ABERDEEN, Scotland (Reuters) - Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon on Thursday played down the chances of a second independence referendum anytime soon, instead urging her nationalist party to build up its power base before elections next year.
Sturgeon opened her Scottish National Party’s annual conference with a speech designed to shift the focus away from the prospect of another referendum after last year’s failed independence bid and onto expanding the party’s power base.
Scots rejected independence by 55 percent to 45 in a hard-fought referendum last September. But support for the SNP has surged, raising hopes among some members that a second vote on breaking more than three centuries of union with England could come within a few years.
“I believe with all my heart that Scotland should be an independent country. But I respect the decision that our country made last year,” Sturgeon told party activists in the Scottish city of Aberdeen.
Sturgeon reiterated her position that no one should stand in the way if Scotland wanted another a second referendum, but that it would require a sustained shift in public opinion or a major event like Britain leaving the European Union.
Before elections to Scotland’s devolved parliament in May, Sturgeon wants to capitalise on collapsing support for Britain’s main opposition Labour Party by promoting an anti-austerity agenda to challenge the ruling Conservative Party.
“Today, I am putting this party firmly on an election footing,” she said. “If we want Scotland to be independent - and we do - then we have to change more minds. We have to build the case and make it even stronger. We have to convince those we didn’t convince last year.”
The SNP won 1.5 million votes at British parliamentary elections in May, almost wiping out Labour in an area they once considered a stronghold. The party believes that consolidating their power in the Scottish parliament will allow Scots to push for more devolution and eventually another referendum.
The venue for the annual conference reflected the party’s increased national profile - the 4,800-seat capacity for the hall where Sturgeon delivered her speech was four times larger than when the party met in the city of Perth last year.
editing by Elizabeth Piper