Nicola Sturgeon will push ahead with plans for a second Scottish independence referendum within the next two years if the UK quits the European Union.
While the First Minister said she wants to have cross-party talks with opposition leaders about Scotland’s future in the wake of Brexit, she also announced that new legislation laying down the rules for a future referendum would be introduced “shortly” at Holyrood.
Plans for this framework Bill, along with the creation of a new Citizens Assembly, were announced in a statement to MSPs on Wednesday.
She told them: “I can confirm that the Scottish Government will act to ensure that the option of giving people a choice on independence later in this term of Parliament is progressed.”
Ms Sturgeon was clear that a “choice between Brexit and a future for Scotland as an independent European nation” should be offered to people before the next Holyrood elections in May 2021.
She set out her stance after Theresa May secured a second extension to the Article 50 process, delaying the UK’s EU departure until October 31 at the latest.
For Scots to “rush into an immediate decision before a Brexit path has been determined would not allow for an informed choice to be made” about the future, the First Minister said.
But she stressed: “If we are to safeguard Scotland’s interests, we cannot wait indefinitely.
“That is why I consider that a choice between Brexit and a future for Scotland as an independent European nation should be offered in the lifetime of this parliament.”
Ms Sturgeon is adamant the Scottish Government has a mandate to hold a second independence referendum as a result of the SNP’s victory in the 2016 Holyrood elections – with the party’s manifesto explicitly stating such a vote could take place if there was a material change of circumstances since the first vote in 2014.
But with the Prime Minister having repeatedly made clear her opposition to a second independence ballot, Scottish Secretary David Mundell said the UK Government will “stand up” for those who do not want another vote.
He said: “People in Scotland voted decisively in 2014 to remain part of the UK, on a promise that the referendum would settle the issue for a generation.
“Instead of respecting that result, Nicola Sturgeon continues to press for divisive constitutional change when it is clear that most people in Scotland do not want another independence referendum. The UK Government will stand up for them.”
Ms Sturgeon, however, claimed the current constitutional status quo was “broken” and that it is time for politicians in the Scottish Parliament to consider the consequences of Brexit.
While she insisted she feels this means “the case for independence is stronger than ever”, she conceded others take a different view.
She has now tasked her Brexit Secretary Mike Russell to “explore with other parties… areas of agreement on constitutional and procedural change”.
Alongside this, the First Minister announced a Citizens Assembly will be set up to “bring together a representative cross-section of Scotland” to consider issues such as what kind of country Scotland should be.
Scottish Tory interim leader Jackson Carlaw claimed Ms Sturgeon’s statement was “inherently divisive”.
He said: “Astonishingly, the way the First Minister thinks we come together is for the people of Scotland to be plunged into another divisive referendum within the next 18 months.
“First Minister, this is just absurd.
“Scotland has had enough of constitutional politics and division. We say no more – enough is enough.”
Scottish Labour’s Richard Leonard accused the First Minister of putting “the interests of the SNP before the interests of our country”.
Arguing that independence would lead to “unprecedented austerity” for Scotland, he claimed Ms Sturgeon’s statement was an attempt to “pacify her party members and backbenchers ahead of the SNP’s conference” this weekend.
Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie said: “The First Minister hasn’t done the one decent thing that people in Scotland want her to do, which is to make it stop and take her campaign for independence off the table.
“With all the division and chaos with Brexit, with all the wounds still open from the last independence campaign, with all the problems with schools, hospitals and social care, the last thing this country needs is to repeat the mistakes of Brexit.”
But there was support for Ms Sturgeon from the Scottish Greens, whose parliamentary co-leader Alison Johnstone said: “Scotland’s future should be in Scotland’s hands as an independent nation at the heart of Europe.
“The Brexit shambles confirms our belief that we would be far better governing ourselves.”
Prime Minister Theresa May’s official spokesman said: “As we have been repeatedly clear, Scotland has already had an independence referendum in 2014 and voted decisively to remain in the United Kingdom. This should be respected. Our position hasn’t changed.”