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”.
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.”
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.
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: “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.”
• There has been a minor increase in support for Scottish independence, but a majority of Scots would vote No if a second independence referendum was held before Britain leaves the EU, according to a new poll. A YouGov poll of more than 1,000 Scots found 46% of respondents would vote for Scottish independence, while 54% want to remain in the UK, a change of 1% in favour of independence since the 2014 referendum result of 45% Yes voters and 55% No.
The survey, carried out for The Times newspaper, found 12% of No voters had moved to the Yes camp but 13% of Yes voters have shifted in the opposite direction. Pollsters questioned 1,039 Scottish adults earlier this week and found the majority do not want an second independence referendum before the UK leaves the EU, while 37% are in favour and the rest undecided.
Meanwhile, a report by think tank Common Weal claims an independent Scotland could save between £800m and £2bn a year in a study of options to apportion debt and assets in the event of a split from the UK. The report claims: “The UK Government position that an independent Scotland would automatically be responsible for paying a full proportional share of the UK’s debts whilst expecting nothing in return is a position completely at odds with the historical reality of separation negotiations.”
However, Scottish business leaders have urged a rethink on a new drive for Scottish independence, warning that it would add “fresh uncertainty” while businesses are seeking stability. In a letter to the Scotsman newspaper, figures including former CBI Scotland head Sir Iain McMillan and former Scottish Enterprise chief executive Jack Perry, called on Nicola Sturgeon to honour the Edinburgh Agreement signed by the UK and Scottish Governments before the 2014 referendum. They said: “A failure to do so, by re-starting an unwanted referendum campaign, would be tantamount to a major breach of trust by the Scottish Government to the two million Scots voters who voted No in the 2014 independence referendum.”