Scottish first minister Nicola Sturgeon on Wednesday dismissed as “sneering, arrogant condescension” comments by a senior UK minister ruling out Westminster approval for an independence referendum before the next general election.
Sturgeon’s Scottish National party won elections for the devolved parliament at Holyrood in Edinburgh last month on a manifesto pledge to seek to hold a second referendum on leaving the UK before the end of 2023.
But in an interview with The Telegraph newspaper published on Wednesday, Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove said he “couldn’t see” the Conservative UK government approving such a vote before the next general election, which under current legislation is expected to be in May 2024.
The exchange highlighted a looming constitutional showdown between the UK and Scottish governments, with the SNP saying it could seek to hold a referendum under current devolution law even without Westminster’s approval.
UK prime minister Boris Johnson in January suggested Westminster should not allow any rerun of Scotland’s 2014 referendum, in which voters rejected independence by 55-45 per cent, until the 2050s at the earliest. But Gove’s comments were the most definitive rejection of a second referendum since the May 6 elections resulted in an increased pro-independence majority at Holyrood.
“Every time we hear that kind of sneering, arrogant condescension from Michael Gove — or whatever UK government minister it may be — completely refusing to accept Scottish democracy, actually the more they just build support for independence,” Sturgeon told the Press Association.
The first minister said the SNP won on May 6 on a pledge to give people in Scotland the choice to decide their constitutional future after the coronavirus crisis, adding: “If that can’t even be respected, then the idea that the UK is a partnership of equals just completely disintegrates”.
Speaking in the House of Commons during prime minister’s questions, Johnson argued that the coronavirus crisis had illustrated the strengths of the three century-old union between England and Scotland.
“I think that the union, and the benefits of the union, have been incalculable throughout the Covid pandemic . . . vaccines have been pioneered in Scotland, brewed in Oxford, bottled in Wales and rolled out throughout the UK”, he told MPs.
Separately, the prime minister’s spokesperson said that now was “not the time for a referendum when we are dealing with the pandemic”, but gave no indication of when the UK government might consider approving such a vote.
The SNP has already set out plans to pass enabling legislation for a referendum, challenging the UK government to try to stop it in court. The SNP plan rests on the belief of Scottish ministers and some legal experts that Edinburgh might be able to unilaterally hold an advisory referendum under current UK devolution law, even though constitutional matters are reserved for Westminster.
In his Telegraph interview, Gove declined to say whether the UK government would seek to block an unapproved Scottish referendum.
The SNP last month fell one seat short of an overall majority in proportionately representative Holyrood parliament, but together with the pro-independence Scottish Greens there is a majority for a second independence referendum as large as the one that paved the way for the 2014 vote.
Additional reporting by Jasmine Cameron-Chileshe in London