This is a pivotal moment for the UK and Scotland.
Tonight, the UK will leave the European Union.
That will be a moment of real and profound sadness for many of us across the UK.
And here in Scotland, given that it is happening against the will of the vast majority of us, that sadness will be tinged with anger.
It would be easy to dwell on that.
On what is being taken away from us.
But that is not what I want to do today.
Instead I want to focus on something much more important.
Hope of a different and better future for Scotland.
A future in which our path as a country is determined by those who care most about Scotland’s interests – all of us who live here.
A future in which we don’t have to choose between a relationship with our closest friends across the British Isles and our ties with Europe – but can instead build and nurture both.
A future where our own Parliament and Government – accountable to the people of Scotland – are responsible for the decisions and the international partnerships that shape our direction and our destiny.
A future where we continue to be an open, welcoming place to live, study and work.
And a valued member of the European family of nations.
After tonight, that future is only open to us with independence.
Our task is to persuade a majority of people in Scotland to choose it.
So I want to focus today on the work we need to do to persuade a majority in Scotland that independence is the right choice – and how in the process of doing that, we will secure our right to choose it in a referendum.
Of course, people have differing views on whether or not Scotland should be independent, but the case for us having the right to make that choice is overwhelming.
As of 11pm tonight, the UK that Scotland voted to remain part of in 2014 – a UK inside the EU – will no longer be a reality.
The status quo that a majority voted for will no longer exist.
There will be a material change in the circumstances that prevailed in 2014.
Leaving the EU is a fundamental change in Scotland’s constitution.
The consequences will be significant, even if they are not all felt immediately.
Right now, Scotland does not have the powers to mitigate many of these consequences let alone avoid them altogether.
And the UK Government has shown no interest at all in finding ways to accommodate our distinctive views and interests.
Take the vital issue of migration.
On Monday I published proposals that would, in a post Brexit world and within current constitutional arrangements, allow Scotland to address our distinctive population challenge.
These proposals have significant support from across civic Scotland and the business community. And yet within hours and with no consideration whatsoever they were dismissed out of hand.
Fewer people able to come to Scotland to live and work risks a working age population going into decline. That means fewer people available to do the jobs that need done in our private businesses and public sector, including our NHS. And it means fewer people paying the taxes that we need to fund these public services.
It means an economy stagnating not growing, and Scotland not reaching our full potential.
That is just one way in which we know already and with certainty that the folly of Brexit coupled with the deaf ear of Westminster will damage Scotland’s prosperity and wellbeing.
And as will become stark in the months ahead, it will not be the only consequence of Brexit that will be harmful to Scotland.
Exactly how Brexit will develop beyond tonight is not yet certain.
Negotiations about the terms and nature of the UK’s new relationship with the EU haven’t started yet. New cliff edges have been created by the UK Government and a devastating No deal outcome at the end of the transition remains possible.
For my part, I hope that the future relationship will be a close one, and I will do all I can to encourage that.
But be under no illusion.
All the signs from this Tory government are that instead of co-operation and close relationships they are heading for divergence and de-regulation.
What that will mean in the future for workers’ rights and environmental protection, for the shape of our economy and the nature of our society will be profound.
And, while this will be of little interest to a Tory government, the impact will be felt most by those who already have the least – the vulnerable and the poor.
So we know that change is coming.
But it does not have to be the change the Tories want to impose on Scotland.
A new independence referendum will put the decision about the best path for Scotland into our own hands.
And there is a cast-iron mandate from the public and from the Scottish Parliament for a referendum.
The SNP has won three successive parliamentary elections on the commitment to give people the choice.
And this week the Scottish Parliament has endorsed that position.
That the Tories are trying to block a referendum only shows their contempt for democracy in Scotland.
And – somewhat counter productively for them – it serves to illustrate how unequal this supposedly equal union is.
We should also remember this.
Fundamentally, the Tory position is a sign of weakness not strength.
If they had any confidence in the argument for the Westminster union, they would have no problem with the people of Scotland having the right to choose.
It is the fear of defeat that is making them so desperate to deny us the choice.
And we should draw great encouragement from that.
What we in the independence movement must not do is allow a sense of frustration – understandable though it may be – to take us down dead ends or weaken our sense of purpose.
We mustn’t let the Tories turn a positive, persuasive and invigorating discussion about the best future for our country, into an arid and bitter argument about process and procedure.
We must stay the course – even if it sometimes feels difficult.
And that’s not caution talking. It’s realism.
For me to pretend that there are shortcuts or clever wheezes that can magically overcome the obstacles we face might make my life easier in the short term – but it would do a long term disservice to the independence cause that I, like so many, have dedicated my life to.
My job is to lead us down a credible path that can deliver independence.
And that is what I am absolutely determined to do.
To achieve independence, a referendum, whenever it happens – whether it is this year as I want, or after the next Scottish election – must be legal and legitimate. That is a simple fact.
It must demonstrate that there is majority support for independence.
And its legality must be beyond doubt. Otherwise the outcome, even if successful, would not be recognised by other countries.
And the best way to achieve that, even though it may not be ideal, is to reach agreement on a transfer of power to the Scottish Parliament, just as we did for 2014.
It has been suggested, though, that in the absence of such an agreement, it might be legal for the Scottish Parliament to hold a consultative referendum – to establish the opinion of the Scottish people even though agreement would still be required to implement a pro independence outcome.
So let me address that.
The issue of whether the specific constitutional reservation in the Scotland Act puts any form of independence referendum outside the powers of the Scottish Parliament – or instead leaves open scope for a non-binding consultative vote – has never been tested in court.
