Nicola Sturgeon Launches Fresh Drive For Independence

Nicola Sturgeon has declared the time is right for the SNP to lead a "new conversation'' on independence.

The Scottish First Minister launched what she described as the "biggest-ever political listening exercise'', with the goal of speaking to two million voters before the end of November.

A dedicated website has been set up to gauge opinion on Europe, Brexit and independence while the SNP leader has also instructed all her MPs and MSPs to hold town-hall meetings on the issue.

In addition to this, Ms Sturgeon announced the SNP would establish a party growth commission, which will look at the prospects for Scotland's economy and also consider key matters such as currency.

While she accepted that opting to leave the UK "would be a big decision'', the First Minister said: "I believe it is right that our party does now lead a new conversation on independence.''

Her speech in Stirling on Friday morning took place almost two years after the September 2014 referendum, which saw Scots vote by 55% to 45% in favour of remaining in the United Kingdom.

Ms Sturgeon 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.''

She stressed the campaign by her party ``will be a new debate, it will not be a rerun of 2014''.

She added: "The UK that Scotland voted to stay part of has changed and so to have the arguments for and against independence.''

A "double whammy'' of two "seismic events'' over the summer has dramatically changed the political landscape, she argued.

Ms Sturgeon highlighted the uncertainty caused by the vote to leave the European Union (EU) in June, saying Scotland now faced the prospect "not just of being taken out of the EU against our will but being taken out of the single market altogether''.

She warned this would cause deep, permanent damage to the economy and told Theresa May: "As First Minister, I am not prepared to stand by and watch that happen without a battle.

"My message to the Prime Minister is this: You may have a mandate in England and Wales to leave the EU but you do not have a clear mandate to take any part of the UK out of the single market.''

She also claimed Labour's decision "to press the self-destruct button'' left the country facing "years, perhaps decades, of Tory government''.

The SNP leader stated: "There is now the very real possibility we are witnessing the end of Labour as a force to be reckoned with in British politics, perhaps the end of the Labour Party full stop.''

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

This week's UK cabinet meeting at Chequers - at which the Prime Minister emphasised "Brexit means Brexit'' - added to the evidence "that the hardline Brexiteers really are now running the show'', Ms Sturgeon said.

"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.''

She said independence would provide "an alternative to just hoping for the best at Westminster'', although she admitted it would present "its own challenges and complexities''.

Setting out plans for the new conversation on independence, 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.''

She added: "The wealth of information and insight that we gather will then inform the next stage of our campaign.''

It is unclear if the results of the conversation will be published.

The First Minister added that "tough issues'' will not be ducked, including how an independent Scotland would address a £15 billion deficit and what currency it would use.

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

"But it will also examine projections for Scotland's finances in the context of independence and consider a policy programme - with social justice at its heart - to grow the economy and reduce Scotland's deficit to a sustainable level.

"It will also consider the monetary arrangements that would best support and underpin a strategy for sustainable growth.''

The commission, which will include Finance Secretary Derek MacKay, will set out its full membership and remit in the coming weeks.

Alongside the party's new drive for independence, the SNP administration is already drawing up legislation for a fresh ballot.

Although Labour, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats have all vowed to oppose this, the minority SNP administration could see a referendum Bill passed if it is backed by the Scottish Greens.

Scottish Conservative 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.

"If she was really listening, she would know that most of us don't want to go back to another divisive referendum debate - we want Scotland to move on.

"As leader of the Scottish Conservative and Unionist party, I will oppose any attempt by the SNP to hold another referendum. It is utterly unjustified and unnecessary.

"More than that, my party will demand that this increasingly arrogant nationalist government gets back to the day job it was elected to do - to improve our schools, our hospitals and to create jobs.''

Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale said: "In the coming week, Nicola Sturgeon has the opportunity to lay a programme for government before the most powerful Scottish Parliament ever.

"The First Minister has the opportunity to transform our country for the better, cut the gap between the richest and the rest, rebuild our NHS to make it fit for the 21st century and ban fracking from Scotland.

"Instead of reforming education to give our young people the skills they need to compete for the jobs of the future, Nicola Sturgeon is deciding to drag Scotland back to the arguments of the past.''

Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie said the First Minister had "given up on anything but a second independence drive''.

"It is time Nicola Sturgeon got back to the day job,'' he added.

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