A senior UK minister on Monday dismissed as “abstract debate” calls for the Conservative government to proceed with constitutional reform to counter growing pressure for Scottish independence.
Michael Gove, Cabinet Office minister, said the British government would focus on recovery from the coronavirus crisis and spending funds directly in Scotland so as to show the benefits of the country being part of the UK, rather than constitutional reform.
Gove’s remarks came after the Scottish National party secured a fourth term in government following parliamentary elections in which it promised to seek a referendum on Scottish independence before the end of 2023.
The UK government has set itself against authorising another referendum for the time being, even though the SNP and the pro-independence Scottish Greens will have a majority in the Edinburgh parliament.
Boris Johnson, prime minister, refused at a Downing Street press conference to say when Covid-19 might have receded sufficiently to allow Scottish first minister Nicola Sturgeon to responsibly start addressing the question of independence.
“I’ve had good conversations with the leaders of the devolved administrations,” he said, referring to talks held after the Scottish and Welsh parliamentary elections on Thursday. “Everyone was resolved that the number one priority for the whole of the UK was to build back better and get out of the coronavirus pandemic.”
But Gordon Brown, former Labour prime minister and a high-profile opponent of Scottish independence, called on the Conservative government to launch a review of the UK constitution.
He said there should be a “permanent decision-making forum” that brought together the UK government, leaders of the devolved administrations, and representatives of the English regions.
Such constitutional reform could help convince moderate Scots of the case for their country remaining part of the UK, suggested Brown.
But Gove said the UK’s constitutional set-up was already well able to “show solidarity” across the country, adding: “We just need to demonstrate how those institutions work to the benefit of all.
“I prefer that we concentrate on people’s priorities rather than looking for new areas of abstract debate to enter into.”
Gove also brushed aside comments by Mark Drakeford, the Welsh first minister, who warned on Sunday the UK could break up unless Johnson agreed to greater devolution of powers from Westminster to the administrations in Cardiff, Edinburgh and Belfast.
Other people might want to “devote some energy to that conversation”, said Gove, who added: “My focus is on the practical.”
The UK government is instead highlighting plans to increase its visibility in Scotland and Wales by bypassing their devolved administrations to directly fund infrastructure and other projects that will be badged with the union jack.
Gove said by giving itself the power to spend directly in the devolved nations, Westminster was “respecting devolution”.
But Brown said that bypassing the devolved administrations was an example of Johnson’s adoption of a “muscular unionism” that asserted Britishness in competition with Scottishness and would help the SNP by alienating moderate Scots.
“If Michael Gove and Boris Johnson pursue this course they are just simply setting up a conflict between Scotland and Britain,” added Brown.
Kate Forbes, Scotland’s finance secretary, said if the UK had more funding available for Scotland, it should be provided to the government in Edinburgh through “the usual channels”.
“[The Tories] need to realise that ‘working together’ involves doing things with Scotland — not doing things to Scotland,” she added.