UK prime minister Boris Johnson insisted on Thursday that Scotland should not have a second independence referendum for at least a generation, saying such a vote was “completely irrelevant” to the concerns of most Scots.
During a one-day visit to Scotland billed by colleagues as an effort to shore up support for the union with England, Mr Johnson cited joint efforts on coronavirus vaccination as an example of the way in which the UK’s constituent nations benefited each other.
But amid opinion polls suggesting that a majority of Scottish voters would now back leaving the UK if there were to be another referendum, Mr Johnson declined to say how he plans to respond to a renewed push by the pro-independence Scottish National party for such a vote.
“I think endless talk about a referendum without any clear description of what the constitutional situation would be after that referendum is completely irrelevant now to the concerns of most people,” he told the BBC.
Voters in Scotland rejected independence by 55 per cent to 45 per cent in 2014, but Brexit and the perceived failings of the UK government in dealing with the coronavirus crisis appear to have since weakened support for the union.
The SNP last weekend unveiled plans to legislate to hold another independence referendum if a majority for doing so emerges in the Scottish parliament after elections scheduled for May. The party added that it would seek to proceed without UK government approval if necessary.
Mr Johnson said this month that Westminster should not approve another referendum until 2050 at the earliest, but on Thursday he declined to comment on whether he would challenge any unauthorised Scottish vote in the courts.
The Scottish government and some analysts have said an advisory referendum on independence could be held under current UK devolution law.
The UK government has rejected this claim, and Scotland’s court of session is currently considering a case brought by a pro-independence activist in an attempt to clarify the legal position.
In a video call with journalists, Mr Johnson waved aside questions on how he would respond to an unauthorised referendum or on what he would consider a sufficient democratic mandate for another independence vote.
Instead, he noted that SNP leaders including Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s first minister, had called the 2014 vote a “once in a generation” event. “I think we should stick to that,” said the prime minister.
Some analysts have said that if Mr Johnson continues to hold out against approving a second referendum it would risk alienating voters in Scotland who do not currently support independence but who believe that the constitutional question should be something that Scots should decide.
Polls suggest Mr Johnson is deeply unpopular among Scottish voters and some of his Conservative colleagues in Scotland privately worry that his trips north of the English border do not help the party’s prospects.
But the prime minister said he would be sure to return before the May elections. “As for campaigning, wild horses won’t keep me away,” he added.
SNP leaders have criticised Mr Johnson for visiting Scotland during a lockdown that bans non-essential travel.
Kate Forbes, Scotland’s finance secretary, accused the prime minister of “breaking the spirit of the rules”.
Mr Johnson said he was thanking people “across the whole of the UK for what they are doing to support our fight against Covid”.