Boris Johnson rules out new Scottish independence vote on pandemic visit
- The PM is facing criticism for making the trip during the coronavirus lockdown, with some police reports lodged
- Polls show Scots overwhelmingly think their leader, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, has done a better job at handling the pandemic than Johnson
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Thursday rejected calls for a second referendum on independence in Scotland, building his case for a continued United Kingdom on the joint effort to combat the coronavirus outbreak.
Johnson praised Britain’s collective response to the health crisis as he toured a vaccine plant in Livingston, west of Edinburgh.
“I think what people want to see is us bouncing back more strongly together,” he told reporters, calling the clamour for a new vote “completely irrelevant” given concerns about the pandemic.
“I don’t see the advantage of getting lost in pointless constitutional wrangling when, after all, we had a referendum not so very long ago,” he added, referring to a 2014 vote when Scotland opted to remain in the United Kingdom.
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Johnson also travelled to a laboratory processing Covid-19 tests and a vaccination centre being set up by the British Army in the western city of Glasgow.
Soldiers were a clear example of the national effort, he said.
“I think you can see the amazing contribution of Scotland, Scottish scientists, Scottish people to the national effort and I don’t want to break that up,” he said.
The visit comes as polling indicates Scots overwhelmingly think First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, leader of the Scottish National Party (SNP), has done a better job at handling the crisis than Johnson.
Twenty consecutive polls have suggested majority support for independence, and the SNP has published an 11-point “road map to a referendum”, as well as a newly formed “independence task force”.
But Johnson brushed aside criticism from Sturgeon, who earlier questioned if his trip breached coronavirus lockdown rules.
Sturgeon on Wednesday said she was “not ecstatic” about the visit, adding that leaders should stick to the same rules as the public about making only essential journeys.
“People like me and Boris Johnson have to be in work for reasons people understand, but we don’t have to travel across the UK. We have a duty to lead by example,” she said.
Johnson’s Downing Street office hit back, insisting it was “a fundamental role of the PM to be the physical representative of the UK government”. It was “right that he’s visible and accessible for communities and businesses and the public”, a spokesman said.
Senior minister Michael Gove, a Scot who chairs a weekly sub-cabinet meeting on preserving the UK, added that the visit would provide valuable insight with regard to the government’s pandemic response.
“It’s also important the prime minister hears from those on the frontline what is going well and what needs to improve,” he told Sky News.
The devolved governments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are responsible for their own health policies, and the pandemic has thrust local leaders and their administrations into the spotlight more than usual.
With each administration dictating their response, they have often pitted themselves against London, which sets policy for England, and provided a glimpse into how independence could operate.
Despite similarly grim case counts and virus mortality rates compared to the rest of Britain, Sturgeon has won praise for her handling of the crisis and performances in daily press conferences.
In contrast, Johnson has been vehemently criticised for repeatedly reacting too slowly as the crisis has evolved, and Britain now has one of the highest death tolls in the world.
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The SNP said the trip was evidence of a “prime minister in panic” and accused him of “mimicking Donald Trump’s explicit attempts to block democracy”.
Police Scotland confirmed they had received a “small number” of complaints about the visit. But a spokesman added: “This is a working visit in his official capacity as Prime Minister, and we are policing the event appropriately.”
Meanwhile, the 2016 vote for Brexit – opposed by a majority in Scotland – has proved highly contentious north of the border, with nationalists arguing it provides the basis for another independence referendum.
The SNP is also predicted to win a landslide in Scottish parliament elections in May, with Sturgeon widely expected to use that to further bolster claims of a mandate for an independence vote.