Michael Gove challenges Scottish Government's desire to retest independence question

Michael Gove has written to the Electoral Commission.

Britain's Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster Michael Gove. Photo: AFP/Getty
Britain's Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster Michael Gove. Photo: AFP/Getty

Michael Gove has suggested the Scottish Government "should focus on delivery of its significant domestic responsibilities" after a request to retest the question used in the 2014 independence referendum.

The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster has written to Sir John Holmes, chairman of the Electoral Commission, over the issue.

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Scotland voted 55% to 45% to stay in the UK in September 2014 but a motion was passed at Holyrood in January calling for a new referendum to be held.

In the letter, Mr Gove suggests the request "represents a poor use of time, resource and public money" and is being used to motivate SNP members.

Mr Gove said: "The UK Government's clear position is that it is outside the legislative competence of the Scottish Parliament to legislate for and hold a referendum on Scottish independence absent a transfer of relevant powers.

"The Prime Minister wrote to the First Minister of Scotland on January 14 2020 to confirm that he cannot agree to such a transfer of powers.

"The people of Scotland voted decisively in 2014 to remain part of the United Kingdom and the UK Government is committed to respecting and upholding that result.

"The UK Government has been very clear that the Scottish Government should focus on delivery of its significant domestic responsibilities, including the ongoing implementation of the welfare powers in the Scotland Act 2016, and work with the UK Government to ensure 2020 is a year of opportunity for Scotland, not one of constitutional wrangling and grievance."

He added: "The Electoral Commission of course has an important role in testing the suitability of referendum questions where there is a referendum in prospect.

"However, there is no lawful referendum on Scottish independence in prospect and in view of that, I believe the Scottish Government's request to you represents a poor use of time, resource and public money and is an exercise designed to persuade Scottish National Party members that a referendum is imminent."

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Ahead of that January meeting between First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and Prime Minister Boris Johnson, the former maintained there was a "democratic case" for a new vote.

Mr Johnson said the UK Government would "continue to uphold the democratic decision" made by the Scottish people and keep the "promise" made to them nearly six years ago.

Constitutional Relations Secretary Mike Russell initially wrote to Dame Sue Bruce at the Electoral Commission on February 5.

Just days before he did, an online survey of Scots had a 50-50 split between Yes and No in response to the question "Should Scotland be an independent country?"

On Monday, Mr Russell said: "This Government remains committed to a referendum, which is beyond legal challenge.

"In line with this commitment, I wrote to the Electoral Commission to request that it provides advice and assistance by considering the wording and intelligibility of the question - 'Should Scotland be an independent country?' - which has already been tested and used in the 2014 independence referendum.

"We have made a legitimate request for advice on this issue and await the commission's decision."