Another referendum on Scottish independence “must remain an option” following the UK vote to leave the European Union, Nicola Sturgeon told business leaders in London yesterday.
The First Minister said Scotland had been plunged into economic uncertainty “not of our making”, adding: “The [Brexit] outcome was not the one I campaigned for and not the one for which [the majority of] people in Scotland voted.”
Speaking to 2,000 members of the Institute of Directors (IoD) at the business body’s annual meeting at the Royal Albert Hall, the First Minister said her starting point in the post-Brexit negotiations between the UK and the European Union was that the country should remain a member of the single market.
But Ms Sturgeon said that if a new referendum on Scottish independence was “the only or best way” of protecting Scotland’s economic interests it “stands to reason” that it had to remain an option two years after the last referendum.
She said: “In many ways, EU membership is now part of Scotland’s sense of itself. I’ve made it clear that a referendum on Scottish independence must remain an option, if the approach taken by the Westminster government proves to be seriously damaging to our economy, our competitiveness and to our place in the world.”
In a later public interview session with Lady Barbara Judge, chairwoman of the IoD, the First Minister said that in the Scottish independence referendum in 2014 much was made of the economic certainty of remaining in the UK contrasted with the uncertainty of Scotland going it alone.
But she said that with the onset of post-Brexit uncertainty for the UK, that argument “does not have as much resonance as it might have had back then”.
Before June’s UK vote to leave the EU, surveys showed 60 per cent of IoD members backed Remain, 30 per cent Leave and 10 per cent undecided.
Ms Sturgeon said that a key reason for the Brexit vote was “a sense of disenfranchisement and disillusionment” among powerless sections of society hurt by the UK government’s austerity programme and weakening of “social safety nets”.
She called on Chancellor Philip Hammond in his forthcoming Autumn Statement to spread the benefits of growth measures widely to address this feeling of inequality and “because it [growth] is more sustainable if broadly-based”.
Ms Sturgeon added that in the debate over the timing and manner of leaving of the EU via the triggering of Article 50 it should be remembered that people had been told constantly by the Leave camp that quitting the EU did not mean leaving the single market.
As a result, she said: “I don’t believe there’s a clear mandate for what is generally known as a hard Brexit.” Holyrood would make common cause with the business community, Ms Sturgeon said, to limit the economic damage from the Brexit vote.
“I deeply regret the outcome of the referendum. But I don’t want to see the UK government compound the mistakes of the EU referendum,” she said.