Nicola Sturgeon has given her clearest indication yet that Scotland is heading towards a second independence referendum with a warning that the powers of the Scottish Parliament are at risk from a so-called “hard Brexit”.
The First Minister told an audience in Edinburgh last night that a second vote on leaving the UK would “almost be a necessary way” to safeguard Scotland’s values and priorities.
It came as UK government ministers were told to prepare for a “hard Brexit” which will leave Scotland and the UK outside the lucrative EU single market, with a likely crackdown on immigration.
In last year’s EU referendum, 62 per cent of Scots who voted elected to stay in the bloc, but the weight of votes south of the Border swung the result in favour of Leave.
And the First Minister last night made it clear that EU departure will further widen the gulf between Scotland and the rest of the UK, prompting a second independence referendum, expected next year. “It will show that the democratic deficit which people voted to end in 1997 doesn’t just endure,” Ms Sturgeon said of a hard Brexit.
“It continues to cause harm to Scotland’s interests, to our international relationships, to our very sense of our own identity.
“And so if those circumstances arise, proposing a further decision on independence wouldn’t simply be legitimate, it would almost be a necessary way of giving the people of Scotland a say in our own future direction.
“It would offer Scotland a proper choice on whether or not to be part of a post-Brexit UK – a UK that is undoubtedly on a fundamentally different path today than that envisaged in 2014.
“And in the absence of compromise from the UK government, it may offer the only way in which our voice can be heard, our interests protected, and our values upheld.”
The Prime Minister will be in Scotland later this week for the Scottish Tory conference and has appealed to Scots to use the forthcoming council elections to reject independence.
UK ministers were told yesterday to prepare their departments for the possibility of a “hard Brexit” if talks with the EU fail to reach a satisfactory deal.
At a Cabinet meeting, Brexit secretary David Davis warned ministers of the “scale and complexity” of the talks ahead and said they needed to be ready in case “no mutually satisfactory agreement can be reached”.
Mr Davis said negotiating Brexit was the “most important peacetime operation” in the UK’s history and that failure to reach a deal after two years of talks was an “unlikely scenario”.
However, Theresa May has insisted that she will walk away from the negotiating table if the Brexit terms offered by the EU are unsatisfactory.
Failure to agree a post-Brexit relationship with Europe would mean UK exporters would go over a “cliff edge” into World Trade Organisation trading terms, meaning high tariffs on a range of goods and no preferential access to the European single market.
According to a Downing Street spokesman, the Prime Minister told the Cabinet that the government “must be optimistic”.
Mrs May told her ministers: “We are not going to fail.”
Former chancellor George Osborne has said a hard Brexit would be the “greatest act of protectionism in British history” dealing huge harm to the UK economy.
The SNP wants to secure an independence vote before the Brexit process is complete in two years with the aim of allowing Scotland to automatically remain in the EU. However, some senior EU figures have warned an independent Scotland would be outside the EU and forced to “get in line” along with other countries like Serbia and Montenegro which are seeking to join.
Ms Sturgeon said in a combative speech last night that the “democratic deficit” which fuelled the demand for a Scottish Parliament in the 1980s- 90s has opened up again.
“The Brexit process has emboldened a now powerful Westminster faction, which never accepted devolution, and which now sees it as an opportunity to rein in the Scottish Parliament,” she added.
“In place of a multinational United Kingdom democracy, they see Brexit as the way to claw background.”
And despite promises made by the Leave campaign during the referendum that Holyrood would gain new powers repatriated from Brussels, statements suggest elements of farming and fishing policy “now risk being taken back to Westminster”.
She added: “That would be utterly unacceptable.”
Political rivals last night rejected Ms Sturgeon’s claims that the powers of the Scottish Parliament are under threat from Brexit.
Tory leader Ruth Davidson said: “This hyperbole from the First Minister takes synthetic grievance to a whole new level. Frankly, she sounds shrill.”
Labour leader Kezia Dugdale also dismissed the remarks and pledged to campaign against a “divisive” second referendum.
“This is ridiculous scaremongering from Nicola Sturgeon,” Ms Dugdale said.
A UK government spokesman said: “These claims completely misrepresent the UK government’s position. We have been very clear that no decisions currently taken by Holyrood will be taken away.”