SNP must earn the right to propose second independence vote - Nicola Sturgeon
Nicola Sturgeon has conceded it would be "wrong" to set a date for a second referendum on independence before a majority of Scots back the country leaving the UK.
The First Minister and SNP leader said if there is to be another vote on Scotland's future, nationalists "first have to earn the right to propose it".
She spoke out as she launched her party's manifesto for the Holyrood elections, describing the policy package as her "job application" for the role of first minister.
It is the first time she has led the SNP in a Scottish election campaign and, as she unveiled the manifesto to an audience of some 1,400 activists in Edinburgh, she said: " For me, this bold, ambitious and reforming manifesto represents my job application.
"I am asking the Scottish people to give me a personal mandate to implement these policies and make our country even better. I am asking you to elect me as your first minister."
The manifesto pledges to increase NHS funding by £500 million more than inflation over the five-year course of the next parliament, with Ms Sturgeon describing this as "part of a package of investment and reform to equip the NHS for the future".
The SNP is also promising "baby boxes" full of essentials to parents of all newborns and to double the amount of free childcare for three and four-year-olds, as well as vulnerable two-year-olds.
An additional £750 million would be spent over the next five years closing the gap between rich and poor pupils in Scotland, with most of that money going direct to head teachers, Ms Sturgeon said.
The party also pledged to bring forward legislation to cut emissions by 50% by 2020 and to spend nearly £20 billion "improving and modernising our national infrastructure".
However, the manifesto did not contain a specific commitment to hold a referendum on independence during the next parliament if the SNP is re-elected.
Ms Sturgeon said: "T here is not a single day goes by that I am not asked if there will be a second independence referendum in the next parliament.
"My answer to that, in one sense, is very simple - I would like that, very much."
While she stressed she believes "with all my heart that independence is the best future for our country", the SNP leader added: "I f there is to be a second referendum - whether that is in the next parliament or in a future parliament - we first have to earn the right to propose it.
"Setting the date for a referendum before a majority of the Scottish people have been persuaded that independence - and therefore another referendum - is the best future for our country is the wrong way round.
"So, this summer, we will start new work to persuade a majority in Scotland of the case for independence."
Ms Sturgeon has already announced the SNP will mount a fresh campaign to convince Scots this summer and she said: " If we don't succeed, we will have no right to propose another referendum."
She added: "I f we do succeed - when we do succeed - if in the future there is clear and sustained evidence that independence has become the preferred option of a majority of the Scottish people - then no politician will have the right to stand in the way because the future of our country must always be in the hands of the people of our country."
While polls show the SNP on track to win a third term in government at Holyrood, and a second overall majority in the Scottish Parliament, Ms Sturgeon went on to urge supporters to back the party with both their votes in the May 5 election.
She told activists: "I take nothing for granted - and neither should you.
"If you want to see the SNP back in government on May 6, vote SNP with both votes.
"If you want me to be your first minister, with a clear mandate to lead Scotland forward, vote SNP with both votes.
"The simple truth is that nothing else will guarantee that outcome."
With new powers over income tax coming to Holyrood, she said her party's plans not to increase the threshold for the 40p tax rate would raise a "minimum of £1.2 billion extra to invest in public services".
Taken to together with reforms to the council tax system and changes to business rates, Ms Sturgeon said they would bring in "at least £2 billion over the next parliament to fund the key policies at the heart of this manifesto".
With Holyrood also getting powers over welfare from April 2017, Ms Sturgeon said a new Scottish Social Security Agency would be set up to run these "with fairness and dignity at its core".
She insisted: "Let me be clear - the language of shirkers and scroungers will not be the language of a Scottish social security system."
The SNP plan to abolish the so-called bedroom tax, increase the carer's allowance and restore the entitlement to housing support for 18 to 21 years after this was ended by the Conservatives.
For the NHS, described by Ms Sturgeon as the " jewel in the crown of our public services", the manifesto pledges to increase spending by £500 million more than inflation over the five years of the next parliament.
"This pledge of above-inflation investment is a clear sign of our commitment to our most cherished public service," she said.
New funding of £150 million will be used to improve mental-health care over the next five years while £1.3 billion would be transferred to social care in a bid to help more elderly Scots stay out of hospital.
While the Tories have proposed introducing a £1,500 a graduate contribution for those who attend university, Ms Sturgeon said her party would guarantee there would be no tuition fees in Scotland as long as they remain in power.
She said: " University education will remain free of tuition fees - front door or back door - for as long as the SNP is in government."
Ms Sturgeon also promised new policies " designed to give all of our children the best possible start in life" including the increase in free childcare and the introduction of "baby boxes", a scheme which originated in Finland
The SNP leader said: "The baby box also symbolises the fair and equal start that we want for all children. I will be so proud to introduce it here in Scotland."
She told party activists: "The aim that I am setting in this manifesto is one that I am so passionate about - we will ensure that a child born today in one of our most deprived communities will by the time they leave school have the same chance of going to university as a child of the same ability from one of the most well-off parts of our country.
"Let me promise you this. The daily focus of a re-elected SNP government, led by me, will be to transform the lives of our youngest children, close the educational attainment gap and open the doors of opportunity to all of our young people. T his truly is a manifesto for the next generation."