The Scottish Government has published its white paper on independence, outlining how it believes a Yes vote in next year's referendum could pave the way for a new era for the nation.

The long-awaited document said there are "three overriding reasons" for Scotland to leave the UK and become a separate state.

It claimed independence will create a more democratic Scotland, as well as a country that is both more prosperous and fairer.

Speaking at the launch in Glasgow, Alex Salmond said: ''Scotland's future is now in Scotland's hands.''

The 670-page paper sets out how independence could have an impact on all areas of life, including currency, taxation, childcare and education, pensions, welfare, defence and broadcasting.

The SNP administration also sets out a number of promises if it was elected as the first government of a newly-independent Scotland, with Nationalists pledging "transformational extension of childcare" to help working parents, a cut in corporation tax to boost business and a simplified and fairer tax system.

They also pledge to end controversial welfare reforms brought in by Westminster by axing the so-called "bedroom tax" and halting the roll-out of Universal Credit and personal independence payments.

The independence referendum, to be held on September 18 next year, gives voters "a choice between two futures", the paper states.

A Yes vote will mean "the most important decisions about our economy and society will be taken by the people who care most about Scotland, that is by the people of Scotland".

It adds that "the door will open to a new era for our nation. Scotland's future will be in Scotland's hands".

But it claims a vote in favour of staying part of the UK would mean that "Scotland stands still".

As a result of that, the paper states a "once-in-a-generation opportunity to follow a different path and choose a new and better direction for our nation is lost".

Scotland's First Minister, Alex Salmond, said the document is the most comprehensive blueprint for an independent country ever published.

"But more than that, it is a mission statement and a prospectus for the kind of country we should be and which this Government believes we can be," he said.

"Our vision is of an independent Scotland regaining its place as an equal member of the family of nations. However, we do not seek independence as an end in itself, but rather as a means to changing Scotland for the better.

"We know we have the people, the skills and resources to make Scotland a more successful country. What we need now are the economic tools and powers to build a more competitive, dynamic economy and create more jobs.

"This guide contains policies which offer nothing less than a revolution in employment and social policy for Scotland, with a transformational change in childcare at the heart of those plans.

"Our proposals will make it far easier for parents to balance work and family life, and will allow many more people, especially women, to move into the workforce, fostering economic growth and helping to boost revenues - which will in itself help pay for the policy.

"With these policies, we can begin the job of undoing the damage caused by the vast social disparities which have seen the UK become one of the most unequal societies in the developed world.

"We believe it is only with the powers of independence - by completing the powers of our national Parliament - that we will gain the tools we need to create a more prosperous and fairer society."

On the key issue of currency, the paper said "the pound is Scotland's currency just as much as it is the rest of the UK's".

The Scottish Government has already set out plans to use the pound after independence by negotiating a "sterling zone" with the rest of the UK.

Keeping the pound as currency will give both individuals and businesses "continuity and certainty", the paper states, adding that an independent Scotland would also make a "substantial contribution" to a "sterling zone".

"We will therefore retain the pound in an independent Scotland," the paper says.

It goes on to argue that Scotland's public finances are "healthier than those of the UK as a whole".

As a result of this, the paper says: "There will be no requirement for an independent Scotland to raise the general rate of taxation to fund existing levels of spending."

Mr Salmond said the document shows the country will start from a position of strength.

He outlined the case for independence at the formal launch of the document at the Glasgow Science Centre.

"We'd become independent in more promising circumstances than virtually any other nation in history," he said.

"That reflects our underlying economic strength. An independent Scotland could have the eighth highest economic output and the 10th highest national income per head of population in the whole of the developed world.

"We have contributed more in taxes per person than the rest of the UK for every single one of the last 32 years."

It also reflects potential based on "world-class" universities, energy resources and a skilled and inventive people, he said.

But major challenges will also have to be overcome.

"We'll have to tackle a legacy of debt, of low growth, of social inequality, bequeathed to us by Westminster control of our economy," he said.

"To break out of that system requires the ability and powers to mobilise and invest in our natural and human resources."

Renewable energy and better childcare are among the areas the Scottish Government wants to focus on.

Mr Salmond said the paper provided the answers to 650 detailed questions on independence.

He continued: "Ultimately at the heart of this debate there is only one question and one choice.

"Do we, the people who live and work in Scotland, believe that we are the best people to take decisions about Scotland's future?

"That question will be the subject of an impassioned and, I hope, positive debate between now and next September."

He added: "As First Minister, I want everyone, whatever their viewpoint, to play their part in thinking about the sort of country we wish to become.

"That's the most important thing about this referendum. It won't be decided by me, it won't be decided by our opponents, it won't be decided by the media - it will be decided by the people.

"Scotland's future is now in Scotland's hands."

Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, who accompanied him on stage at the formal launch, said the country will take its place in the "family of nations" on March 24 2016.

"Scotland's future is a forward-looking, ambitious and aspirational guide to the opportunities and benefits of independence," she said.

