Nicola Sturgeon rejects claims over 'brainwashed' SNP supporters
Nicola Sturgeon has hit back at accusations that SNP supporters are "brainwashed" as parties kick-started campaigning for this year's Scottish Parliament election.
Scotland's First Minister said the suggestion was "profoundly insulting" in an opinion piece setting out her priorities in the run up to the vote on May 5.
The SNP leader also pledged to "lead a renewed debate" about independence, despite calls from Labour to move on from constitutional wrangling in the wake of 2014's referendum.
Ms Sturgeon will lead a New Year debate at Holyrood on Tuesday pledging to "earn the right" to an unprecedented third term in government.
She has promised a raft of new policies on health, education, social security and the economy in the run up to polling day.
Opinion polls indicate the SNP is currently on course to increase its majority in the Scottish Parliament.
Ms Sturgeon said: "My response to polls is always to remind my party that we must never take a single vote for granted - a point I will make again today.
"But i ncreasingly in Scotland we see, from opposition parties and certain commentators, another response - one that cites the scale of SNP support as evidence that the country has abandoned its critical faculties in favour of blind loyalty.
"I can understand why the opposition parties find that notion comforting - it's easier than having to face up to their own shortcomings. But as an analysis, it is profoundly insulting to the Scottish people.
"Those who support the SNP have not been brainwashed, they are not blind to our imperfections - instead, they are weighing them against our strengths and achievements, and against the other parties, and deciding that the SNP is the party they most closely identify with, the people they trust most to stand up for Scotland."
She added: " I've said already that a second referendum should only happen if there is a material change of circumstances or when we have evidence of a significant change of opinion from that expressed in September 2014.
"It is our job now to lead a renewed debate about how the enduring principle of the independence case - that decisions about Scotland are best taken by people who live here - is relevant to, indeed demanded by, the circumstances of the world we live in today.
"It is by making the case, positively and powerfully - and in a realistic and relevant way - that we will persuade those we didn't persuade in 2014 and, over the next few years, turn 45% into a majority."
Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale is due to unveil her party's first election pledge on housing in a speech to activists in Edinburgh on Tuesday.
Ms Dugdale will say that new powers over tax, borrowing and welfare coming to Holyrood offer a "once-in-a-generation" opportunity to change Scottish politics.
"Let me say this to Nicola Sturgeon - on the constitution I will take her at her word," she will say.
"She has asked Scotland to trust her and Scotland will expect her to keep her promise.
"This matters because the opportunities for the future that our new powers open up are too great to be buried under the arguments of the past."
Meanwhile the Scottish Conservatives will focus on education, setting out ideas to support school leadership and improve literacy and numeracy in a new paper.
The party will also signal its backing for a Save the Children campaign aimed at ensuring all children are reading well by the age of 11.
Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie said: "Nicola Sturgeon's opinion poll cockiness is no substitute for a proper debate on her years in government.
"People I meet want to hear about a positive alternative to the SNPs mismanagement of the police, NHS, schools and colleges.
"Liberal Democrats will approach this election with a positive, bright manifesto. We will focus on opportunity for everyone and reform to spread power. The SNP talk a good game but on their watch constitutional wrangles have been put ahead of the needs of people. It is time for a change."