That means it cannot be said definitively that it would not be legal, but equally it cannot be described as being beyond legal doubt.
If a proposal for a referendum on that basis was brought forward it would be challenged in court.
If a court ruled that it was legal, it wouldn’t be a “wildcat referendum” as our opponents like to brand it – it would be within the power of the Scottish Parliament.
Should the UK Government continue to deny Scotland’s right to choose, we may reach the point where this issue does have to be tested.
I am not ruling that out.
But I also have to be frank. The outcome would be uncertain. There would be no guarantees.
It could move us forward – but equally it could set us back.
So my judgment at this stage is that we should use our energies differently.
We must focus firmly on building and winning the political case for independence.
That is necessary to win a referendum.
But it is also how we will secure one.
And though we have made much progress – as yesterday’s opinion poll showed – we have more work to do.
So let me set out some of the steps we will take.
Firstly, I will continue to do all that I can to secure a referendum this year.
And that’s for a reason.
Brexit has put Scotland on the wrong road. And the further down it we go, the longer it will take and the harder it will be to get back on the right one. We need back on the right road as soon as possible.
To that end, we have informed Parliament this morning, that following the passage of the Referendums Bill at the end of last year and this week’s vote in favour of a referendum, we will ask the Electoral Commission to re-test the question – ‘should Scotland be an independent country?’
That question is simple, intelligible and well recognised across the country, but Parliament made clear it wanted it re-tested and it is the next practical step we need to take within our powers to prepare for a referendum.
We will also build on the vote in Parliament this week by seeking to broaden the coalition of support for Scotland’s right to choose.
In the first instance we will invite Scotland’s elected representatives – MSPs, MPs, the MEPs elected last year and council leaders – to come together to endorse a modern Claim of Right for Scotland through a new Constitutional Convention.
To declare that it is for the Scottish Parliament to decide whether and when there should be an independence choice and build support for that principle amongst civic Scotland.
In the SNP and in the Scottish Government we will also step up work on building the substantive case for independence.
In September I confirmed that the Scottish Government would start the work needed to ensure that people have the information they need to make informed choices about the future of the country.
In the coming months, the Scottish Government will publish the outcome of that work.
The “New Scotland” series of papers will seek to provide the information and answers people want.
They will provide detail on how Scotland can make the transition from a Yes vote to becoming an independent country.
And they will set out ideas and options for how we can use the powers of independence to build a better future – to grow a stronger and more sustainable economy, tackle poverty and inequality, better meet the climate challenge and expand opportunity for our country and for each and every person who lives here.
The work of the SNP’s Social Justice Commission is a vital part of this and is well underway, engaging with organisations across Scotland.
The Commission will shortly publish proposals for wider debate in the SNP and across the country on how we can use the powers of independence to make Scotland the fairer country we all want it to be.
And from the Spring, we will respond to the report of the Citizens Assembly and engage with its views on what kind of Scotland people want to see and how we can achieve it.
We will do all of this recognising that the SNP is only one voice, and that policy in an independent Scotland will be determined by the outcomes of democratic elections.
Persuading those who are not yet persuaded requires information and answers, but at its heart it requires conversation.
Open and frank discussion about what the people across our country want for themselves, their families and communities, and how best to achieve it.
That is the task of every pro-independence activist around the country.
And as we showed in December’s general election – when we do the work and offer leadership and vision, we can and we do win.
Our party campaign is therefore ready to ramp up. We will double SNP campaign spending this year to support new independence materials, local newspaper adverts and a new campaign film focused on undecided voters.
And as we campaign, it is vital that we listen and engage respectfully.
There are many people who voted No in 2014 now thinking about independence differently in light of Brexit.
We must show that we understand the complexity of the issues they grapple with and that for many emotions will be mixed.
So we must make our case with passion but also with patience and respect.
And we must never stoop to the level of our political opponents.
Boris Johnson has demonstrated that in this debate there is no line he will not cross.
It’s not just his dismissal of election results in Scotland and his derision at votes in the Scottish Parliament.
This week he described serious, considered and widely supported Scottish Government proposals on migration as “deranged”.
The Tories are not governing Scotland – they are goading Scotland.
But as a wise woman once said – when they go low, we go high.
So let’s keep focused on the job at hand – and take heart from the fact that we are winning.
And we are.
The SNP has existed now for more than 80 years.
I feel immensely privileged to lead it.
And if there are ever days when it feels tough, I think of how much tougher it must have been for the party’s founders, when independence wasn’t even a distant dot on the horizon.
If they had given in to impatience or frustration, we wouldn’t be where we are today.
We have never been stronger than we are now.
We are part of a wider, vibrant Yes movement.
And independence has never been closer.
It is our strength that will make it a reality.
The strength of our arguments.
The strength of our unity and our commitment to the cause.
The strength of our values.
The strength of our vision of an open, progressive, outward looking Scotland for all who live here, no matter where they come from.
An independent Scotland will be born from the strength of our capacity to persuade.
History tells us that change often comes quickly after many years when the obstacles seemed great.
Or as the great Nelson Mandela said – ‘It always seems impossible until it is done’.
In Scotland I believe we are on the cusp of such a moment.
For those of us lucky to be part of the independence movement today we know the groundwork has been laid and we have it within our grasp now, not just to imagine a better future, but to achieve it.
Now is the time to stay focused and resolute. It is time to build our strength to secure the right to choose and win Scotland’s independence.