The Scottish Parliament elections could represent a "turning point" for the country, Jack McConnell has told Scottish Labour's conference in Dundee.
Jack McConnell addressed delegates
The first minister told delegates that voters faced a choice between two futures.
"The Nationalists want to rip it all up and start again, with the uncertainty and upheaval of divorce from the United Kingdom," he said
"They would risk jobs, family mortgages, pensions and investment in public services.
"But there is a better choice - a Labour government building on the start that we have made in improving our economy, improving schools and hospitals and tackling crime.
"This can be a turning point for Scotland. We can really make a difference."
However, Mr McConnell accepted that the election campaign could not overshadow the military action in the Gulf.
"We expected this conference to launch Labour's campaign for the Scottish elections in May, but the military conflict in Iraq has changed that.
"It is right that we meet, but it is also right that we respect those whose lives are on the line in our name," he said.
In a united Labour party we can ask for the trust and the support of Scottish voters
He expressed the party's support for those service personnel involved in the conflict.
The Iraq crisis dominated the first day of the conference, with party officials forced to hold a debate after a rebellion by delegates.
That discussion took place behind closed doors on Friday afternoon.
Mr McConnell told delegates: "While we will have our debates and we will have our concerns at this time, we must also remember that the Scottish Labour Party waited 100 years for a Scottish Parliament.
"Our task is to use the powers of devolution to change Scotland for the better.
"In a united Labour party we can ask for the trust and the support of Scottish voters."
The speech also included a number of policy pledges.
Mr McConnell said Labour would not introduce top-up fees for students at Scottish universities in the second term of the parliament.
He said it would build or refurbish 200 more schools throughout the country and reduce class sizes in English and mathematics in the early years of secondary school.
This can be a turning point for Scotland
And he promised to recruit an extra 2,500 teachers, as well as hundreds more doctors and nurses.
He also attacked the Scottish National Party, claiming that its pledges did not add up.
And he said: "If the Nationalists will not talk about independence, we will."
In response, SNP election coordinator Nicola Sturgeon MSP claimed that violent crime and waiting lists had increased under Labour, and that class sizes were still too large.
"Labour have had six years to show they can get things right and they have failed. Time's up for Labour," she said.