FIRST Minister-elect Nicola Sturgeon has reached out to the opposition parties she must rely on to deliver her key election pledges, but remained defiant about a second independence referendum.
Speaking after the SNP failed to secure an overall majority at Holyrood, she said: “On the question of independence, the SNP will make our case with passion, with patience and with respect. But our aim is to persuade, not to divide.”
She confirmed she would lead a minority SNP government.
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Ms Sturgeon turned her back on seeking a pact with another party after the SNP fell two seats short of an outright majority in Thursday’s Scottish elections.
She said she would “govern with conviction and determination, but also with humility and a willingness to listen and to learn from the ideas of others”.
The result, which confounded expectations of a bigger SNP win, marks a return to the politics of deal-making and horse-trading at Holyrood. She sought to strike a conciliatory tone, but her comments carried a defiant threat to opponents who might attempt to block parts of her programme.
Issuing a warning that voters would punish parties that sought to frustrate her plans, she insisted she had a “clear and unequivocal mandate” after winning 63 of the parliament’s 129 seats.
“The result of the election was emphatic.
“The people of Scotland once again placed their trust in the SNP to govern our country,” she added.
Ms Sturgeon spoke out as rival leaders and weary activists adjusted to the changed political landscape.
Ruth Davidson, the Scottish Tories’ leader, celebrated an astounding result for her party, which took 31 seats as working class voters rallied behind the party in numbers not seen since the 1950s.
She said the result showed Scotland had “reached peak Nat”, a reference to the SNP’s weaker showing compared with its stunning General Election victory last year.
The independence-supporting Greens, seen as potential allies of the SNP, also welcomed their increased influence, after taking six seats.
Labour, however, faced a further period of soul-searching after its worst result in a national election for more than a century, as its tally of MSPs slumped to 24.
The new make-up of the parliament ends five years of unchallenged domination by the SNP, which won 69 seats under Alex Salmond in 2011.
Ms Sturgeon’s first major test is expected in the autumn, when the budget process begins and she must win support for her income tax plans. She signalled she would prefer not to rely on support from the Conservatives, who favour deeper tax cuts for the better-off.
However, she has faced criticism throughout the election campaign for refusing to countenance increasing income tax rates to protect public services and may have to compromise to reach a deal. The other parties are committed to a more progressive tax policy.
Firing the opening shot of the battle, Patrick Harvie, co-convener of the Scottish Greens, said he would demand a more progressive tax policy in return for votes.
“I think the SNP will find themselves quite uncomfortable if they choose to make alliances with the Conservatives only on the financial approach to the use of the new taxation powers,” he said.
A question mark also hangs over the SNP’s plan to cut air passenger duty, the tax on flights, which Ms Sturgeon has argued is vital for boosting the economy but which was ruled out by opponents during the election campaign.
Ms Davidson, who succeeded in her seemingly unlikely goal of transforming her party into the main opposition at Holyrood, said she would demand increases to college funding and mental health services and the abolition of the Scottish Government’s controversial “named person” child protection initiative.
She also signalled a future fight over equally controversial legislation aimed at tackling ant-sectarianism at football matches.
In her statement outside Bute House in Edinburgh, Ms Sturgeon singled out education, the environment and creating a new social security system, using new welfare power as areas for co-operation between parties.
“Election campaigns inevitably focus on differences and dividing lines but I believe that if we choose to find it, there is common ground aplenty to build on,” she said.
The new parliament retains a majority in favour of independence.
But Ms Davidson insisted the result had ended any chance of a second independence referendum within the next five years.
She said Ms Sturgeon’s argument that the poll should be re-run if support for independence rises above 50 per cent had been “utterly shredded”.
Willie Rennie, whose Scottish Liberal Democrats avoided the near-wipeout predicted by some polls, said: “What is off the table is any idea of another independence referendum.
“They [the SNP] have got to make a clear and unambiguous statement that another referendum must be off the table for the next five years in order to respect the referendum result and this result, but also making sure that they’re not going down an anti-democratic route.”
Ms Sturgeon plans a summer drive to build support for independence among No voters.
Her spokesman said her comments about persuading and not dividing people were not a sign that she had accepted the chances of staging a second referendum by 2021 had receded.
Ms Sturgeon was cheered by a gaggle of supporters as she walked down the steps of her official residence exactly 12 hours after arriving at the count in Glasgow, where she witnessed all nine of the city’s seats fall to the SNP.
The result, in a city that was once described as its “fortress”, summed up a catastrophic night for Labour, which won three constituencies but failed to do as well as expected in the all-important regional ballot, as its share of the vote plunged by 9.2 per cent across the country.
By contrast, the Tories’ vote rose by 8.1 per cent and the Nationalists’ by 1.1 per cent.
Turn-out was 55.6 per cent.
Kezia Dugdale insisted she would not quit and appeared to enjoy the continued support of the party, which elected her leader less than a year ago.
In an email to party members she said they “must continue to fight for what we believe in” despite a “heart-breaking” result.
While her position was not threatened, rows then broke out within the party about whether its strategy had been correct and about Labour’s positioning in the constitutional debate, with some critics calling for more robust opposition to independence.