Michael Gove, who was appointed secretary of state for levelling up, housing and communities in the UK Government’s most recent Cabinet reshuffle, also said it would be “odd” if the Scottish Government rejected direct investment in Scotland purely on ideological grounds.
He claimed there was no “consensus” or “demand” for a second independence referendum, labelling the focus on the constitution a “complete distraction” from Covid recovery.
‘Levelling up’ is viewed by Conservatives as a key strand of their domestic programme and as a way of shoring up support for the party that surged during the Brexit debate in areas that have suffered decades of underfunding.
However, opposition politicians have criticised the scheme for allegedly prioritising areas which vote Conservative, rather than truly investing in the areas of the UK which may lack key modern infrastructure.
The SNP has claimed the levelling up fund and other UK projects are designed to undermine the devolution settlement and increase support for the union through direct investment.
But Mr Gove rejected the suggestion the UK Government was investing in Scotland for electoral gain.
“I am more than happy for Scottish Government ministers to take the credit for good things that happen in Scotland," he said. “I just want good things to happen in Scotland.
“If [Scottish finance secretary] Kate Forbes gets the credit for investment in Scotland, great. My job is to make sure that the UK Government works for everyone.”
Asked how this approach from the UK Government could be squared with the position that it continues to respect the devolution settlement, Mr Gove claimed the policy intended to help the Scottish Government to use its powers “more energetically and more effectively”.
He said: “There are a number of areas where the Scottish Government, whether it is led by Nicola or led by someone else, has the means to make a difference.
“Devolution can work for the Scottish Government and the Scottish Parliament, can serve the Scottish people better. It is their priorities, but we want to help them deliver them.
“Alongside that the UK Government also has a role to play, some of the projects that have been put forward by the levelling up fund have the backing of SNP MPs.”
The levelling up secretary said there had been several bids from parts of Scotland for the UK Government’s different funds and indicated an announcement about these funds would be made during the Autumn Budget by Rishi Sunak unveiled on Wednesday.
Pressed on the proposed update of the A75, a key trunk road in Dumfries and Galloway, and what would happen if the Scottish Government refused to co-operate with the UK Government on its upgrade, Mr Gove said it would be “odd” for the SNP to “put ideology ahead of co-operation”.
He said: “We’re giving this money to the Scottish Government. There’s not a penny taken off the block grant, we’re going to supply the funding, do everything and then the Scottish Government says ‘oh no, no, no, no, you’re trampling on devolved competence’.
“Do we really think that a citizen in Stranraer, Whithorn or Lockerbie is going to say ‘oh well done, thank you so much, Scotland is stronger now that we’ve kept this road in its current condition’? It is practical co-operation.
“I can’t believe, in the same way that before the levelling up fund was created, there were some people in the SNP saying ‘oh, this is outrageous that the UK Government is helping people in Scotland, how dare they even think about it’. And then once the bids came in you had SNP MPs saying ‘oh, actually, we’ll support it’.”
In his pre-reshuffle role as the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster during which he established a new union directorate within the Cabinet Office, Mr Gove said he backed a second independence referendum in Scotland if it is shown to be the “settled will” of the Scottish people.
The UK Government has shown no signs of changing this approach of stating “now is not the time” despite protestations from the SNP and the Scottish Greens, with the co-operation agreement between the two yet to nudge the dial in favour of the nationalists.
Asked what the difference was between the democratic mandate achieved by the UK Government during the Tory and Lib Dem coalition years and the SNP/Green deal in place at Holyrood and why one could progress its agenda while the other is being blocked, Mr Gove said the focus on the constitution was the differing factor.
He said: “I think that when you are talking about something like the break-up of the United Kingdom, that is of an order of magnitude greater than issues like the precise level of the budget for DEFRA.
“I think it’s of an order of magnitude’s difference.
“As Nicola herself freely observed, during the campaign she said ‘if you don’t want independence, but you do believe that I am the right person to be First Minister, you should vote for me’. She was asked that explicit question and her view couldn’t have been clearer.”
Pressed on what the democratic route to independence is for Scotland and whether the UK continues to be a union of consent, Mr Gove said the UK was unique in Europe for having a clear, legal route for part of the country to secede.
Labelling criticism that Westminster holds the union together by “some authoritarian mandate and hoops of iron” as “manifestly nonsensical”, the minister said claims Scotland and the rest of the UK did not share common values and Westminster was “somehow the Eton senior common room” were undermined by the diversity of the Cabinet and public opinion polling.
He also refused to define the length of a generation.