A key ally of the Prime Minister has refused to say if the UK Government would support another vote on Scottish independence, if MSPs at Holyrood voted for a second referendum to take place.
Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove was pressed on the issue by the SNP’s Pete Wishart, who insisted the recent Scottish elections had resulted in an “emphatic and decisive” victory for parties who supported independence.
However, Mr Gove told the SNP MP and former musician that the United Kingdom was like his former band, Celtic rockers Runrig – arguing that more could be achieved by working together than individually.
Mr Wishart, chair of the Scottish Affairs Committee, was taking part in the meeting remotely, from a room where a number of gold discs were displayed prominently behind him.
Commenting on this, Mr Gove said: “As I look at your handsome room, I see behind you a series of gold discs. And those gold discs, I think, came about when you were in Runrig.”
While he said Runrig “as a group worked brilliantly”, he added that after they had broke up while individual members had “achieved amazing things”, none of them had secured a gold disc.
The Tory told Mr Wishart: “In the same way as a band that plays together with brilliant talents can achieve more than the individuals can, even when they are soloists, I think our UK is stronger together when we are operating, singing the same songs together, but also respecting our different talents.”
While Nicola Sturgeon’s SNP failed to win an outright majority in the recent Scottish Parliament elections, the party’s 64 MSPs, together with the eight Green MSPs who were elected, mean that a majority of members favour Scotland leaving the rest of the UK.
Mr Gove insisted that in the election “more people voted for parties that were pro the UK in the constituency ballots than those who were in favour of separation”.
He also argued some people would have voted for the SNP because of a “personal admiration” for the Scottish First Minister “rather than because they necessarily endorsed the case for independence”.
Speaking about the SNP leader, Mr Gove said: “She secured election against a backdrop where more people voted for unionist parties than had been anticipated or expected at the beginning of the campaign, and where the Scottish Conservatives recorded their strongest ever electoral performance since devolution was established.”
He also stressed Ms Sturgeon had “quite rightly said … that the first priority at the moment has to be working together across the UK in order to recover from the pandemic”.
Mr Wishart asked: “If a majority in the Scottish Parliament vote for an independence referendum to be held, will the UK Parliament respect that vote? And will it assist or facilitate that referendum?”
Mr Gove told him: “The First Minister said it is not her priority to do that and I think the impression I get is the newly-formed Scottish Government and SNP MSPs are all committed to the First Minister’s agenda of putting recovery front and centre, and don’t want any diversion or distraction from that by talking about other issues.”
He continued: “There are appropriate means whereby, if we need to look at constitutional arrangements we can do.
“But I don’t want to pre-empt any of the important work that needs to be done over the course of the coming months to focus on recovery.”
Mr Wishart, however, called for the UK Government to “just be clear about this”.
He asked again: “Will the UK Government facilitate the democratic will of the Scottish Parliament if that is what it decides?
“Can we just get a bit of clarity, what is the response of you and the UK Government to the democratic will of the Scottish Parliament when it comes to an independence referendum, just tell us.”
Mr Gove’s response to that was the UK would “put recovery first”.