Boris Johnson will not grant a new Scottish independence referendum before the 2024 general election, Michael Gove has said.
In an interview with The Telegraph, published below, Mr Gove, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, said the Prime Minister’s focus was on recovery from the Covid pandemic.
The comments on timing go further than previous statements by ministers, which have said that a second referendum will not be granted for now. They set the UK and Scottish governments on a constitutional collision course given that Nicola Sturgeon, the Scottish First Minister and SNP leader, wants to hold a referendum by autumn 2023.
Asked whether there was "any circumstance" in which Mr Johnson would approve a Scottish independence referendum before the May 2024 election, Mr Gove said: "I don’t think so." Asked whether his position was that "there will be no referendum before the 2024 election", he replied: "I can’t see it."
The argument was made in the context of the pandemic, with Mr Gove saying it would be "at best reckless, at worst folly" to hold a vote while rebuilding the UK following the damage caused by Covid.
The comments carry weight because he has been put in charge of Union policy by Mr Johnson, with a brief including countering the push for Scottish independence.
They are certain to provoke a backlash from SNP politicians, who argued that their victory in May’s Scottish parliamentary elections gave them a mandate for a second referendum.
It also increases the chances that the SNP will eventually try to hold a unilateral referendum without approval from Downing Street – a move sure to end in the courts. The first referendum, which SNP politicians at the time called "once in a generation", was held in 2014 and Scots voted by 55 per cent to 45 per cent to remain in the UK.
Mr Gove’s interview was for a Telegraph documentary about the Scottish independence debate and the possibilities of a second vote. Gordon Brown, the former prime minister, Ian Blackford, the SNP’s Westminster leader, and Jackie Baillie, the Scottish Labour deputy leader, were also interviewed.
Mr Gove stressed the importance of rebuilding after the impact of Covid when explaining why he thought Mr Johnson would not grant a second referendum before the 2024 election.
He said: "The Prime Minister is completely focused on making sure that, for the lifetime of this parliament, we increase economic opportunity, we provide people with the chance to make more of their lives, take control of their futures. And that’s quite rightly what the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom’s focus should be."
At another point, he said: "I think it’s foolish to talk about a referendum now – we’re recovering from Covid," adding: "It seems to me to be at best reckless, at worst folly, to try to move the conversation on to constitutional division when people expect us to be working together in order to deal with these challenges."
Elsewhere in the interview, Mr Gove called for Mr Johnson to spend more time in Scotland, defending the Prime Minister’s popularity there despite his negative approval ratings in opinion polls. He also appeared to rule out imminent action on reforming the House of Lords or handing new powers to the Scottish parliament.
Since winning the Scottish elections last month, Ms Sturgeon has stressed that her immediate focus as First Minister is on steering Scotland through the Covid pandemic.
However, she argues the victory, which saw the SNP win most seats in Holyrood but fall one seat short of an overall majority, has given her a "democratic mandate" for a second referendum. Ms Sturgeon has indicated that she wants to hold the referendum by halfway through her five-year term – around autumn 2023.
Michael Gove: I think it’s foolish to talk about a referendum now
As policy briefs go, there are few more fundamental to Boris Johnson’s political legacy than the one sitting on Michael Gove’s desk – keeping the United Kingdom whole.
The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and Cabinet Office minister has become something of a problem fixer for the Prime Minister in his job at the centre of the Government. Reforming the civil service, clearing the public sector backlog, navigating the ethical maze of Covid passports and driving through pandemic decisions have all fallen to him.
But it is the task of keeping the Union together – put another way, stopping Mr Johnson becoming the leader who lost Scotland – that has taken up increasing amounts of his time this year.
In the past 12 months, support for Scottish independence surged then fell in opinion polls, the SNP was re-elected in Holyrood and calls for a second referendum were renewed.
Talking in the Cabinet Office earlier this month about his plans for strengthening the UK, Mr Gove, a Scot himself, had an unexpected proposal – more Mr Johnson.
‘Yes, Boris Johnson should visit Scotland more often’
"One of the things that I think people consistently underestimate is the degree of connection, personal and emotional, that the people across the country have for the Prime Minister," Mr Gove said, a Union flag in one corner of the room.
"I think there’s a myth that has been built up, fed by Scottish nationalists, that somehow the Prime Minister doesn’t go down well in Scotland. In my experience I’ve seen folk in Orkney, folk in Aberdeenshire, responding as warmly to the Prime Minister as people in Oxfordshire or Hartlepool.
"I think it’s an SNP mind game, as it were, to try to suggest that somehow the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom shouldn’t set foot in part of the United Kingdom."
The polls would firmly suggest otherwise, consistently showing that far more Scots disapprove than approve of the job Mr Johnson is doing – a reason put forward for his all too rare visits north of the border.
But Mr Gove waves away the numbers. Asked whether the Prime Minister is a help or hindrance to keeping the three-centuries-old Union intact, he does not pause. "A help." So should he visit Scotland more often? A one-word answer: "Yes."
