SNP told to ditch plans for independence referendum by Sir Keir Starmer

An independence referendum is an “essential priority” for Scotland and would allow the country to chart its own recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic, John Swinney has said.

Scottish independence supporters march through Edinburgh during an All Under One Banner march. Picture: Andrew Milligan/PA Wire
Scottish independence supporters march through Edinburgh during an All Under One Banner march. Picture: Andrew Milligan/PA Wire

The Deputy First Minister spoke out in response to claims from UK Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer that another vote on leaving the UK was not wanted by Scots during the “darkest hour” of the pandemic.

Mr Swinney’s comments came under fire from opponents in Scotland who say the focus of ministers should be on battling the pandemic and not constitutional change.

Sir Keir recently set out plans to review the constitutional situation in the UK, including the prospect of enhanced devolution.

Labour party leader Keir Starmer speaks to the media as he leaves the BBC after his appearance on The Andrew Marr Show. Picture: Hollie Adams/Getty Images

But the Labour leader insisted that independence was not the answer.

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"I don't think there should be another referendum," he told the BBC's Andrew Marr show.

"I don't think a referendum is the right way forward. But I do accept that the status quo isn't working.

"I don't accept the argument that if the status quo isn't working, the next thing you do is going to a referendum.

"I think there are other things that you can do, other arguments that can be made in support of the United Kingdom."

He added: "We're in the middle of a pandemic, probably the darkest moment of the pandemic in Scotland, as much of the rest of the United Kingdom.

"The idea that the only discussion we're having … is about whether there should be a referendum when the health service is on it's knees, the economy is really under strain, lots of people and families are struggling in Scotland for their jobs and the future – and every time we talk about Scotland the only question is whether there should be another referendum."

Sir Keir said he did not agree with Prime Minister Boris Johnson's assertion last week that another referendum should not take place for 40 years.

But he said: "If you ask the people of Scotland what their priorities are – and this has been asked many times in the last nine months – most of them understandably say the economy, jobs, health, public services."

But Mr Swinney said on Sunday that independence could help Scotland rebuild from the pandemic

"An independence referendum is an essential priority for the people of Scotland, which gives an opportunity to choose how we will rebuild as a country from Covid,” he told the BBC’s Politics Scotland programme.

"It would give us the opportunity to design another constitutional future and to determine the nature of our economy and the way in which we deal with an support our citizens."

Polls show the SNP is on course for a landslide victory in May's Holyrood election, which could even see the party return a majority of MSPs, similar to the outcome of the 2011 Scottish election that prompted the UK Government to agree to a referendum on independence in 2014 through a section 30 order.

But the constitution in the UK is reserved to Westminster and Mr Johnson has ruled out a repeat of the 2014 vote, suggesting last weekend that such a vote should not happen again for 40 years.

The Scottish Government has been demanding the right to hold another referendum on independence in the aftermath of Brexit vote in 2016, which saw two-thirds of Scots opt to remain in the EU, but the weight of votes south of the Border swung the outcome in favour of Leave.

But Scottish Conservative Constitution spokesman Dean Lockhart said Mr Swinney’s comments suggest ministers are not fully focused on fighting the Covid pandemic.

He said: “It beggars belief that John Swinney feels another divisive independence referendum is a priority for Scotland while we are continuing to deal with a global pandemic.

“The SNP Government must be fully focused on ensuring the vaccine programme is successfully rolled out as it is what is giving people hope right now.

“They must also urgently get hundreds of millions out the door that they have from the UK Government to people and businesses who are worried about their jobs and livelihoods as current restrictions continue.

“That’s where the Deputy First Minister’s priorities for Scotland should be rather than dragging the country back to the divisions of the past.”

Pamela Nash, chief executive of Scotland in Union, also hit out at Mr Swinney’s claims.“These are grossly irresponsible remarks and an insult to all those working to bring people together in the face of this pandemic,” Ms Nash said.“Polls show that people do not think another divisive referendum is a priority, with only 11 per cent Scots choosing it among the most important issues facing Scotland.“No responsible politician would even contemplate a second referendum when the entire focus should be on rebuilding our economy and public services.“The SNP is obsessed with how to tear communities apart, but we are stronger together as part of the UK and we can ensure a successful recovery by working together.”

Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard also rounded on Mr Swinney’s claims.

He said: "We learnt from polling just last month that four out of five Scottish voters - including almost two thirds of SNP supporters - want the Scottish Government to prioritise the recovery from the public health and economic crises over a second independence referendum.

"This is another example of the SNP failing to recognise Scotland's priorities. Now is not the time for another referendum.

"Scotland's priorities are jobs, our NHS and our children's education."

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