Nicola Sturgeon has urged supporters of Scottish independence to have “patience”, as she predicted Brexit will lead to the break-up of the United Kingdom.
The First Minister insisted her wish to hold a second referendum later this year remains “perfectly realistic”, but she acknowledged it may not now take place until after the next Holyrood election in 2021.
She told supporters they must be prepared to “stay the course, even if sometimes it feels difficult”.
Speaking in Edinburgh on Brexit day, the SNP leader said told party activists: “We must make our case with passion but also with patience and respect.”
Her message came as she stressed that for Scotland to become independent, “a referendum, whenever it happens – whether it is this year as I want, or after the next Scottish election – must be legal and legitimate”.
Speaking just hours before the UK leaves the European Union, she added: “I believe Brexit will lead to Scotland being independent. In that sense the UK in its current form will not exist.
“That’s a thoroughly positive thing for Scotland.”
Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who has already rejected Ms Sturgeon’s calls for a fresh independence referendum, hailed the UK’s departure from the EU as a “moment of real national renewal and change”.
But Ms Sturgeon said Brexit in Scotland had brought “recognition that there is a fork in the road”.
She said: “Boris Johnson’s path lies one way, the opportunity to be a modern, progressive, open, tolerant country at the heart of Europe lies the other. That other way can only come with independence.”
She used her speech to outline steps the SNP will now take towards a second referendum, with its campaign budget for this year to be doubled in a bid to win over undecided voters.
Watchdogs at the Electoral Commission will be tasked with testing the question “Should Scotland be an independent country?” – the one which was used in the 2014 vote – in preparation for a second ballot.
Meanwhile, the Scottish Government will publish a series of papers setting out how Scots can “build a better future” outside the UK, and Ms Sturgeon promised a new Constitutional Convention, following on from the one which campaigned for the creation of the Scottish Parliament.
Ms Sturgeon said the Conservatives “fear” the verdict of Scottish voters and that is why they want to block a second referendum, as she cited an opinion poll on Thursday which found 51% of Scots now favour independence.
The First Minister insisted she will not sanction a “wildcat” unauthorised referendum, as was held in Catalonia, but said there could come a time when the Scottish Government would consider holding a consultative vote – if this was ruled to be legal by the courts.
But Scottish Conservative interim leader Jackson Carlaw condemned the “downbeat” statement from a First Minister “faced with the reality that there will be no referendum anytime soon”.
He added: “Nicola Sturgeon’s determination to plough on with preparations for another vote on independence is predictable, depressing and entirely wrong-headed.
“People across Scotland are sick and tired of her relentless pursuit of a referendum they simply don’t want.
“What people do want is action now to improve education, health, policing and all the other services they rely upon.
“On the day we leave the EU, they want a Government which focuses on Scotland’s economy and jobs.
“And they want Nicola Sturgeon to put her referendum plans where they belong – firmly on the backburner.”
Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie said: “Independence supporters will feel let down with promises of yet more talking shops and a spin-job.
“This was supposed to be a game changing speech but all it’s changed is the name of the pointless talking shop.”
Pamela Nash, chief executive of pro-UK campaign group Scotland in Union, branded Ms Sturgeon’s address an “opportunistic speech designed to distract from the SNP’s catastrophic failings in Government”.
She added: “It is sickening that Nicola Sturgeon is willing to neglect struggling schools and hospitals and waste even more public money on her never-ending campaign to divide the people of Scotland.”