Scotland’s first minister also told an audience in Edinburgh on Monday that the barriers to protecting the country’s interests while remaining in the UK were “substantial”.
She described the absence of leadership and planning that became evident immediately after the leave vote as “one of the most shameful abdications of responsibility in modern political history”.
Addressing an Institute for Public Policy Research event, Sturgeon said she feared the UK government was pursuing a “hard rather than a soft Brexit” that would result in a future outside the single market with only limited access and a significant restriction on free movement.
Criticising the lack of clear explanation of what a leave vote meant in practice a month after the EU referendum, she described Theresa May’s assurance that “Brexit means Brexit” as “a soundbite that masks a lack of any clear sense of direction”.
Acknowledging that independence was not a simple solution after Scotland voted by 62% to remain within the EU, she said: “I don’t pretend that the option of independence would be straightforward. It would bring its own challenges – as well as opportunities.
“But consider this: 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.
“In these circumstances, it may well be that the option that offers us the greatest certainty, stability and the maximum control over our destiny, is that of independence.”
Using the event to outline the practical ways in which the EU remained vital to Scotland’s interests, Sturgeon emphasised the importance of retaining membership of the single market as well as free movement.
“For a country that needs to grow its population to help address skills gaps and deal with an ageing population, free movement matters,” she said.
She added that she “genuinely feared” the prospect of a UK government outside the single market seeking to alleviate its competitive disadvantage through deregulation, potentially offering more opportunities for tax avoidance.
She reaffirmed that in the period before article 50 is triggered, Scotland must explore options “that would allow different parts of this multi-national UK to pursue different outcomes”.
“That means the nations that voted to leave can start figuring out what Brexit actually does mean – while others, like Scotland, can focus on how to retain ties and keep open channels we do not want to dismantle.”
But Sturgeon cautioned that the barriers to achieving such a solution were “substantial”, saying: “Even if we can agree a position at UK level, we would face the task of persuading the EU to agree it.”
Reviewing the lessons of the EU referendum campaign, she said it had revealed “the limitations and dangers of negative, fear-based campaigning, particularly in the social media age”.
She also discussed the motivations of those who voted to leave, arguing: “Leave campaigners may have played the anti-immigration card to the point, at times, of overt racism. But 17 million leave voters were not racist – nor even in many cases anti-immigration.”
Insisting she would listen to the 1 million Scottish voters who voted to leave the EU, she suggested that a partial explanation for why the result was different north of the border lay in the explanation that the vote reflected a loss of confidence and trust in UK institutions, while trust in the Scottish government remained high.
Echoing the call from the Welsh first minister, Carwyn Jones, for each of the devolved parliaments to be given the right to vote on the terms of Brexit, Sturgeon insisted that the devolved administrations must be involved in the political decision to invoke article 50 “not just in the evidence gathering and consultation to inform that decision, but in the actual decision itself”.
Sturgeon also issued a challenge to May’s new cabinet. Addressing them directly, she said: “Now is the time to do more than just assert – against evidence to the contrary – that the union works for Scotland. It is surely time now to find ways to demonstrate that Scotland’s voice can be heard, our wishes accommodated and our interests protected within the UK.”
This article was written by Libby Brooks Scotland correspondent, for theguardian.com on Monday 25th July 2016 12.51 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010