Nicola Sturgeon has appealed to anti-independence voters to back her demands for a referendum, claiming it would be unjust and anti-democratic to reject one.
Addressing the majority of Scottish voters who opposed a referendum before Brexit directly, the first minister said the country should support her challenge to Theresa May to agree to a vote in as little as 18 months’ time.
“We are not powerless. We can still decide which path we take,” she told the Scottish National party’s spring conference. “Whatever our different opinions on independence, we can all unite around this simple principle. Scotland’s future must be Scotland’s choice.”
After a tumultuous week over the country’s future, when May rejected her plea for the power to stage a second referendum, Sturgeon needs to dramatically increase popular support to bolster her case.
A series of opinion polls has shown about two-thirds of voters oppose a referendum until after Brexit, including a minority of independence voters. There is no majority support for independence, although several recent polls by BMG and Ipsos Mori suggest the yes and no votes are tied, once don’t knows are excluded.
In another direct pitch for the support of non-nationalist voters who voted remain in last year’s EU referendum, she promised to “guarantee unequivocally the right to stay here for all EU citizens who do us the honour of making our country their home”.
That pledge stops short of confirming Sturgeon would recommend an independent Scotland joins the EU if she wins that referendum.
Despite using the fact that Scotland is being pulled out of the EU against its will as the basis for a referendum, she is expected to favour joining the European Free Trade Association or European Economic Area instead. A large minority of SNP supporters voted leave last year and she will need to secure their votes in order to achieve independence.
Faced with May’s outright rejection of her request last week, Sturgeon is also softening her demands for the referendum to take place between autumn 2018 and spring 2019 – the period when the UK’s Brexit deal with the EU could be signed and ratified by its member states.
Sturgeon told delegates she expected the Scottish parliament to vote for her referendum timetable next week, allowing her to write officially to the prime minister requesting the powers to stage it.
She did not mention a precise timescale in her conference speech, but said she would negotiate on when it could be held. “If her concern is timing then within reason I am happy to have that discussion. But let the prime minister be in no doubt. The will of our parliament must and will prevail.”
Sturgeon ignored a renewed call from the former prime minister Gordon Brown for Scotland to win substantial new spending, tax and policymaking powers after Brexit as part of a restructuring of the UK into a fully-fledged federal state.
In a speech in Fife timed to coincide with Sturgeon’s conference address, Brown said: “A new third option can unify our country and end the bitter and divisive yes-versus-no conflict that will continue to rip us apart. It is time to transcend the bitter division and extremism of an inflexible, die-hard conservatism at war with an intransigent and even more hardline nationalism.”
His intervention was intended to boost efforts by Kezia Dugdale, the Scottish Labour leader, to promote federalism at UK level as an alternative to independence – a cause Jeremy Corbyn, the UK party leader, has not yet endorsed.
In a further effort to build support from across the political spectrum, Sturgeon again urged SNP activists and independence campaigners to treat their critics or opponents with “courtesy, understanding and respect”. She said the SNP faced challenging questions about the costs and difficulties of independence, and told delegates: “We should embrace that scrutiny.”
“As we debate our future, let’s do so openly and honestly. But let no one – for or against independence – ever seek to run down Scotland’s strengths and our nation’s great potential. What we must all do is strive to make our country even better,” she said.
Despite that placatory message, Sturgeon compared May’s politics to the hardline era of Margaret Thatcher’s government. She said the current UK government was dominated by rightwing Tories who wanted to abolish the Scottish parliament so they “could do anything they wanted to Scotland”.
Angus Robertson, the SNP’s deputy leader, had earlier dismissed the former Labour prime minister’s intervention as “Brown-hog day”. He told BBC Breakfast: “What we’re seeing yet again is Gordon Brown being wheeled out when the union is in trouble.”
Brown made similar promises before the 2014 independence referendum about “transformational change” and “near as possible federalism” if Scotland voted to stay in the UK. “We are very, very far from that,” Robertson said. “I don’t take this seriously at all.”
Guto Bebb, a Eurosceptic Tory junior minister in the Welsh Office said after visiting Edinburgh his gut feeling was that Scotland would vote yes to independence, challenging his government’s stance on the union.
Bebb, a former official in Plaid Cymru, said on his blog that Scotland was “clearly another country. My brief visit to Edinburgh left me somewhat despondent because I felt the same way as I do when I leave Dublin.”.
He said: “For me, Dublin is somewhere which is recognisable but very different. That is fine in the context of the capital of an independent country but it should be a warning when visiting a city which is a crucial part of the UK. The sense of nationhood in Edinburgh is palpable.”