Nicola Sturgeon has put the Scottish parliament on a war footing for independence as she laid out her plans for the new Holyrood session.
The first minister confirmed she would bring legislation forward to re-run the 2014 referendum “if necessary” in the wake of the Brexit vote.
The SNP leader made the announcement while she revealed her plans for government, including a £500million package to support Scottish businesses.
Other proposals include employing newly-devolved powers to deliver widespread changes to the welfare state in Scotland, including the abolition of the so-called Bedroom Tax.
In her address to MSPs, Ms Sturgeon said the “defining mission” of her government would be education, but she also focused on Scotland’s economic security following the UK-wide vote to leave the EU.
She added: “To ensure that all options are open to us, this programme for government makes clear that we will consult on a draft Referendum Bill, so that it is ready for immediate introduction if we conclude that independence is the best or only way to protect Scotland’s interests.”
In a swipe at Conservative leader Ruth Davidson, Ms Sturgeon added: “This is a new parliament, with new powers, operating in a new constitutional context.
“We also have a new domestic political context in our national parliament.
“A social democratic government in the mainstream of Scottish public opinion confronted by a right-wing Conservative opposition.
“This means a real battle of ideas.”
However, Ms Davidson hit back, suggesting Ms Sturgeon’s rhetoric on the possibility of a re-run of the 2014 independence vote was hurting Scotland’s economy.
The Tory leader said: “The single biggest economic lever that the SNP could pull right now to help the country grow would be to remove the threat of a second referendum.
“That is what is holding us back, and stifling investment in our firms.
“Taking away that lead weight on our country’s prospects is one thing the First Minister could do right now.
“She might have hid independence in a throwaway line at the end of her speech, but the bill sits in the programme for government as a direct threat to our nation’s economic growth.”
The first minister had earlier announced a £500m package of financial support for private sector business investment.
Individual investment guarantees, and some loans, of up to £5million will be available to small and medium-sized firms under the Scottish Growth Scheme.
Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale accused the government of becoming “less and less ambitious” in its aims despite being “more and more powerful”.
She said it was “disappointing” an education bill would not be brought forward until next year, despite Ms Sturgeon claiming it is her “driving ambition”.