LONDON — British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has inflamed Scottish discontent with his Conservative government by reportedly saying that giving governing powers to Scotland had been a “disaster.”
British media reported that Johnson made the remarks during a video meeting with Conservative Party lawmakers on Monday evening, in which he also said Scottish devolution had been former Prime Minister Tony Blair’s “biggest mistake.”
Scotland has an Edinburgh-based government and parliament, set up in 1999, with broad powers in areas including health and education. Wales and Northern Ireland also have their own legislatures and regional administrations.
Johnson’s office did not deny he made the comments. But it said he was not criticizing devolution, only its use “by separatists and nationalists to break up the U.K.”
“The PM has always supported devolution,” Downing St. said in a statement.
The Scottish National Party, which wants Scotland to become an independent country, leads the government in Edinburgh. It is strongly critical of the U.K.’s Conservative government over the decision to leave the European Union. Brexit was championed by Johnson and supported by a narrow majority of U.K. voters in a 2016 referendum, but strongly opposed in Scotland.
Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has also been critical of Johnson’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic. Britain has recorded more than 52,000 deaths of people who tested positive for the virus, the highest toll in Europe.
Scotland voted to remain in the U.K. by a margin of 55%-45% in a 2014 independence referendum that was billed as a once-in-a-generation event. But the SNP claims Brexit has fundamentally changed the situation by dragging Scotland out of the EU against its will, and is pushing for a new independence vote. Recent opinion polls suggest a majority of Scots now favour independence.
An election for the Scottish Parliament is due in May. If Sturgeon’s SNP wins the anticipated majority, she is likely to demand a new independence referendum. But a binding referendum needs the U.K. government’s approval, and Johnson insists he’ll say no.
Sturgeon tweeted that Johnson’s remarks showed his government was “a threat to the powers of the Scottish Parliament.”
“The only way to protect & strengthen @ScotParl is with independence,” she said.
U.K. Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick defended Johnson, saying he did not oppose Scotland exercising its own powers.
“The prime minister has always supported devolution but he is at heart a unionist, and he is very troubled by the rise of nationalism and separatism,” Jenrick told Sky News.
Jill Lawless, The Associated Press