Nicola Sturgeon has accused Michael Gove of "sneering, arrogant condescension" after he said a new Scottish independence referendum would not be granted before the 2024 general election.
The Scottish First Minister and SNP leader said Mr Gove’s comments, in an interview with The Telegraph, would increase support for Scotland leaving the UK.
Meanwhile, one SNP MP indicated that the refusal of the UK Government to allow another referendum meant the party should now unilaterally push ahead with legislating for one in Holyrood.
Boris Johnson, the Prime Minister, also vowed on Wednesday to return to Scotland "soon", brushing aside claims from political opponents that he is "toxic" north of the border.
Mr Gove, who is both the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and a Cabinet Office minister, is in charge of Union policy for the UK Government.
Speaking to The Telegraph for a documentary on Scottish independence, he said he "couldn’t see" a second independence referendum being held before the May 2024 election.
Ms Sturgeon, who argues that her victory in May’s Scottish Parliament elections gives her a mandate to hold another referendum, hit back in an interview with the Press Association.
Nicola Sturgeon said the SNP had won 'on the manifesto commitment to have the choice of independence'
Credit: Andrew Milligan/ WPA Pool/Getty Images
"Every time we hear that kind of sneering, arrogant condescension from Michael Gove, or whatever UK Government minister it may be, completely refusing to accept Scottish democracy, actually the more they just build support for independence," she said.
"If we can’t even have a UK Government that respects the choices we make democratically which – in an election just a matter of weeks ago – was an overwhelming victory for the SNP on the manifesto commitment to have the choice of independence, not to force independence on people but to give people the choice at the right moment after we’re out of the Covid-19 pandemic.
"If that can’t even be respected, then the idea that the UK is a partnership of equals just completely disintegrates."
Mr Gove argued in his Telegraph interview: "I think it’s foolish to talk about a referendum now – we’re recovering from Covid.
"It seems to me to be at best reckless, at worst folly to try to move the conversation on to constitutional division when people expect us to be working together in order to deal with these challenges."
Ms Sturgeon wants to hold an independence referendum by the end of autumn 2023, halfway through the new five-year term as Scottish First Minister she started last month.
The SNP argues that the inclusion of the right to hold a referendum in its May election platform, and the fact it won far more Holyrood seats than any other party, gives it a mandate.
However, UK Government ministers have noted that, during the 2014 referendum, SNP politicians called it a "once in a generation" moment.
That referendum saw Scots vote 55 per cent to 45 per cent for Scotland to remain in the UK.
Powers over constitutional matters remain with the UK Parliament. For the 2014 referendum, the UK Parliament and David Cameron, the Prime Minister, agreed to the vote taking place.
That is not the case now. Ms Sturgeon is determined to hold one but the UK Government is saying no – meaning a constitutional crisis looms if the SNP pushes ahead without approval.
SNP MP Angus MacNeil noted that Mr Gove's comments meant the only route for securing an independence referendum was tabling one in the Scottish parliament
Credit: The Telegraph
Angus MacNeil, an SNP MP, noted that Mr Gove’s comments meant that the only route for securing an independence referendum was tabling one in the Scottish parliament.
"So only [the] Scottish parliament legislation route left for Scot Government," Mr MacNeil tweeted. Ms Sturgeon is yet to push legislation for a second referendum in Holyrood since the election.
Such a move would be likely to end in the courts, since Downing Street believes the Scottish parliament holding an independence referendum without the approval of the UK Parliament would be unlawful.
John Nicolson, the SNP MP for Ochil and South Perthshire, mocked Mr Johnson for making only a handful of trips to Scotland this year at Prime Minister’s Questions on Wednesday. Mr Nicolson asked Mr Johnson when he was next visiting, joking: "Please come soon. Every visit is a tonic for us and toxic for his Scottish Tory apologists."
Mr Johnson replied: "I am seldom away from Scotland and can’t wait to be back there as soon as possible after the record poll secured by Scottish Conservatives at the recent election."