The coronavirus pandemic has shown the “merits” of the union between England and Scotland are “very strong”, the prime minister has said.
Speaking during his first visit to Scotland since his December general election victory, Boris Johnson reiterated his opposition to a second independence referendum.
The PM said the strength of the UK has been crucial in the fight against COVID-19 and expressed his desire to “build back better” post-pandemic.
He described the union as a “fantastically strong institution”, which has “helped our country through thick and thin”.
Mr Johnson continued: “It’s very very valuable in terms of the support we’ve been able to give to everybody throughout all corners of the UK.
“We had a referendum on breaking up the union a few years ago, I think only six years ago, that is not a generation by any computation.”
Nicola Sturgeon’s devolved administration in Edinburgh has been able to enforce its own rules during lockdown.
And Holyrood has taken a different approach to Westminster in a number of areas.
The first minister moved to make face masks in shops compulsory weeks before the PM’s government did the same, while also retaining the “stay at home” message when Mr Johnson changed it back in May.
Amid this differing approach to the coronavirus, the calls for a second independence vote have continued.
One recent poll found a majority of Scots (54%) want to leave the union.
Voters rejected independence back in 2014, with the no side garnering 55% of ballots cast.
Ms Sturgeon tweeted ahead of the PM’s visit that his trip “highlights” the SNP’s arguments for a fresh referendum.
“One of the key arguments for independence is the ability of Scotland to take our own decisions, rather than having our future decided by politicians we didn’t vote for, taking us down a path we haven’t chosen,” she said.
The pair will not meet during Mr Johnson’s visit.
I welcome the PM to Scotland today. One of the key arguments for independence is the ability of Scotland to take our own decisions, rather than having our future decided by politicians we didn’t vote for, taking us down a path we haven’t chosen. His presence highlights that.
— Nicola Sturgeon (@NicolaSturgeon) July 23, 2020
As part of his trip, the PM is pledging £50m to Orkney, Shetland and the Western Isles to help develop the islands’ economic potential, with handouts for space technology and renewable energy.
The total will be matched by the Scottish government as well.
Mr Johnson hailed this as a “real opportunity for people here to get some funding to increase what they are already doing, amazing new green technology”.
He added: “Around Orkney they could supply 25% of the UK’s energy needs if they had the infrastructure to go with it so we’re looking at ways to support the council here, to support local leaders in their ambitions.”
Ahead of his visit, Mr Johnson said almost 900,000 workers in Scotland had benefited from UK government assistance during the pandemic.
A small group of masked protesters gathered ahead of his arrival in Stromness, waving signs that said “Hands off Scotland” and “Our Scotland, our future”, while an “Indy Ref Now” placard was seen on the side of a van.
Downing Street said the PM will visit businesses affected by the COVID-19 outbreak, those working in green energy and military personnel to thank them for their efforts in the response to the virus.
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said Mr Johnson “needs to listen not lecture” during his trip.
“I think what the coronavirus has shown us is, actually, we shouldn’t be pulling apart the United Kingdom,” he said.
“In the health response, and particularly on the economic response, it has been very important that Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom have worked together.
“It’s an example of why we shouldn’t be pulling apart the United Kingdom.”
Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie criticised the PM and first minister, accusing them of “using this week as an excuse to bang the drums for their supporters on the constitution”.
“We need a common strategy on economic recovery, on preparing for a second wave, on supporting our social care sector, on finding a vaccine and treatments, and so much more,” he said.
“Yet instead of getting round the table to find those solutions we get insults. They both need to grow up.”