Nicola Sturgeon is to introduce new legislation to stage a second Scottish independence referendum, claiming that one must be held by May 2021.
The first minister said Brexit would have such a catastrophic impact on Scotland’s economy and Westminster’s approach to it had been so chaotic that Scottish voters must have the option to choose independence.
In a long-awaited statement to the Scottish parliament on her plans for independence, Sturgeon said the proposed legislation would set out how a new referendum would be held, if Holyrood was granted the powers to stage one.
On Tuesday, Number 10 made clear that Theresa May, the prime minister, would never authorise such a vote. May said “now is not the time” when Sturgeon first called for such powers in March 2017.
Sturgeon first announced she wanted new legislation on a second referendum in June 2016, immediately after the UK voted to leave the UK in the EU referendum.
Sturgeon said Westminster’s decision to press on with Brexit, despite an overwhelming remain vote in Scotland, was proof that the current system of devolution was broken.
Even so, she stopped short of declaring a referendum would definitely be held, naming a date for one or repeating her call for the powers to hold one – evasions which infuriate hardline independence campaigners.
“Brexit has exposed a deep democratic deficit at the heart of how Scotland is governed. And – whatever our different views on independence – it should persuade all of us that we need a more solid foundation on which to build our future as a country,” she told MSPs.
“With all of our assets and talents, Scotland should be a thriving and driving force within Europe. Instead we face being forced to the margins – sidelined within a UK that is, itself, increasingly sidelined on the international stage. Independence, by contrast, would allow us to protect our place in Europe.”
Repeated opinion polls show that a narrow majority of Scots are against independence, with only a minority backing a referendum in the next two years. Others show that a majority of Scottish voters would support a referendum over the next decade.
Sturgeon appeared to acknowledge there was not yet a majority in favour of leaving the UK and said she wanted to build consensus with opposition parties on Scotland’s constitutional and political future – in contrast to May’s insularity and intransigence on Brexit.
She called on opposition parties to hold talks with Mike Russell, her Brexit secretary, on other options for strengthening Scotland’s powers within the UK.
And at the same time, the Scottish government would set up a so-called “citizens’ assembly” drawing people from across the country and the political spectrum, chaired by an independent figure, to start a debate on its constitutional future.
“We have seen in Westminster what happens when parties fail to work together – when leaders take a ‘my way or the highway’ approach and when so many red lines and inflexible preconditions are set that progress becomes impossible,” Sturgeon said.
“This place was established with the hope that it would be a new type of parliament. We can show that we are able to put the interests of the people first. So if others across this chamber are willing to move forward in that spirit, they will find in me an equally willing partner.”
Jackson Carlaw, the interim Scottish Tory leader, said Sturgeon’s statement was “inherently divisive” and far from inclusive. “Astonishingly, the way Nicola Sturgeon thinks we can come together is for Scotland to be plunged into another divisive referendum within the next 18 months,” he said.
“That is frankly absurd. The SNP’s plan is clearly to divide families, workplaces and communities all over again, and for the foreseeable future. That is not what the majority of Scotland wants. People have had enough of constitutional politics and division.”
Richard Leonard, the Scottish Labour leader, said Sturgeon’s statement was designed primarily to placate her party’s restless membership, whom she will address at the Scottish National party’s spring conference in Edinburgh on Sunday.
“Nicola Sturgeon is using her office as first minister to put the interests of the SNP before the interests of our country,” Leonard said. “Her statement today is not about Brexit; this is about Nicola Sturgeon trying to pacify her party members and back benchers ahead of the SNP’s conference.
“The chaos of Brexit throws into sharp relief the challenges of leaving a political and economic union. Leaving the UK would lead to unprecedented austerity for Scotland’s public services.”