Voters may have backed Nicola Sturgeon’s SNP in last week’s Holyrood elections not because they support independence, but because they want “free bicycles” for their children, a UK Government minister has claimed.
Scottish Secretary Alister Jack suggested that policies such as free dental care, free laptops and tablets for schoolchildren, and the promise of free bikes for students who cannot afford them may have been what swayed voters – rather than the promise of another vote on independence.
He spoke out a week after Ms Sturgeon’s party won the largest number of seats in the Scottish Parliament, with 64 SNP MSPs returned.
That total is one more than the SNP secured in 2016, but still one short of an overall majority in Holyrood – however the record eight Green MSPs who were voted in mean the Scottish Parliament does have a majority of members who support independence.
However, Mr Jack refused to say if the UK Government would mount a legal challenge, should the Scottish Parliament try to pass legislation to hold a second referendum.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson has repeatedly made clear he does not support another vote on this – though Ms Sturgeon has said she wants such a ballot to be held during the five years of the next Holyrood term, and before the end of 2023 if possible.
But Mr Jack insisted that Scots “aren’t necessarily voting for Nicola Sturgeon because they want independence”.
Speaking as he appeared before MPs on Westminster’s Scottish Affairs Committee, he added: “I would say that less than a third of the Scottish electorate voted for nationalist parties – I think that the figure was 31%.”
Looking at the election result, he said there was “very little” change from the 2016 election, with the SNP up one, Labour losing two MSPs and the Tories staying in second place with 31.
The Tory, who was pressed on the issue by SNP chairman of the committee Pete Wishart, insisted: “I think we have to be realistic and say, back in 2014 … both Scotland’s governments agreed on holding a referendum, as did all the main political parties.
“And the difference now is it is just one party that thinks there should be a referendum. The numbers and the opinion polls say differently.
“And actually the numbers when people are asked if there should be one in the near future, the next two years, the next three years, there is a huge majority that think that is not where the priority should be.”
He told the committee that the coronavirus vaccination programme has “saved lives”, and added that politics now “need to focus on saving livelihoods”.
Mr Jack continued: “Some people might have been voting for the SNP because they wanted free dental care, a free laptop or even a free bicycle for their children.
“Who knows why they chose to vote SNP, but it wasn’t all on the back of an independence referendum.
“I maintain that (over) the next five years Scotland is best served by two governments working together and delivering the opportunities, the sea of opportunities that exist in front of us having left the European Union, but also on focusing on the recovery from the pandemic – that is absolutely critical.”
However, Mr Wishart insisted that the “overwhelming and decisive result” from the Scottish election was that it had been a “victory for the parties of pro-independence and pro-referendums”.
He demanded: “How will the UK Government respond to the request to hold an independence referendum when the pandemic is considered to have passed?”
As a constitutional matter, Mr Jack insisted the question of whether there should be another referendum is reserved to Westminster.
But he said that if a Bill is brought forward in the Scottish Parliament, it will be for the Advocate General for Scotland – the UK Government’s most senior adviser on Scottish legal matters – to decide if it is within Holyrood’s “scope”.
Mr Jack insisted: “That is how these things work. That is respecting devolution, that is the devolved settlement.”
Mr Wishart told him: “There is also a matter of respecting democracy and ensuring people got what they voted for in last week’s election.”
However, Mr Jack responded: “I don’t acknowledge that every vote cast was a vote for independence; there is a myriad of issues people vote on – maybe people were wanting free bicycles? Who knows?”