Scottish leader Nicola Sturgeon said on Monday she would start preparatory work on splitting Scotland from the rest of Britain in order to keep the option of independence available following the June 23 vote to leave the European Union.
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Although Britain voted to end its EU membership at the referendum, Scottish voters overwhelmingly backed remaining inside the bloc, reigniting the debate over Scotland's future as a constituent nation of the United Kingdom.
Sturgeon renewed her position that a fresh independence bid, only two years after the country voted against it, should remain an option, depending on the shape of Britain's future ties with the bloc and how well they worked for Scotland.
"If we find that our interests can't be protected in a UK context, independence must be one of those options that Scotland must have the right to consider," Sturgeon said in a speech.
"That's why we'll take the preparatory steps to ensure that it's an option open to the Scottish parliament if the Scottish parliament considers it necessary."
Sturgeon did not say what form the preparatory work would take, but stressed that the unprecedented nature of Britain's exit meant all options for future ties with the EU and the rest of the United Kingdom should be considered.
"The UK that we voted to stay part of in 2014, a UK within the EU, is fundamentally changing. The outlook for the UK is uncertainty, upheaval and unpredictability," she said.
"In these circumstances it may well be that the option that offers us the greatest certainty, stability, and maximum control over our own destiny is that of independence."
An opinion poll late last month showed that Scots do not think there should be a second independence referendum, with 44.7 percent against a fresh vote and 41.9 percent in favor.
New British Prime Minister Theresa May has previously stressed the need for the exit from the EU to work for all regions of the country, and a desire to engage with Scotland on the Brexit process.
However, responding to Sturgeon's comments, a spokeswoman for May said the decision to leave the EU must be respected.
Sturgeon also said she did not think a prolonged period of negotiations with the EU over how to leave the bloc would be in anyone's interests, and she feared the terms of Britain's exit could be unfavorable for Scotland.
"If we can read anything from the early signs, whether from government appointments, or from initial pronouncements - I hope I'm wrong about this - (it's) that the UK is heading toward a hard rather than a soft Brexit," she said.
"A future outside the single market with only limited access and significant restrictions on free movement."
(Reporting by William James and Giles Elgood; editing by Stephen Addison)