Boris Johnson has again ruled out granting the legal powers for a second independence referendum as he claimed the Westminster government’s response to the pandemic had proved the value of the Union.
The prime minister said that only six years had passed since the last vote on Scotland’s future, and insisted that timescale did not match the “once in a generation” promise made to Scots during the campaign in 2014.
The Conservative leader also dodged questions on his own unpopularity north of the border and its effect on growing levels of support for independence.
Mr Johnson was speaking to Andrew Marr on the BBC after Scottish Tory leader Douglas Ross issued a warning to his colleagues about their attitude to the Union.
Mr Ross, the Moray MP, told the party’s conference that it must end the “defeatism and disinterest” when it comes to Scotland’s future.
Mr Johnson was asked if he had been among the people Mr Ross was highlighting.
“I think he was talking about those who don’t value the Union in the way that I do. I think the Union is one of the great achievements of this country,” the Tory leader said.
“And by the way, I think its value, its use, has been amply demonstrated during this crisis, and not just in the way the armed services have helped deliver tests around the country, but the way the financial support for the whole UK has been delivered by HMT, by the Treasury.”
We had a referendum in 2014, we were told it was a once in a generation event, by the leaders of the Scottish Nationalist Party, and six years, it doesn’t seem to me, is a generation.”
Mr Marr quizzed the prime minister on what his response would be to an SNP majority emerging from next year’s Holyrood election, on a manifesto commitment to hold a second independence referendum.
“I don’t think this is the time quite frankly for us to have another referendum,” he said.
“We had a referendum in 2014, we were told it was a once in a generation event, by the leaders of the Scottish Nationalist Party, and six years, it doesn’t seem to me, is a generation.”
Interesting @AndrewMarr9 show this morning. @BorisJohnson answer on referendum block rests on one remark in a campaign 6 years ago (once in generation) having greater constitutional & democratic legitimacy than a manifesto, election result & Parliamentary vote to come. Play odd.
— Andrew Wilson (@AndrewWilson) October 4, 2020
Mr Johnson also denied that his government’s handling of Brexit was fuelling a rise in support for independence.
He said: “I think actually that Brexit is a huge opportunity for Scotland.
“And the Bill that we’re just getting through the House of Commons, the Internal Market Bill, will involve the devolution of substantial powers to Scotland and elsewhere, and not least over fish.
“And just to get back to this fish point, it seems incredible to me that the Scottish Nationalist Party should actually be supporting a policy of literally handing back control of Scottish fisheries to Brussels, abandoning the future prospects of young people growing up in Scotland who have a great future in that industry.”
Mr Ross was earlier interviewed by Sophy Ridge on Sky News, and was asked whether Mr Johnson was the man to save the Union.
“Yes, the prime minister is a strong supporter of the United Kingdom, of the Union,” he said.
“He believes that the four nations of the United Kingdom can do far more together than they can do separately on their own.
“But I think the prime minister would also accept that his government and successive governments, have not done enough to strengthen the case for the Union, and that is why I made my speech yesterday, to put down this marker, to make sure everyone reflects on what they have done, and what they can do, to strengthen our four nations of the United Kingdom.”
Scottish Conservatives leader Douglas Ross says Boris Johnson is a strong supporter of the union, but adds that the government has "not done enough to strengthen the case for the union"
— Sophy Ridge on Sunday (@RidgeOnSunday) October 4, 2020
Mr Ross added: “Approval ratings go up and down, and the future of our country, a 300-year economic and political partnership, that has served Scotland and the UK well, doesn’t rest on if one individual is popular or not.
“This is about what our country means and what we can do together, united, as one nation, working together.”
On his conference speech, Mr Ross said: “This was a wake-up call to the party.
“This was to remind everyone that we are Conservative and Unionist and the defeatism and disinterest that I hear, too often, sadly, from colleagues, from members of the party south of the border, is not helping our fight up here.”
Labour MP Ian Murray, also speaking on Sky News on Sunday, defended Labour’s position on the Union and seized on the remarks made by Mr Ross.
“The Labour Party couldn’t be clearer. In fact the reason that we’re in some of the difficulties in terms of electoral difficulties in Scotland is because we are clear on this principled position – we’re against independence and against a second independence referendum,” he said.
“I really do think that this couldn’t be clearer. And if you look at Douglas Ross, in terms of the new Scottish Conservative leader, he has said quite clearly that many in his own party don’t believe in the Union.
“And really the biggest threat to the United Kingdom at the moment, even more than any Nationalist in fact, is the Conservative and Unionist Party, and the way they are dealing with Brexit, the way they are dealing with Covid, and the way the Scottish people see this current prime minister.”