Keir Starmer has declared that “no responsible Prime Minister would grant” a fresh Scottish independence referendum in the early part of the next Holyrood term as favoured by the ruling SNP.
Delivering a speech on the launch of Labour’s new constitutional commission, Starmer appeared to abandon his previous position that an SNP majority in 2021 would be a mandate for another independence vote.
The Westminster opposition leader said: “The last thing Scotland needs now is more years of division. So Labour will argue passionately against another independence referendum. We will argue that today, we will argue that tomorrow.
“It would be entirely the wrong priority to hold another Scottish independence referendum in the teeth of the deepest recession for 300 years. While still fighting this pandemic, when there is such uncertainty about how Brexit and coronavirus will affect us.
“And when the costs and consequences of independence are still so uncertain. That’s why Nicola Sturgeon’s call for an independence referendum in the ‘early part’ of the next Scottish parliament – perhaps even next year – is so misguided.”
The Scottish First Minister said in November that the independence referendum should “be in the earlier part of the next parliament”, and SNP Westminster leader Ian Blackford has said it must take place in 2021.
Starmer told Scottish voters in his JP Mackintosh Memorial Lecture this morning: “Given the damage and division this would cause, no responsible First Minister should contemplate it – and no responsible Prime Minister would grant it.
“There should not be another independence referendum while our economic and health outlook is so precarious – nor until there has been a proper assessment of the costs, consequences and uncertainties of separation.”
In an interview in September, the UK Labour leader described another vote as “about the last thing that we need”, but when pressed further on the issue stood by previous comments that the matter was up to Scotland.
“These issues are questions for Scotland, I do stand by that. I’m setting out the argument that the Labour Party and Scottish Labour will be making between now and next May,” Starmer told Sky News at the time.
But Starmer has now suggested that Covid, as well as other causes of uncertainty in the country, means a Scottish independence vote should not be held soon – even if the SNP win a majority in May 2021 on such a platform.
Asked today whether he would personally lead the next campaign for the union, Starmer reiterated his position, saying: “Look, I don’t think there should be another referendum. That is the thrust of what I’m saying.
“But in making the passionate case for the United Kingdom, I’m absolutely prepared to be a champion and an advocate for the United Kingdom. But that case needs to be made without regard to a referendum.”
The Labour leader used the speech today to unveil plans for a UK-wide constitutional commission, which will be “radical” and “consider how power, wealth and opportunity can be devolved to the most local level”.
The “boldest project Labour has embarked on for a generation” will be advised by former Labour Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who played a prominent role in the ‘No’ campaign during the 2014 Scottish referendum.
“The commission will make the positive case for the UK and it will champion devolution, but beyond that it will rule nothing out and I will look at the conclusions without preconceptions,” Starmer promised this morning.
“It will have one overriding priority: to push power closer to people. And to deliver a more democratic and socially just United Kingdom. It will put our nations and regions at its centre: our metro mayors, mayors, local leaders and councillors.
“It will involve all parts of the labour movement: our members, trade unions and supporters. And it will welcome community organisations, grassroots groups, and movements for change. Above all, it will hear direct from the British people.”
Starmer also sent a direct message to Scottish voters who have “given up on Labour” and “given up on the United Kingdom”, telling them: “I hear what you’re saying. I understand why you feel as you do.
“And I’m not surprised. For a decade, there’s been a Conservative government in Westminster with priorities you don’t share. And there’s been a Labour opposition that keeps losing.
“When those are the alternatives, I can see why you’ve reached the conclusion you have. But Boris Johnson isn’t Britain. Just as Nicola Sturgeon isn’t Scotland. The United Kingdom is much more than that, more than any individual.”
He added: “Labour has a mountain to climb, nowhere more than in Scotland. And nowhere matters more to me than Scotland. The first step on that journey is to reaffirm Labour’s commitment to a UK based on social justice and solidarity.”
The Labour leader told journalists today that there was “a case” for recalling the UK parliament amid the latest Covid news but said it was more important that the Prime Minister address the public today after COBRA.
He rejected demands – made by figures including London mayor Sadiq Khan – for the UK to request an extension to the Brexit transition period. “I don’t want an extension, I want the deal,” Starmer said.
“I think it would be far better for the government to get the deal over the line today, tomorrow or certainly this week,” the opposition leader added. “Simply delaying and dithering further I don’t think gets us anywhere.”
Starmer’s speech follows a series of opinion polls that indicate a majority of voters in Scotland are now in favour of independence, and polls consistently predict that the SNP will overwhelmingly win the Holyrood elections in May.