KEITH Brown has been elected Nicola Sturgeon’s new SNP deputy and announced a charm offensive for business on the party’s latest independence blueprint.

The Economy Secretary, who stood unsuccessfully for the position in 2014, had been the frontrunner in the contest.

In his acceptance speech, he suggested an independence referendum was “undoubtedly ahead”, and Nicola Sturgeon would “steer us towards that decision” on its timing.

He also said he wanted to include business groups and civic Scotland in the debate over the SNP’s controversial Growth Commission report, which set out plans for independence.

Mr Brown was chosen by party members with 55.2 per cent of final vote, beating SNP activist Julie Hepburn after a redistribution of ballots.

Inverclyde Councillor Chris McEleny, who stood on a platform of a second independence referendum by the end of 2019, came third with 16.2 per cent of first preferences.

HeraldScotland:

The results were announced at the start of the SNP’s spring conference in Aberdeen.

Mr Brown replaces former MP Angus Robertson who stood down earlier this year after losing his Moray seat to the Conservatives in the general election.

Mr Brown, who said he wanted to reform the party’s campaign and policy apparatus in readiness for an election or referendum, said he it was an “absolute privilege” to be elected.

One of his first tasks will be to chair three National Assembles over the summer at which party members will debate the Growth Commission report, which advocates years of tight public spending to cut the deficit and retaining the pound and UK monetary policy.

The Institute for Fiscal Studies has said it would continue Tory austerity.

Mr Brown said he wanted the debate on the independence blueprint to be extended to business groups, trade unions, civic Scotland and “the wider Yes family”.

He said that whatever the outcome of the debate, the SNP would reject austerity.

Mr Brown said he placed his faith in Nicola Sturgeon as to when an another referendum was held, but noted that the Yes movement was increasingly active.

He said: “Things are beginning to stir once again. Tens of thousands of people are marching in our towns and our cities. The discussion on Scotland’s future is taking place up and down the country.

“We’ve all seen a myriad of projects and activities big and small, bubbling to the surface as individuals and groups come together to prepare for what is undoubtedly ahead. Yes groups are forming, organising and connecting, and people with ideas are making them happen.”

He said people were rethinking their position on the Union in light of a chaotic Brexit.

“When the facts change, as somebody once said, people change their minds. We had a No campaign that promised stability for Scotland and it’s delivered precisely the opposite - chaos and a power grab from the Westminster government.

“The decision on when the opportunity to put independence to the people of Scotland will come. I know that decision is on the safest of hands and I’m absolutely confident that the person you’ve just elected me to deputise for, Nicola Sturgeon, will steer us towards that decision.”

Curiously, he also reassured the hall that the First Minister still believed in independence.

He said: “I also say, in case there was any doubt at all, she bows to nobody in her commitment to an independent Scotland.”

The former Royal Marine, 56, who fought in the Falklands, has been a Clackmannanshire MSP since 2007.

HeraldScotland:

Mr Brown, uniquely among the three candidates for depute, did not state a preferred timetable for a second referendum, but did say it might happen in one or two years.

Tory MSP Annie Wells said: "It’s quite clear that the new Depute Leader of the SNP endorses Sturgeon’s constitutional obsession and will continue the campaign for a second referendum.

"With the party divided over Sturgeon’s latest plan for Independence the new Depute Leader has an unenviable job on his hands.

"It is clearer and clearer that the majority of Scots do not want another divisive referendum.

"The majority of scots want the SNP to stop the constitutional obsession, get back to the day job and fix the health and education systems they have run into the ground."

Labour MSP Jackie Baillie said: "The people of Scotland will be dismayed to see the country’s hapless SNP Economy Secretary promising to spend even more time campaigning for another referendum instead of fixing our ailing economy.

"Under Keith Brown’s mismanagement the Scottish economy has fallen behind the rest of the UK and real wages are stagnating."

Scottish Socialist Party co-convener Colin Fox, who has rejected the Growth Commission, said Mr Brown was equally right-wing, and his victory pointed to the SNP moving away from the Left.

He said: "Mr Brown has been given the role of taking forward the work on the neo-liberal market-led commission’s work largely because he agrees with it.

“Once again it is vital to repeat the truth that a Yes vote will not be won by offering - as this report does - a mini pro-market austerity run from Holyrood.

"There can be little confidence that deputy Brown will do other than push forward this policy disaster and all who seek independence need to oppose it and call for it to be dropped.”