ABERDEEN, Scotland (Reuters) - Scottish National Party supporters should focus on how to increase support for the independence cause, rather than on the timing of when Scotland might split from the United Kingdom, SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon said on Saturday.
Sturgeon, who also heads Scotland’s devolved government, acted to dampen expectations among her supporters of an immediate push for a new secession vote while the outcome of Brexit is unclear. Polls show a majority of Scots are opposed to a fresh ballot and a push for an early referendum in 2017 backfired when her party’s support fell in a snap election.
But she asked delegates to set aside the “despair and despondency” of the debate over Britain leaving the European Union next year and focus on the future. Scotland voted to stay in the EU but, because a majority of Britons as a whole voted in favor of Brexit, it will nevertheless leave.
“The case for independence is strong. And it is getting stronger by the day,” Sturgeon said.
“As we wait for the fog of Brexit to clear, our opportunity - indeed, our responsibility - is this: Not just to focus on the ‘when’ of independence. But to use our energy and passion to persuade those who still ask ‘why?’”
“Right now, that is the more important task.”
Brexit has not been a catalyst for Scottish independence but it has not weakened separatist fervor either, polls indicate.
That means Sturgeon has to continue to balance her politics finely, despite being the biggest single vote winner in Scottish politics with the biggest party in the Scottish parliament.
She is committed to updating the public on the timing of a possible new referendum on Scottish independence in the autumn, a spokesman for her party said. In the last one, in 2014, Scots opted to stay part of the UK by a 10 percentage point margin.
Sturgeon’s speech was upbeat, focusing on a new SNP economic report which tackles the weaknesses of the economic arguments from the 2014 vote.
“It doesn’t pretend there are always easy answers - no one believes that. But it does lay strong foundations for independence. Even with no extra growth from independence, the deficit can be turned around in five to 10 years,” she said.
There were also policy offers such as a three percent pay rise for most staff in Scotland’s national health service.
Sturgeon also argued for more immigration to the sparsely populated northern tip of Britain and greater powers to control it as a central feature of economic growth.
Scotland’s population, much of which is rural and dispersed unlike the rest of the UK, is aging more rapidly than other parts of the country.
Immigration, however, is the thorniest political issue in the Brexit negotiations, and limiting the number of foreigners who enter the UK was a central element on which Britain’s overall 2016 vote to leave the European Union rested.
“It’s time for powers over migration to come to Scotland.”
Pressure on Prime Minister Theresa May’s government to abandon unrealistic targets to curb immigration has emerged from many sides, including businesses and her own party ranks: Ruth Davidson, leader of the Scottish Conservatives, has criticized the government’s targets as impractical.
Reporting by Elisabeth O'Leary; Editing by Stephen Powell