Nicola Sturgeon appeared to hint she could still push for a second vote on Scottish independence even if the UK remains part of the European Union.
The First Minister said “many people” would agree Westminster’s treatment of Scotland during the Brexit process marked the “material change in circumstances” that would be necessary for the SNP to have a mandate for such a vote.
She spoke out after announcing to MSPs that the Scottish Government will “shortly” bring forward legislation to lay down the rules for a possible second independence referendum.
Ms Sturgeon insisted in her Holyrood statement that if Brexit does go ahead, their should be another vote on Scotland’s place in the UK before the next Holyrood elections in May 2021.
“We can only plan on the basis that the UK is still going to be taken out of the EU, that is what the UK Government is planning to do,” the First Minister told BBC Radio Scotland.
The SNP’s 2016 election manifesto made clear another referendum should be held if there was to be a “material change in circumstances” from the original ballot in 2014.
It cited Scotland being removed the from EU against the wishes of its people as one example of this, but speaking on the Good Morning Scotland programme Ms Sturgeon said: “Many people would say there has been a big material change of circumstances in the way Scotland has been treated over the past few years.”
If Remainers do manage to halt Brexit, she said she would give her views then on what should happen next.
The SNP leader however stated: “We could be facing the prospect of Boris Johnson as prime minister in a matter of months. I’m not going to start to narrow Scotland’s options.
“The important thing over this next period, with such fundamental change happening in the UK that is not in Scotland’s interests, is that Scotland has maximum options to chart its own way forward.”
She was also adamant her government had a mandate for a fresh referendum before the next Scottish elections.
Ms Sturgeon said: “The last Holyrood election, which the SNP won with a record vote share, in that manifesto we said…. there would be a choice of another independence referendum if there was a material change of circumstances such as Scotland being taken out of the EU against our will.
“That is exactly the scenario we are in.”
While a poll for the pro-UK campaign group Scotland in Union found only 21% of Scots support having another vote on independence in the next two years, Ms Sturgeon stressed that overall a majority of people do want to be given the choice at some point.
“My job is to explain to people why I think it would be a mistake to wait too long and allow the damage to be done to us,” she added.
She insisted Brexit would “do real damage for a long time to come to our economy, to our society, to our place in the world”.
And she said it was important for Scots – who voted by almost two thirds to remain in the EU in 2016 – to have a choice between the “damage of Brexit” and an “alternative path as an independent European country”.
The First Minister dismissed the suggestion her statement on Wednesday had been made to appease SNP activitists who are keen for her to set a date for a second independence ballot ahead of the party’s Edinburgh conference this weekend.
“The timing is not to do with the SNP conference,” she stated.
“The European Council met when the Scottish Parliament had gone into recess, extended the UK’s membership, and I made a statement when the Scottish Parliament came back out of its Easter recess.
“I had given a commitment a long time ago to update the Scottish Parliament as soon as we had any kind of clarity and when we got clarity about a six month extension that is exactly what I did.”
Scottish Conservative constitution spokesman Adam Tomkins said the First Minister’s remarks were “proof that Nicola Sturgeon wants to press on with her break-up plans come hell or high water”.
He said: “Whether there’s a hard Brexit, a soft Brexit or no Brexit at all – the First Minister will make this all about independence.
“It’s a shameless approach – Nicola Sturgeon isn’t even pretending to care about Brexit anymore.”
Scottish Labour finance spokesman James Kelly said: “No matter what she says, Nicola Sturgeon knows most people don’t want another independence referendum but she’ll find any excuse to try to justify one.”
He argued a second independence referendum would be a “distraction from the real challenges Scotland faces – a low pay economy, exhausted public services and soaring child poverty”.
Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie said: “This interview shows that for the SNP it isn’t really about Brexit.
“If one source of grievance is gone, they will simply invent another.”