SCOTLAND is closer to independence than ever before, SNP deputy leader Nicola Sturgeon has said.

She claimed opponents were being engulfed in panic because they knew they were losing the argument.

Ms Sturgeon told a packed SNP conference in Inverness that for the UK parties the independence debate was not about what was in the best interests of Scotland.

“They just want to keep control of Scotland’s resources,” she said, and warned opposition parties would fight a relentlessly negative campaign.

She revived memories of one of the SNP’s most famous slogans, ‘It’s Scotland’s Oil’, when she said: “David Cameron gave the game away when he came north last week to lay claim to the next generation of North Sea oil.

“Well, hear this David Cameron – it was always Scotland’s oil. It still is Scotland’s oil and it is time the people of Scotland got the benefit of it.”

Ms Sturgeon said independence would mean no longer having to see Scotland’s wealth being “squandered” by Westminster. She said the SNP’s case for independence was based on a “simple but powerful belief that, as a country, we are better placed to take the right decisions for our future”.

This was a “once in a generation opportunity to win independence”, she claimed.

More than 1300 people heard Ms Sturgeon’s speech at the Eden Court Theatre. Nine hundred filled the theatre itself and another 450 watched on television screens in three overflow rooms.

Ms Sturgeon, who is also Health Secretary, told the conference she would reintroduce a Bill on minimum pricing for alcohol within the next month.

She said: “When that Bill is passed Scotland will become the first country to introduce a minimum price per unit of alcohol. The world is watching us.”

Ms Sturgeon claimed Labour’s decision to vote down minimum pricing at Holyrood last year “haunts them to this day”.

She said: “That vote said they cared more about petty party politics than about the public health of the nation. And no party that gets its priorities that wrong is fit to govern our country.

“Being first with a policy means that it comes with no absolute certainties.

“But I know that the evidence, the real-life experiences of doctors, nurses, the police and sheer common sense tell us it can work to reduce the dreadful damage alcohol misuse does to our communities.”

As The Herald reported yesterday, Ms Sturgeon also told delegates she planned to tackle bed-blocking in hospitals by setting a new target of two weeks to get older people home with an appropriate care package in place.

She also pledged: “Free personal care for the elderly is safe in our hands.”

The Health Secretary also announced improvements to treatment for under-18s with Type 1 diabetes through increased availability of insulin pumps.

She said the pumps could mean freedom from having multiple injections every day and for the youngest diabetics could go “some way to giving them back a normal childhood”.

Ms Sturgeon described the rising number of people with diabetes as “one of the biggest challenges in the health service today”.

Nearly 10% of hospital spending goes on treating the disease and complications arising from it.

She also pledged the extra £1 billion the Government has said will be added to NHS budgets would not be wasted on “senseless reorganisations”.

“Every single penny will support frontline patient care,” she said.

Opponents of Ms Sturgeon’s plans for minimum pricing for alcohol called for an independent review of minimum unit pricing, including examination of its impact on cross-border shopping and internet sales.

Wine and Spirit Trade Association chief executive Jeremy Beadles said: “Ministers are clearly determined to pursue a policy which is probably illegal and will punish all consumers with higher prices while doing nothing to address the root causes of alcohol misuse.”