NICOLA Sturgeon pledged the SNP will “always” make the case for independence – as she set out her future vision in which the people of Scotland are “firmly in the driving seat” of their own destiny.

The First Minister underlined the reasoning behind her party’s core ambition, arguing Scotland’s interests had been “cast aside” in key ways, including over its vote to remain in the European Union, over the UK Government’s austerity policy, and over the failure of Westminster to set up an oil fund in the 1970s.

“Just think if those decisions had been taken in Scotland instead. The difference could be dramatic. The security of a multi-billion-pound oil fund. Investment, not Tory austerity, and a country at the very heart of Europe,” she told SNP delegates as she closed the party’s three-day conference in Glasgow yesterday.

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“When we think about those wasted opportunities, it should make us all the more determined that in future, we will do things differently. It should make us determined to put Scotland’s future in Scotland’s hands.”

The First Minister accepted many independence supporters “are impatient for change” said that “we may not yet know exactly when the choice will be made” but stressed: “We can, we must, and we will always make the case for independence.

“With the UK Government so engulfed in chaos and taking the country down a path of self-imposed decline, the need to do so has never been greater.”

Sturgeon hit out at the Tories over their “heartless, shameful, self- defeating” policies of austerity, and also condemned them for pursuing the “hardest possible Brexit”.

With the SNP having been in power for 10 years at Holyrood she highlighted the importance of “acting and governing today” and set out policies including plans for a new publicly owned energy company.

She announced the Scottish Government will be spending £840 million a year by the end of this Scottish Parliament term to fund plans to give 30 hours a week of childcare to all three and four-year-olds, and eligible two-year-olds, by 2020.

The SNP leader restated her government’s pledge to deliver 50,000 more affordable homes over the parliament, backed by £3 billion, and said councils would have to spend every penny they were given for new housing.

“Let me make this clear to every council today. If you don’t use all of your allocation to deliver new housing, we will take back the balance and give it to one that will. On money for housing – if you don’t use it, you will lose it,” she said.

In another policy move, Sturgeon said those leaving care will be exempted from paying council tax, and on a further policy front announced action to improve the environment, revealing the first “low emission zone” to be set up by the Scottish Government will be in Glasgow.

A publicly owned, not-for-profit energy company will also be set up in Scotland that aims to give users energy at as close to cost price as possible.

It was the first SNP conference to be held since the June election when the party lost 21 seats, although it still has a majority of Scottish MPs with 35. And while Sturgeon insisted her government is still trusted to deliver in Scotland, she conceded there had been “tough days” for the party.

But she delivered a “gentle reality check” to Labour and the Tories, saying her party were polling at “a higher level today than at this point in the honeymoon days after our 2007 win or our landslide in 2011”.

Sturgeon hit out at the SNP’s opponents, telling delegates at the conference that Scottish Labour was having its “annual leadership election”.

She said: “Hypocrites, plotters, betrayers, barrel scrapers. No, that’s not what we’ve been calling the candidates. That’s what they’ve been calling each other. These days, ferrets in a sack distance themselves from Scottish Labour.”

To cheers from the audience, Sturgeon said the Tories were “now back in third place in Scottish politics” and then criticised them for their “racism, misogyny and sectarianism”.

She issued a challenge to Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson, saying: “The disgusting views that have been expressed by too many Tory politicians have no place in public life.

“It’s time Ruth Davidson found some backbone and kicked the racists and bigots out of her party.”

Sturgeon added: “The opposition in Scotland are all over the place. That’s why, more than ever, the responsibility is on us, the SNP, to provide the good government that the people of our country expect and deserve.”

During her address, Sturgeon announced the Scottish Government has granted permission to the people of Ulva, an island off the west coast of Mull, to bring their island into community ownership.

To help the tourist industry in Scotland’s more remote areas, she announced a new £6 million fund to help provide improved infra- structure.

“The tourist boom that our country is enjoying is great news,” Sturgeon said. “It means more jobs and investment. But it can also mean pressure on transport, services and facilities – especially in rural areas. “

She said ministers would set up a new fund allowing “even more people to enjoy this, the most beautiful country in the world”.

Describing tackling inequality as the “defining challenge”, Sturgeon said a fair society “must be paid for” and it was time to “consider how our limited tax powers might help us protect what we value most”.

“Too often, the debate on tax is framed as the economy versus public services. That’s wrong,” she added.

“Our taxes pay for the support our businesses need to thrive just as they do for our health service and our schools. And our competitiveness as a country is about more than just our tax rates.

“It depends on the strength of our public services, the skills of our people and the quality of our infrastructure. It is a fact that a good society needs a strong economy.

“But let’s never forget this. No economy will reach its full potential without a strong, fair, inclusive society.”