"It is built on the simple but powerful belief that decisions about Scotland should be taken here in Scotland by the people who live and work here.

"It sets out the economic, social and democratic case for independence.

"It explains how we as a nation can make the journey from a Yes vote in the referendum next September to taking our place as an independent member in the family of nations on March 24 2016."

Ms Sturgeon highlighted some of the "policy choices" in the paper, including childcare, welfare, pensions, energy, defence, Trident and Europe.

"Scotland's future is the most detailed blueprint for the independence of a country ever published," she said.

"We want as many people in Scotland as possible to read it. It is reader-friendly and accessible.

"Our message to the people of Scotland is this: take the opportunity to read Scotland's Future, pair it with the relentless negativity of the other side of this debate, and make up your own mind."

The paper also argues that an independent Scotland "will continue as a member" of the European Union (EU).

If there is a Yes vote next year, it sets out how the Scottish Government will "immediately seek discussions" with both Westminster and EU member states to "agree the process whereby a smooth transition to full EU membership can take place on the day Scotland becomes an independent country" - with SNP ministers already having stated this could happen on March 24 2016.

Having set out plans to keep the pound, the paper states that Scotland would "not seek membership" of the eurozone.

The paper also sets out plans for Scotland to negotiate its way from "being a Nato member as part of the UK to becoming an independent member of the alliance".

It goes on to state: "Scotland would take our place as one of the many non-nuclear members of Nato."

On the issue of Trident nuclear weapons, which are currently based on the Clyde, the paper pledges: "Following a vote for independence we would make early agreement on the speediest safe removal of nuclear weapons a priority."

To help grow the Scottish economy, the paper proposes a "transformational expansion in childcare" to encourage more parents, particularly women, into work.

This would see the introduction of what is described a "universal system of high-quality early learning and childcare" for youngsters aged between one and school age.

The paper states that, by the end of the first term of an independent Scottish Parliament, every three- and four-year-old could benefit from 1,140 hours of free childcare - the equivalent of 30 hours a week for 38 weeks of the year.

This expansion of free childcare will be done in a way that is "affordable and sustainable", the paper states, adding that such a change would also require a "substantial increase in the workforce", creating about 35,000 jobs.

Meanwhile, Scottish businesses could gain a "competitive boost" from clearly set-out plans to cut corporation tax by up to three percentage points,while cutting air passenger duty in half would improve Scotland's international connectivity, according to the Scottish Government.

The First Minister said the document lays out what the fiscal starting position of an independent Scotland would be, as well as what the first budget could be if the SNP were elected into government.

Mr Salmond said: "It's not a spendthrift budget. Actually, it proposes an increase in expenditure of £600 million and a decrease in expenditure elsewhere, or a rise in taxation of £600 million. It sets that out in detail, the changes we could make within that constraint.

"That recognises that although the fiscal position of Scotland at that starting point is likely to be better than that of the United Kingdom - incidentally, up to £600 a head better - nonetheless we'll still be recovering from a severe economic recession.

"We'll still have a borrowing position, which (although) better than the UK per head of population, is still a challenging position. Therefore the policies we're outlining as being capable of being pursued reflect that position."

He went on: "There is a difference, is there not, in terms of the priorities which we would allocate and go forward with.

"In the priorities that we have, we don't foresee the requirement, the need, or the sense in spending billions of pounds on weapons of mass destruction. We see the sense, the importance instead, of investing in children, in the future of childcare in Scotland and the growth and impetus that will give to the economy."

The paper said: "Scotland is a wealthy country and can more than afford to be independent."

It goes on to add: "Our public finances have consistently been healthier than those elsewhere in the UK, giving us a strong platform upon which to build economic success."

As well as making Scotland more prosperous, the Scottish Government also believes leaving the UK could create a fairer society.

The SNP pledges that if it is in power in an independent Scotland one of its immediate priorities will be "to reverse the most damaging and counter-productive of the UK Government welfare changes".

The changes to housing benefit which have been branded the "bedroom tax" would be abolished within the first year of Scotland becoming independent if the SNP is in power.

Nationalists also pledge to halt the further roll-out of two new benefits, the Universal Credit and Personal Independence Payments, north of the border.

Stopping these would give the Scottish Government that is elected in 2016 "maximum flexibility to reform the welfare system in line with Scotland's priorities", the paper states.

The SNP further promises that benefits and tax credits would increase "at least in line with inflation" if they were in power after independence, to "avoid the poorest families falling further into poverty".

While a Yes vote in next year's referendum would end the political union between Scotland and England, the paper stresses that the Union of the Crowns - which dates back to 1603 - would continue and Scotland would keep the Queen as its monarch upon independence.

"On independence, Scotland will be a constitutional monarchy," it says. "On independence in 2016 Her Majesty the Queen will be head of state."

Meanwhile, a new Scottish Broadcasting Service (SBS) could initially be based on the staff and assets of BBC Scotland, according to the paper.

