LONDON (REUTERS) - Prime Minister Boris Johnson told Scottish nationalists on Thursday (Jan 28) to stop talking "endlessly" about a new independence referendum, saying most people wanted to see Britain "bouncing back more strongly together" after the Covid-19 pandemic eases.
On a trip to Scotland to try to stem growing support for another referendum, Johnson opted for a blunt message, saying independence supporters had their chance in 2014 in a vote they had agreed at the time was "a once-in-a-generation event".
The bonds that tie England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland together in a US$3 trillion (S$4 trillion) economy have been severely strained by both Britain's exit from the European Union and Johnson's handling of the coronavirus outbreak.
Opinion surveys indicate a majority of Scots would now favour breaking apart the 314-year-old union between England and Scotland.
But Johnson, whose unpopularity runs deep in Scotland according to opinion polls, suggested he was sticking to his position of not approving another referendum, which the Scottish National Party needs to hold a legal vote.
"I don't think that the right thing to do is to talk endlessly about another referendum when I think what the people of the country and the people of Scotland want in particular is to fight this pandemic," Johnson said at a laboratory just outside Edinburgh.
"I don't see the advantage of getting lost in pointless constitutional wrangling when after all we had a referendum not so very long ago," he said.
"The very same people who... go on and on about another referendum also said only a few years ago, only in 2014, that this was a once-in-a-generation event - I'm inclined to stick with what they said last time."
His visit to Scotland, at a time when the nation is in a lockdown to prevent the spread of Covid-19, drew criticism from Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and her Scottish National Party (SNP) who questioned whether it qualified as "essential" under coronavirus guidelines.
'Part of the Prime Minister's job'
Johnson's spokesman defended the trip, saying it was "a fundamental part of the prime minister's job to go out and see businesses and communities and people", particularly during the pandemic.
Sturgeon, who runs Scotland's semi-autonomous government, is hoping a strong SNP performance in its May 6 parliamentary election would give her the mandate to hold a second referendum.
If Scotland became independent, the United Kingdom - already grappling with the economic consequences of Brexit and the pandemic - would lose about a third of its landmass and almost a 10th of its population.
Scotland voted against independence by 55 per cent to 45 per cent in 2014.
But a majority of Scots also backed staying in the EU in the 2016 Brexit referendum - though a majority in the United Kingdom overall, including England, Johnson's base, voted to leave - and Scottish nationalists say this boosts their case for secession.
Johnson's Cabinet Office Minister, Michael Gove, himself Scottish, told Sky News: "At the moment, when we are prioritising the fight against the disease and also the need for economic recovery in due course, talking about changing the constitution and so on is just a massive distraction."