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Nicola Sturgeon seeks support for 'beautiful dream' of independence

The SNP is to launch a new drive to convince Scots to support the "beautiful dream" of independence, Nicola Sturgeon has announced.

The Scottish First Minister insisted her party would not attempt to "browbeat anyone" into backing the change.

But she revealed a new campaign will get under way this summer in a bid to boost support for leaving the UK.

Scots voted against independence by 55% to 45% when a referendum was held in September 2014.

Ms Sturgeon told the SNP spring conference in Glasgow: "We will achieve independence only when we persuade a majority of our fellow citizens that it is the best future for our country."

She added: "Making and winning that case is our challenge and our opportunity.

"That is why I can tell you today that this summer the SNP will embark on a new initiative to build support for independence."

The SNP leader told activists one of her heroes, former US first lady Eleanor Roosevelt, had said that "the future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams".

Ms Sturgeon added: "Our dream is for Scotland to become independent. To be in the driving seat of our own destiny, to shape our own future.

"And on the basis of equality with our family across the British Isles and our friends across the globe, to play our part in building a better world.

"That is a beautiful dream. And we believe in it."

The First Minister said that while many Scots had "wanted to be persuaded" in 2014 they "ultimately didn't find our arguments compelling enough".

But in a bid to increase support for independence, she said her party "will be prepared to challenge some of our own answers".

Before the new drive can begin, the SNP faces Holyrood elections in May, with Ms Sturgeon putting herself to the country to be first minister for the first time.

"To be given a clear mandate to lead this nation for the next five years will be a precious opportunity," she said.

"If you give me that opportunity I promise I will seize it with both hands."

Ms Sturgeon, who addressed an audience of some 3,000 at the Scottish Exhibition and Conference Centre, used her speech to reveal some of the key policies the SNP will introduce if re-elected.

She said that over the five years of the next parliamentary term, an extra £750 million would be spent in a bid to cut the attainment gap in Scotland's schools.

This includes £100 million a year that would be raised by planned council tax reforms, that would see Scots in larger homes pay more - with this cash going "direct to head teachers", Ms Sturgeon confirmed.

"It will mean they can invest in extra teachers, classroom assistants, equipment or additional learning support," she said.

The attainment fund, which the Scottish Government is piloting in seven local authority areas, will be extended to all parts of Scotland.

The First Minister pledged: "We will commit, over and above existing budgets, an extra three quarters of a billion pounds to raise the attainment of the most disadvantaged young people in our country."

On health she said there would be a redoubling of effort "to reduce deaths from the big killer diseases like cancer".

To help achieve this, Ms Sturgeon announced an extra £50 million for radiotherapy services over the next five years .

She hailed this as "vital investment to help save lives and keep families together for longer".

She also revealed plans for free lunches, which are already given to youngsters in the first three years of primary school, to be expanded into nurseries when childcare provision is increased, at a cost of about £40 million a year.

The SNP has already pledged to increase free childcare from 16 hours a week to 30 hours for three and four-year-olds, as well as vulnerable two-year-olds, over the course of the next parliament.

Ms Sturgeon said: "When we expand early years education to include full day provision, we will extend entitlement to free meals to two, three and four-year-olds in our nurseries too.

"We will make sure our youngsters get access to a healthy nutritious meal that improves their capacity to learn, without the stigma of means testing."

Poorer families will also be helped with a new Maternity and Early Years Allowance, which will replace the Sure Start Maternity Grant, when new powers over welfare are devolved to Scotland.

Payments will be higher than in England, with mothers getting £600 instead of £500 after the birth of their first child.

And while Westminster cut payments for second and subsequent children, Ms Sturgeon said low income families north of the border would get £300 for any further children they have.

In addition the SNP is promising these families would receive a grant of £250 when their child starts nursery and first goes to school, with all this "helping children get the best possible start in life".

With Sunday marking the 20th anniversary of the Dunblane Primary School massacre, where gunman Thomas Hamilton killed 16 primary one children and their teacher, Ms Sturgeon began her speech by recalling "one of the darkest days Scotland has ever known".

She said: "Even now, there are simply no words to express our horror and our sadness at what happened in Dunblane Primary School on March 13 1996.

"All we can do is tell those who lost loved ones, those who suffered injury and those whose lives changed forever that day, that we have not forgotten."

Her speech went on to hit out at the Tories - who are fighting to overtake Labour and become the second largest party at Holyrood in May's election.

Ms Sturgeon said she did "not believe for a second" that Scotland's voters would return a larger contingent of Conservative MSPs.

"Scotland doesn't need a Tory opposition," she said.

"Scotland needs a strong and determined opposition to the Tories."

With the referendum on the UK's membership of the European Union taking place in June, she said again it would "democratically indefensible" if Scotland votes to stay in the EU but was removed as a result of a UK-wide vote.

She told the conference: "Scotland's place in Europe should not - and must not - become the casualty of a bitter and twisted Tory feud."

After Ms Sturgeon announced a fresh drive to try to boost support for independence, Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson said: " It's clear the SNP - from top to bottom - just isn't prepared to let this go."

The Tory stated: " People voted decisively to remain part of the UK and it's time Nicola Sturgeon respected it.

"This shows again why having a strong, pro-UK opposition in Holyrood is so critical to Scotland's constitutional future. Only the Scottish Conservatives continue to stand 100% for Scotland's place in the UK."

Meanwhile Labour's deputy leader in Scotland Alex Rowley branded it a " timid speech" saying: " We got very little detail from Nicola Sturgeon on the central question of this election - how will the new tax powers be used to stop more cuts?

"Will the SNP support our plan for the richest 1% to pay more to invest in our schools through a 50p top rate of tax on those earning more than £150,000 a year? Will Nicola Sturgeon join Labour in reversing George Osborne's planned tax cut for the top 15% of earners? We heard no answers today."

While Ms Sturgeon pledged the SNP would not increase the basic rate of income tax in Scotland, Mr Rowley said unless the nationalists followed its proposals for an immediate 1p rise they " will simply be cutting school budgets".

Labour and the Scottish Liberal Democrats both want to increase the basic rate of income tax by 1p to raise almost £500 million for education and local services, with Mr Rowley arguing: "Op posing Labour's plan to set a Scottish rate of income tax just 1p higher than the rate set by George Osborne isn't fair, left-wing or progressive. It means using the Scottish Parliament as a conveyor belt for Tory austerity. There is nothing fair about cutting our schools and putting thousands of people out of work.

"Faced with the choice between using the powers of the Scottish Parliament to invest in our economy or carrying on with the SNP's cuts to schools and other vital services, Labour will use the powers. It's time Nicola Sturgeon did the same."

Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie said: " The biggest ovation was for the announcement that the SNP will start the campaign for another referendum in the summer.

"This shows that the SNP's biggest priority remains to start the division of the referendum again.

"This will horrify everyone who wants to move on from division of the past and to focus on the powers we have to transform education."

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