be done across all levels of government, but added: “I’d rather be over-ambitious than under-ambitious, particularly at this moment in history where we’ve lived through this disruption that has made all of us think afresh about the kind of country we want.
“This is a moment to actually be serious about the long-term future of Scotland.
“But, first and foremost, we’ve got to secure the short-term future by getting safely on to that dry land.”
Asked when the right time might be, Ms Sturgeon explained: “Absolutely, we have to get and keep the virus under control. We have to get the vaccine programme completed.
“We need to get key building blocks of the recovery policy programme in place. That’s why I’ve said the first half of the term, assuming we can get all of these conditions met.”
Ms Sturgeon said it would be a requirement that people should “be able to go about their daily lives” before another referendum should be held.
Salmond is ‘a worry’
It’s not just opposition parties pouncing on the possibility of independence. The campaign has also been seized on by her former ally, Alex Salmond, who thinks Ms Sturgeon is being too slow on the path to a second referendum.
Ms Sturgeon said: “I worry a little bit, from the point of view of somebody who passionately believes in independence, about voices in this campaign making it sound as if it’s about gaming the system and getting supermajorities and bulldozing your way to independence.”
She said people who voted to stay in the union in 2014 would be put off by that attitude.
“I don’t think it is helpful to the cause of independence to be making a case for independence that seems to disregard the need to build a majority on the basis of persuasion,” she added.
Mr Salmond is standing on the North East list for his new Alba Party. He thinks a big majority including his candidates would force the UK Government’s hand, despite Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s repeated refusal to fold.
Everyone was feeling scared and I was feeling pretty scared as well.”
Ms Sturgeon, who is standing for re-election in Glasgow against Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar, has been forced to defend her record over 14 years of serving in government.
Last week the Institute for Fiscal Studies said the SNP, Labour and Conservative pledges were detached from financial reality.
Ms Sturgeon said she has repeatedly stood on pledges where costs were questioned, adding: “We thought very hard about the spending commitments we were making in our manifesto and we’ve grounded those in the Scottish Government’s medium-term financial strategy.”
She said the last year was “like no other” but it’s been good to get out on the road to meet people again.
Reflecting on the first days of the pandemic, Ms Sturgeon said: “Everyone was feeling scared and I was feeling pretty scared as well.
“I didn’t know exactly what was lying ahead. I didn’t know what the scale of it would be.
“I was looking at very frightening numbers and predictions about what might happen. Now, it’s been grim, but thankfully the full scale of what I was looking at then did not come to pass.”
It’s been gruelling, but Ms Sturgeon said she wants to see out another parliamentary term as First Minister.
“If I am given that job, yes, I will do the job I’m asking people to trust me to do – that means serving the term I’m elected for.”