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Sturgeon launches 'new conversation' on Scottish independence

Scotland's first minister Nicola Sturgeon speaks at an event in Stirling, where she launched a fresh bid to convince Scots to back independence PICTURE: Andrew Milligan, Press Association
Katrine Bussey and Lynsey Bews, Press Association

NICOLA Sturgeon has launched a "new conversation" on Scottish independence, with the aim of targeting up to two million voters before the end of November.

The SNP leader described it as the "biggest-ever political listening exercise", which will seek views on Europe, Brexit and independence using a far-reaching survey and town-hall meetings across the country.

She also unveiled plans for a party growth commission to look at the prospects for Scotland's economy and consider key matters such as currency and the fiscal deficit.

Ms Sturgeon stressed the initiative "will be a new debate" and not a "rerun" of the 2014 arguments, which saw Scots vote by 55 per cent to 45 per cent in favour of remaining in the United Kingdom.

Opposition parties urged her to focus on her "day job", arguing she should be using her powers to improve public services instead of pursuing independence again.

They have also suggested the country's £15 billion annual deficit should act as a "reality check" for those calling for a second referendum.

Ms Sturgeon, who was addressing an SNP away-day for parliamentarians and councillors, said a "double whammy" of two "seismic events" – the Brexit vote and the "chaos and collapse" of Labour – have changed the political landscape.

She said all polls since then had shown increased support for independence and added: "I suspect support for independence will be even higher if it becomes clear it is the best or only way to protect our interests."

While she has pledged to examine all options to protect Scotland's place in Europe, immediately after the Brexit ballot she warned a second vote on Scottish independence was now ''highly likely''.

More recently she has highlighted concerns the UK is heading towards a "hard Brexit" outside the single market – a move she signalled would be unacceptable for Scotland.

"There can be no doubt that Brexit raises afresh the issue of independence," she said.

"But there are two truths that we must never forget. First, Scotland will only become independent when a majority of people choose it. There are no shortcuts – we still have to make the case and win the argument.

"And second, important though the issue of EU membership is, the case for independence is about more than that."

Setting out plans for the new conversation, which will run until St Andrew's Day, Ms Sturgeon added: "We want to understand in detail how people feel about Europe, Brexit and independence.

"We want to know the concerns people have and the questions they want answered. We want to build, if we can, a consensus on the way ahead."

The commission, to be chaired by former MSP Andrew Wilson, "will inform our thinking on how growth can be sustained in the here and now and during the period of uncertainty caused by Brexit", Ms Sturgeon said.

The SNP administration is already drawing up legislation for a fresh independence ballot, which Labour, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats have all vowed to oppose.

The Scottish Conservatives have launched an online petition against a second vote.

Leader Ruth Davidson said: "Nicola Sturgeon has shown today that she is prepared to ignore the priorities of the people of Scotland in pursuit of her own narrow nationalist agenda.

"I will oppose any attempt by the SNP to hold another referendum. It is utterly unjustified and unnecessary."

Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale said Ms Sturgeon was attempting to "drag Scotland back to the arguments of the past".

Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie said: "It is time Nicola Sturgeon got back to the day job."

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