THE First Minister has fired the starting gun on a new independence referendum, telling the nation she wants to put “Scotland’s future in the hands of Scotland’s people”.

Nicola Sturgeon made the dramatic announcement just after 11.30am yesterday at her official residence, Bute House in Edinburgh, saying voters should be given the opportunity to avoid a hard Tory Brexit.

She is expected seek the approval of MSPs at Holyrood next Tuesday to start negotiations with the UK Government on a deal that would allow a legally binding ballot to be held.

The move could see a second plebiscite take place sometime between Autumn 2018, when it is expected an outline Brexit deal between the UK and European Union could be reached, and Spring 2019, when Britain is on course to leave the EU.

The First Minister’s proposal comes after 62 per cent of Scots voted to stay in the EU in last year’s referendum while the UK as a whole voted for Brexit, and she said she believed the new independence referendum was necessary to protect Scotland’s interests socially, culturally and politically.

Outlining her plans, she said: “I will now take the steps necessary to make sure that Scotland will have a choice at the end of this process – a choice of whether to follow the UK to a hard Brexit or to become an independent country, able to secure a real partnership of equals with the rest of the UK and our own relationship with Europe.”

She indicated she would go to MSPs next week to seek their backing to request the power for the Scottish Parliament to legislate for an independence referendum.

During questioning from reporters she confirmed she wanted the question on the ballot paper to be the same as in 2014: “Should Scotland be an independent country?” and also said she believed she would win.

A Ipsos Mori poll last week showed independence is now backed by 50 per cent of Scottish voters – an increase of five per cent since the September 2014 referendum. A BMG for The Herald published yesterday showed support for self-determination was at 48 per cent.

However, the latter survey was carried out before Theresa May’s speech to the Scottish Conservative conference on March 3, when she raised the prospect of rewriting the devolution settlement after Brexit, holding on to some powers in devolved areas when they are repatriated from Brussels instead of transferring them to Holyrood.

During her speech Sturgeon said “compromise” proposals put forward in December 2016, which would see Scotland stay in the single market when the UK exits the EU and new powers going to Holyrood as a result of Brexit, had been met with a “brick wall of intransigence” from May’s government.

She hit out at the Prime Minister, saying: “UK membership of the single market was ruled out with no prior consultation with the Scottish Government, or indeed with the other devolved administrations – leaving us facing not just Brexit, but a hard Brexit.

“There has been talk of special deals for the car industry and others but a point-blank refusal to discuss in any meaningful way a differential approach for Scotland.

“And far from any prospect of significant new powers for the Scottish Parliament, the UK Government is becoming ever more assertive in its intention to muscle in on the powers we already have.”

Sturgeon added: “There should be little doubt about this – if Scotland can be ignored on an issue as important as our membership of the EU and the single market, then it is clear that our voice and our interests can be ignored at any time and on any issue.”

Leaving the EU would affect jobs and the economy north of the Border, the First Minister said, as well as how “open, welcoming, diverse and fair” Scotland would be in the future.

She also said there were implications for democracy, questioning “to what extent will we be able to determine our own direction of travel, rather than having that decided for us”.

The First Minister said: “In short, it is not just our relationship with Europe that is at stake. What is at stake is the kind of country we will become.”

And perhaps addressing voters hesitant about the prospect of a new ballot – which will be the third time the people in Scotland will have voted in a referendum since September 2014 – she said “the instinct to do nothing and just hope for the best is understandable”.

But she warned that “doing nothing” and “hoping for the best” would not be in the interests of the country’s future.

“At times like these, it is more important than ever to have a clear plan for the way ahead – to try, as far as is possible, to be in control of events and not just at the mercy of them,” she said.

“Right now, Scotland stands at a hugely important crossroads.

“We didn’t choose to be in this position. In common with most people across the country, I wish that we weren’t in this position. But we are, and the stakes are high.”

She concluded: “If I ruled out a referendum, I would be deciding ... that Scotland will follow the UK to a hard Brexit come what may, no matter how damaging to our economy and our society it turns out to be. That should not be the decision of just one politician, not even the First Minister. By taking the steps I have set out today I am ensuring Scotland’s future will be decided by the people of Scotland. It will be Scotland’s choice and I trust the people to make that choice.”