NICOLA Sturgeon has appealed to “a new spirit of Scottish assertiveness” as she begins the build-up to her decision on calling a second independence referendum.

Urging voters to stand with her against a hard Brexit, the First Minister said independence “must remain an option” to protect Scotland’s interests.

Writing in the Herald’s sister paper, the Sunday Herald, Ms Sturgeon described the Tory government’s “inept and chaotic” Brexit plans as an “ongoing horror show”.

Nicola Sturgeon: 'Scottish Government and SNP will lead charge to stop hard Brexit'

She wrote: “The year ahead has the potential to be one of the most significant in Scotland's recent history.

"I believe it will be a year in which a new Scotland continues to emerge, an emboldened, more confident and assertive nation.

"That is perhaps not the most obvious conclusion to draw from the ongoing horror show of the Tories' inept and chaotic Brexit plans, which threaten to do deep and lasting damage to our economy and society.

"But it is because of that overarching threat that I believe a new spirit of Scottish assertiveness is needed - and will come to the fore."

Promising an update on Scotland’s future relationship with Europe and the economic impact of Brexit later this month, she said: "Last year, I made clear we will scrutinise the detail of any final Brexit deal negotiated by the UK Government before deciding the next steps in terms of giving people a choice on Scotland's future.

"However, I have been clear all along that the threat to Scotland's interests means independence must remain an option."

In the wake of last year’s snap election, when the SNP lost 21 of its 56 MPs, Ms Sturgeon “reset” her plan to hold a referendum between late 2018 and spring 2019.

Nicola Sturgeon: 'Scottish Government and SNP will lead charge to stop hard Brexit'

Admitting voters were not yet ready, she said she would update Holyrood on her decision for the timing of a another referendum in the autumn of this year.

Theresa May has so far refused to grant Holyrood the power to hold such a vote, with the Tories intent on blocking it before the 2021 Holyrood election.

Having previously cited the democratic deficit and permanent Tory rule as reasons for independence, Ms Sturgeon’s article indicates the SNP now want to reframe the debate in terms of assertiveness, suggesting Yes voters are strong-willed and No voters cowards.

Ms Sturgeon also said her MPs and MSPs would continue to oppose Conservative plans for a hard Brexit which took the UK out of the single market and customs union.

She accused Scottish Labour of colluding in Jeremy Corbyn’s “shamefully ambivalent attitude to Brexit" and said Scottish Tory MPs were "lobby-fodder" for the PM.

Tory MP John Lamont said: "After last year's general election, Nicola Sturgeon promised to put her plans for independence on pause and focus on her day job.

"It's clear from her words today that she intends to break that promise within months, and once again put independence top of her agenda."

Westminster will today debate a bill paving the way for leaving the customs union.

Nicola Sturgeon: 'Scottish Government and SNP will lead charge to stop hard Brexit'

The Taxation (Cross-Border Trade) Bill means more than 130,000 UK firms will be forced to pay upfront VAT for the first time on goods imported from the EU after Brexit.

Labour, the SNP and LibDems have all tabled amendments urging MPs to halt its progress.