NICOLA Sturgeon has insisted a legally binding referendum is the only way for the country to win independence.

The First Minister spoke out after she faced calls from SNP rebels for a conference debate on an alternative route if Westminster does not grant Holyrood the necessary powers to hold a new vote.

She dismissed claims that the SNP winning a majority of Scottish seats in a General Election would be enough for independence to be declared.

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The SNP leader said there was “no easy or shortcut route to independence” and that indyref2 had to be “beyond any doubt in terms of its legitimacy”. But she insisted that independence was now closer than ever.

Speaking to the BBC ahead of her party’s three-day conference, which opens in Aberdeen on Sunday, she insisted: “I have campaigned for independence all of my life. If there was an easy or shortcut route I would have taken it by now.

“We have to demonstrate majority support for independence in a process that is legal and legitimate and that crucially – not just domestically in the UK but internationally and in Europe in particular – will be accepted. That is the right way to go.”

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She has been criticised by some activists for not attending a pro-independence march in Edinburgh at the weekend and there have been calls for an unofficial independence referendum to be held, similar to the disputed one in Catalonia in 2017.

MP Angus MacNeil and senior councillor Chris McEleny have suggested that winning a majority of Scottish seats at Westminster should be enough for independence negotiations to begin without the need for a referendum – which was once the SNP’s official policy.

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Their attempts to get the issue discussed the SNP’s conference have failed but McEleny wants to make a new bid when the event opens.

A General Election is widely expected to be held in the coming months as Boris Johnson struggles to get UK Government plans through the Commons without a majority.

Sturgeon said the poll would offer Scottish voters the chance to demonstrate their support for a referendum and independence.

But she pointed out the SNP has previously won a majority of Scottish seats in a General Election on a minority of the votes.

And she said “nobody in Europe would listen to me in terms of the legitimacy of that” if she was to claim it was a mandate for independence.

The First Minister added: “I am absolutely confident we will win independence sooner rather than later, but the only way to do that is to clearly demonstrate that the majority of people in Scotland want it.

“I think we’re closer to that than we’ve ever been before and we should stick with that course, because it’s the right one and ultimately it will be the successful one”.

Johnson has said he would refuse a Section 30 Order request from the Scottish Government to Westminster. But Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has suggested he would not block a new plebiscite, though he said he would oppose independence.