NICOLA Sturgeon has admitted there will be “challenges to overcome” if Scotland votes for independence, as she sought to reassure voters it remains a credible option.

After the upheaval of the pandemic, the economic slump and Brexit, the First Minister insisted “independence works” regardless, citing the example of other small EU nations such as Denmark and Ireland.

In her closing speech to the SNP’s online conference, she said: “No-one is saying there won’t be challenges to overcome. We will set those out openly and honestly.

“Nothing will fall into our laps. But, like all countries, we face challenges whatever path we take.

“The question is this: which option - becoming independent or being governed by Westminster - equips us best to meet these challenges.”

However she failed to name any specific challenges or solutions, or say how she could hold a second referendum without Westminster consent, or say anything about Indyref2  legislation, although she said Indyref2 would happen.

She said: “People in Scotland have the right to make that choice. To decide to take our destiny into our own hands and shape a better future. 

“Trust me - the time for that choice is approaching.”

Ms Sturgeon also accused the UK Government of making Scotland poorer in order to demoralise it and bind it more tightly into the Union, prompting Tory claims that she had resorted to conspiracy theories and a "Nationalist project fear".

After criticism that her administration is running low on ideas and energy, Ms Sturgeonn also insisted the SNP was not “resting on our laurels”.

Ms Sturgeon has promised a second referendum by the end of 2023, Covid permitting, with independence itself in 2026 if there is a Yes vote.

However Holyrood currently lacks the power to hold a legally watertight vote, and Boris Johnson has already refused to give it to the parliament, saying the recovery is the priority.

Ms Sturgeon has said that if the UK Government keeps blocking Indyref2, MSPs will pass a Referendum Bill regardless, but this is likely to be challenged and struck down in court.

Ms Sturgeon said her “overriding priority” remains keeping Scotland “as safe as possible”.

READ MORE: Nicola Sturgeon's economic adviser warns of 20-year economic transition after independence

She said: “During the election we said that tackling the pandemic would come first – and it will. We said we would pursue the most ambitious programme for government ever put before the people of Scotland – we are doing exactly that.

“And we said that when the covid crisis has passed, we would give the people of Scotland the choice of independence – and we will.”

She said the UK Government would try to use the economic and societal shocks of the pandemic to talk down independence.

She said: “Westminster will use all that damage that they have inflicted as an argument for yet more Westminster control.

“By making us poorer, they’ll say we can’t afford to be independent. By cutting our trade with the EU, they’ll say we are too dependent on the rest of the UK.

“By causing our working population to fall, they’ll say the country is aging too fast.

“They want us to believe we are powerless in the face of the disastrous decisions they have taken for us and the damage those decisions is doing.

“They want us to look inwards not outwards. And the reason?

“They know - and are terrified by the prospect - that when we look outwards we see all around us the evidence right there in front of our eyes.

“The evidence that independence works. For countries of Scotland’s size, independence works. Our neighbours in north-west Europe are wealthier than the UK. All of them.

“They are more equal than the UK. They have lower levels of poverty.

“They have higher productivity, which drives better living standards. All of them recovered better from the financial crash of 2008.

“They have stronger public finances. As a proportion of pre-retirement wages they all have higher pensions.

“And of course they all get the governments they vote for. In measure after measure the evidence is overwhelming and conclusive – independence works.

“It works for Denmark, for Ireland, for Austria, for Norway, for Finland - and for so many others beside.

“These are disparate countries with different resources and economies. But independence works for all of them. With all our resources and talent it will work for Scotland too.

“It is up to us to show the people of Scotland how.

“The Scottish Government is now re-starting work to make sure that the choice about our country’s future is a fully informed one.”

Last week, it emerged one of Ms Sturgeon's own economic advisers had ridiculed this line of thinking, saying likening Scotland to Denmark without a clear plan on how to reorder Scotland's economy was effectively pointless.

Professor Mark Blyth of the Watson Institute of Economics at Brown University at Rhode Island said in July there was a “complete lack of specificity” in thinking about Scotland’s current business model, and where it wanted to go and how. 

“Instead of which we’ve got, ‘Denmark is awesome. We should be like Denmark. If we were independent, we would be Denmark’.

“No, you wouldn’t be Denmark. Denmark took 600 years to become Denmark.

“How do you become your own thing given where you’re starting? That’s the only thing that really needs to be answered."

He also said Scotland would “need a 20-year period of getting from A to B”,  and that it would “come with costs”.