No indyref2 before 2024
The issue that looms over the Scottish independence debate is a second referendum. The first, in 2014, saw Scots vote to remain in the UK by 55 per cent to 45 per cent.
SNP leaders claim their win in the Scottish elections on a platform promising another vote gives them a democratic mandate. Critics note they fell short of an overall majority and called the first referendum a "once in a generation" moment at the time.
The UK Government’s response so far has been pinned on Covid, arguing that now is not the time to discuss huge constitutional change with a pandemic to tackle.
"I think it’s foolish to talk about a referendum now – we’re recovering from Covid," Mr Gove said, calling such considerations "at best reckless, at worst folly".
Support for Scottish independence
But he went further. Asked whether he could imagine "any circumstance" in which Mr Johnson would agree to a second referendum before the 2024 election, he said: "I don’t think so.
"The Prime Minister is completely focused on making sure that, for the lifetime of this parliament, we increase economic opportunity, we provide people with the chance to make more of their lives, take control of their futures."
Asked whether it was "pretty clear" from the response that his position was "no referendum before the 2024 election", Mr Gove doubled down, saying: "I can’t see it."
Heading to the courts?
The comments, taken in the wider context, show that the UK and Scottish governments are on a constitutional collision course.
Nicola Sturgeon, the SNP leader and Scottish First Minister, is not pushing all-out for a referendum yet but has made clear she wants to hold one by the autumn of 2023. But Mr Gove is now publicly indicating that the Government will keep saying no to the request until May 2024 – the current date for the next UK general election.
It heightens the likelihood that an almighty court battle is coming, with the SNP pushing ahead and passing a second referendum bill in Holyrood without Number 10’s approval.
Leading SNP figures argue such an unilateral referendum – or, as critics call it, a "wildcat" vote – would be legal if it is just "advisory", akin to a big opinion poll.
But constitutional matters have not been devolved to the Scottish parliament and UK government figures are confident such a move would be deemed unlawful.
Mr Gove declined to bite when asked whether the UK would fight that move in the courts – aware, perhaps, of the PR challenge of using lawyers to block an independence vote.
"I’m not the legal expert that you would need to have on to explore all of these questions. But for the moment, I’m not thinking about taking anyone to court," he said. "I don’t want to be on the end of writs or anything like that. I want to be on the end of the telephone talking to Nicola… working with them to get a better deal for people in Scotland."
After the election, Nicola Sturgeon told Boris Johnson her plan for a second independence referendum was 'now a matter of when, not if', despite the SNP falling short of a majority
Credit: Duncan McGlynn/Reuters
No more powers for now
Away from the stand-off over another vote is the wider question of reforms, with a constant stream of proposals for strengthening the Union put forward from across the political spectrum.
Gordon Brown, the former Labour prime minister, has championed replacing the House of Lords with a "senate of the nations and regions" whose members would be more representative of all parts of the UK.
But Mr Gove sounded unconvinced, saying: "Well, the thing about House of Lords reform is that it can consume an enormous amount of time for not always a huge amount of benefit. I’m open-minded about ideas for constitutional reform in the future, but it’s not a priority for me now."
Similarly, there appears to be no plan for handing new powers to the Scottish parliament, with Mr Gove saying: "I think the most important thing is for the Scottish government to use the powers that it currently has and the UK Government to use its powers to work together in all sorts of practical ways,” he said.
He is also willing to issue warnings about the realities of what an independent Scotland would actually look like – not least on the currency, and said the SNP’s proposal to initially keep the pound after an independence vote while transitioning to an independent currency would be financially risky.
"It’s theoretically possible, of course, for one country to use the currency of another country," he said. "But it’s the sort of thing that Latin American countries have done with the US dollar in the past. It means that you have no control over interest rates. It means that there can be real difficulties in funding and supporting your deficit."
Winning back the young
For Mr Gove, the Union is personal. He grew up in Aberdeen, where his parents still live. He spends most of his time in London and Surrey; his sister lives in Scotland.
"We’re a nation of families," he said of the UK, noting millions of other Britons have similar situations, but also a "family of nations" – England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
Which brings us to the children. It is the next generation of Scots and their overwhelming support for independence that has red lights flashing for pro-UK strategists. One poll last September had more than two thirds of Scots aged between 16 and 34 backing independence – though support across the board has dropped back since then.
Mr Gove believes the UK Government’s goal of being a world leader in tackling climate change can show the value of the Union to younger voters.
He admitted that, to some, there can be a "romance to the idea of separatism", but believes some pro-independence leaders act in a way that undercuts that claim.
To back up the argument, he cited a recent example, saying: "It may seem trivial, but during the Eurovision Song Contest aftermath there were SNP politicians who were taking to Twitter to celebrate the fact that the UK had scored a ‘nul points’. And in a way, it seemed petty.
"I think that points to the fact that there is a side to Scottish nationalism which is not just about separatism, but sometimes about scapegoating and stereotyping that I think isn’t where the majority of voters are.”
A world with less pollution and fewer Eurovision tweets – perhaps there is hope for uniting Scotland after all.