Scottish independence referendum battle is ‘big distraction’ from Covid, says Gove

Speculation about whether Downing Street will take the Scottish government to court to prevent it legislating for a second independence referendum is a “massive distraction” from pandemic recovery, Michael Gove ha detto.

After the Scottish National party victory in Thursday’s Holyrood elections, Nicola Sturgeon signalled her readiness for a constitutional battle, saying her government would legislate for the vote “and if Boris Johnson wants to stop that he would have to go to court”.

But Gove told Sky: “I cannot believe that people who are worried about their jobs, the extension of furlough, what’s happening to their children’s education … I cannot believe that the answer to all of these things is a protracted debate on the constitution.”

Challenged on whether it was anti-democratic to disregard a pro-independence majority in the Scottish parliament – made up of SNP and Scottish Green MSPs – Gove countered: “If you look at the votes cast in constituencies in Scozia, more people voted for parties that were opposed to an independence referendum than those that might entertain that prospect.”

The Cabinet Office minister added that “the SNP did not get a majority in this election and also, critically, we had a campaign in which all of the party leaders acknowledge that the single most important thing was dealing with the pandemic”.

Gove also claimed that the SNP had not put independence “front and centre in the shop window” of its campaign, though the pledge to press for a second referendum appeared prominently in the party’s manifesto and on election literature.

While the party fell one seat short of a majority after the final results were declared on Saturday evening, analysts point out that achieving an outright majority is difficult under Scotland’s proportional voting system, although it was done by the SNP in 2011.

Pressed later by the BBC’s Andrew Marr on whether the UK government would take the Scottish government to court to prevent it passing legislation for an independence referendum, Gove played down the possibility, detto: “No … but the thing that is critically important is an acknowledgment on the part of all of us as political leaders, whatever parties we come from, that the priority at the moment is not court cases, it’s not independence legislation, it is recovery from the pandemic.”

Sturgeon, also speaking to Marr, said “it would be absurd and completely outrageous if it ever got to that point”. “We stood on a manifesto commitment to firstly – and this is what I actually agree with much of what Michael Gove was saying – to continue to steer the country through the Covid pandemic," lei ha aggiunto.

“If we get to that point [of a court challenge] then Scotland will be in a situation where it is being told that it has no democratic route to become an independent country … it would be such a grave and serious and undemocratic situation that I don’t believe on either side anybody wants it to get to that point.”

She emphasised that she was not proposing a referendum “in this instant right now”. Throughout the campaign, Sturgeon said her government would only do so once “once the Covid crisis has passed”.

Sturgeon also confirmed she would attend the four-nations recovery summit proposed by Boris Johnson on Saturday, in a letter that struck a more conciliatory tone than the previous day when the prime minister called a fresh referendum “irresponsible and reckless”. Gove also told Marr it was essential to “work together as Team UK”.

Asked by Marr whether she was going to be the first minister to deliver independence, Sturgeon replied: “I hope so. I’ve just won a landslide election and another five-year term as first minister. I’ve got the energy, the appetite, to get on with the job, but firstly to get us through Covid, that is my priority.”

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