In her speech, Ms Sturgeon stressed she wanted to bring about Indyref2 through “cooperation not confrontation”.

She said: “The experience of the pandemic and the challenges we face as a result reinforces my view that this is the right approach.

“So it is in that spirit of cooperation that I hope the Scottish and UK governments can reach agreement - as we did in 2014 - to allow the democratic wishes of the people of Scotland to be heard and respected.

“But, this much is clear. Democracy must - and will - prevail.

“The United Kingdom is after all a voluntary union of nations. Until recently no-one seriously challenged the right of the people in Scotland to choose whether or not they wished to become independent.

“Frankly it is not up to a Westminster government which has just six MPs in Scotland to decide our future without the consent of the people who live here.

“As an independent country, co-operation between Scotland and our friends across the rest of the UK will continue, but it will be on a better basis: Scotland will be an equal partner.”

On Sunday, Alba party leader Alex Salmond used his conference address to mock the SNP’s record on advancing independence, likening it to the 1993 Bill Murray film Groundhog Day.

He said: “Bill Murray was only trapped in his time for a few months. Scotland’s Referendum Groundhog Day has lasted six years.

"And now in the run up to the SNP virtual Conference we have the announcement this week that a reduced civil service team are are going to be asked to start preparations for an independence White Paper. Wow. Haud me back.”

He also accused most of the SNP’s MPs of becoming too cost at Westminster.

He said: “They have settled down at Westminster instead of settling up for Scotland.

“Nicola Sturgeon said on Friday that Covid had made the financial case for independence more challenging.

“She is wrong – these great events, these world events, make the economic and social necessity of Scottish independence overwhelming.”

Tory constitution spokesman Donald Cameron MSP, said: “This speech - another one headlined by independence – might work wonders with the extreme elements of the nationalist base. But it does nothing for Scotland.

“Only the most fanatical SNP supporters will buy Nicola Sturgeon’s wild conspiracy theory that the UK is trying to make Scotland poorer when the Scottish Budget is at a record high, the UK furlough scheme has saved a million Scottish jobs, and the UK vaccine scheme has protected the health of millions of Scots.

“Instead of focusing on the NHS crisis and protecting jobs, Nicola Sturgeon has invented her own nationalist Project Fear. To distract from the SNP’s domestic failings, she’s ramping up division.

“The SNP leader also dusted off the infamous ‘Arc of Prosperity’ to try and drum up some kind of economic case for separating Scotland in the middle of a crisis, when we need the strength and security of the United Kingdom more than ever.

“At some stage, Nicola Sturgeon is going to have to find something new to say.”

Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar said Ms Sturgeon's speech failed to address the country's priorities.

He said: "Nicola Sturgeon’s spin does nothing to tackle the levels of child poverty on our streets, the numbers waiting for treatment in our hospitals, and the depth of the economic crisis facing Scotland.  

"We are up against a global pandemic, a growing healthcare crisis, a jobs crisis and a climate emergency – there is no time to waste. 

“There were no new ideas for to help Scots, just the same old rhetoric, slogans, and platitudes. Scotland deserves so much better than that.” 

Scotish Liberal Democrat leader Alex Cole-Hamilton said: "This speech from the SNP leader is either desperately cynical or deeply paranoid.

"The reason Scotland's economy is falling further behind the rest of the UK is because incompetent SNP ministers have let down small businesses and allowed green jobs to drift away.

"Our health service is struggling because of 14 years of SNP neglect and a global pandemic. Our emissions targets keep being missed because SNP bosses have their attention elsewhere.

"Nicola Sturgeon should stop blaming others and give her whole attention to the warning lights blinking across the dashboard of public policy.

"Over the next three months my party will lay out plans to give new hope for the climate, young people and our public services. Nicola Sturgeon should take notes."

Pamela Nash, chief executive of the anti-independence Scotland in Union group, said: “This was a speech full of grievance and bereft of ideas.

“As always, Nicola Sturgeon’s solution to everything is to break up our country.

“She is not listening to the majority of people in Scotland who do not want independence and do not want a second referendum any time soon.

“Her government has nothing to offer but tired old arguments.

“The response to Brexit is not to put our economy at risk with a hard border with our largest trading partner or by abolishing the pound.

“The First Minister should instead focus on using the many powers of devolution to build a recovery that leaves nobody behind; rather than trying to pull communities apart.”