The SBS could then enter into a formal arrangement with the BBC, whereby it would supply it with programming in return for continuing access to BBC services in Scotland.

The White Paper says: "This will ensure the people of Scotland will still have access to all current programming, including EastEnders, Doctor Who and Strictly Come Dancing, and to channels like CBeebies."

The document stresses that "independence is not an end in itself", saying instead: "The central purpose of independence is to make life better for people living in Scotland."

On pensions, Ms Sturgeon said: "As a devolved Scottish Government, we spend a great deal of time introducing measures that are designed to tackle Scotland's relatively low life expectancy - measures like action on alcohol, to reduce smoking. As an independent government, we would remain absolutely focused on dealing with that challenge.

"But, as everybody knows, that takes time. The gap in life expectancy has been long-standing in Scotland and it will take time to close that gap. Right now, Scots on average have a lower life expectancy than on average people in the rest of the UK do.

"Therefore, we question whether the rapid increase in the state pension age beyond 66 to 67 is right for Scotland. Remember, that is an increase that is now proposed on a much-accelerated timescale.

"We propose an expert commission to look at what the correct increase in the retirement age beyond 66 would be in Scotland, taking account of Scottish circumstances.

"It's one of the core arguments for independence - these decisions taken in Scotland based on the particular circumstances that we face."

Mr Salmond said the 18-month timetable set for negotiations was "reasonable" and said a number of experts agreed.

He said: "If you take the average timescale of countries which have become independent, and we're talking about 30 examples since the Second World War following a referendum, then the average timescale between the referendum and the day of independence has been 18 months, which is why that's generally considered as a reasonable timescale."

The SNP will also work to close the gap in life expectancy between Scotland and the rest of the UK, Ms Sturgeon said.

Mr Salmond said his administration is a "far-seeing Government" and challenged long-term projections by the Institute for Fiscal Studies that an independent Scotland would have to raise income tax by eight percentage points above the current UK rate or make consequent cuts to spending.

The 58-year-old said: "In relation to life expectancy, I look forward to 2062 so that myself and the IFS can debate who was right and who was wrong."

The expansion of free childcare will help more women into work and consequently grow Scotland's economy, according to Ms Sturgeon.

"If we were to match the female participation rate of a country like Sweden, for example, it would over time increase tax revenues somewhere in the region of £700 million a year," she said.

Mr Salmond said each Scot "would have been £2,400 better off than the rest of the UK if we had controlled our finances over the last five years".

"The figures are in, the jury is in, these are the Gers (Government Expenditure and Revenue Scotland) figures and there is no dispute about that," he said.

Mr Salmond expressed his belief that Scotland "will be a welcome member of Nato" and that "there will be enthusiasm for Scotland's membership of the EU".

There has been "lots of discussions" with EU member states about Scotland's prospective membership, he said.

"We have put forward a proposition believing that there will be enthusiasm for Scotland's membership to the European Union," he said. "We certainly haven't heard anything to the contrary."

He added: "There have been discussions with Nato representatives. We meet the criteria, and will meet the criteria, for Nato membership. We believe on that basis that we will be a welcome member of Nato."

The Scottish Government will also argue for ongoing opt-outs of the euro currency, the Schengen free travel area and a continuing share of the UK's EU budget rebate.

Ms Sturgeon said: "We would not be seeking any new arrangements for Scotland in the sense that we are not currently in the euro or Schengen.

"That is the whole basis of the continuity of effect argument. We are seeking to make the transition of being a member as part of the UK to being a member state on the same terms as we are currently as part of the UK.

"That is what we mean by continuity of effect."

Mr Salmond added: "Of course, it is true to say that there is a great deal of uncertainty about the European position and that uncertainty comes from Westminster and the potential prospect of an in/out referendum as early as 2017."

Mr Salmond was asked to provide "a cast-iron guarantee to voters before the referendum that we will use the pound in an independent Scotland and that there won't be border posts with the rest of the UK".

He said. "We are in favour of the common travel area and we are in favour of keeping the pound. Yes, we will keep the pound, and we won't have border controls."

British citizens living in Scotland and Scots-born citizens living outside of Scotland on independence day "would automatically be Scottish citizens", according to Ms Sturgeon.

"Citizens of any country who have a parent or grandparent who qualifies for Scottish citizenship can also register as a Scottish citizen and go through due process," she added.

Prime Minister David Cameron's official spokesman said that the white paper "doesn't really answer the big questions around currency, fiscal sustainability and Europe, just to take three of the major issues".

Asked at a regular Westminster media briefing whether the UK Government would be bound by the terms of the white paper if Scotland voted for independence, he said: "Respecting the outcome of the referendum is a completely different thing from agreeing to whatever Alex Salmond announces in a press conference."

He added: "The Government has consistently said that in the event of independence a currency union is highly unlikely. That position hasn't changed."

Mr Cameron was chairing Cabinet at the time of the white paper launch and did not watch it live on television, said the spokesman.