Scotland's Covid recovery impossible without independence says SNP president
SNP President Mike Russell has said “devolution, in any form” will not be enough for Scotland to recover from the pandemic.
Speaking to Holyrood’s Politically Speaking podcast, the former Scottish Government Cabinet Secretary for the Constitution, Europe and External Affairs said only independence would give the country the “range of things we need to do”.
The Scottish Conservatives described Russell’s comments as “patently absurd”. Labour said they were "astounding".
However, Alba welcomed the comments, saying they were in stark contrast to Nicola Sturgeon's insistence that any push for independence be put on hold until after Scotland has recovered from the Covid.
The ex-minister was taking part in a discussion with former Labour MSP Neil Findlay and James Mitchell, professor of public policy at Edinburgh University on recent calls for any future referendum to include an option for devo-max.
Russell argued against the proposition, saying there was no likelihood of substantially more devolution “as long as Westminster maintains its view of sovereignty".
He added: “And that view is not held simply by the Tories. It is held by the Labour Party too. So I do not see any prospect of that type of change taking place. And therefore, we enter, if we enter into this argument, into more years of seeking something that is not going to happen. I think it's far better that we are clear about that and we move on to make a decision about the real choice that exists for Scotland.”
Russell later added: “I do not believe that devolution, in any form, produces the result that Scotland needs to recover from the pandemic because there is a range of things we need to do, including rejoining the EU, which we could not do if we were simply devolved, no matter what devo-max means.”
Responding to the comments, Scottish Conservative Shadow Cabinet Secretary for the Constitution Donald Cameron said: “Mike Russell’s suggestion that Scotland’s recovery from the pandemic would be better served by independence is patently absurd.
“As part of the UK, Scotland has benefited hugely from the speed and success of the UK vaccine rollout and the chancellor’s furlough scheme, which protected the jobs and livelihoods of countless Scots."
He added: “In a wider sense, his comments confirm what we all know to be true, but which the SNP usually seek to deny; namely, that they have no desire to make devolution work for the people of Scotland.
“No amount of further devolved powers will ever be enough for the SNP – they will always look to stir up grievance in the push for independence.”
Shadow Scottish Secretary Ian Murray said: “These astounding comments confirm what the SNP have been trying to hide - they want to rip us out of the UK before we’ve recovered from the pandemic.
“The SNP’s destructive separatist agenda would inflict untold damage on communities and our economy. It is reckless at the best of times, and it is simply unthinkable while we are trying to rebuild from the pandemic.
“This is yet another reminder of the economic illiteracy at the heart of the SNP.
“Lives and livelihoods are still on the line. Instead of trying to stoke yet more chaos, the SNP should focus on protecting jobs and fixing the crisis they’ve let unfold in our NHS.”
Lib Dem leader Alex Cole-Hamilton was also not convinced by the SNP politican's argument.
He told Holyrood: "Mike Russell wrote a political prospectus in which he set out how he wanted to slash the welfare state, introduce vouchers for education and hospitals; and dismantle the NHS in favour of an insurance-based health service. This is the person Nicola Sturgeon has put in charge of her latest independence push.
"The broad shoulders of the UK economy have helped us to weather the economic storm of the pandemic. There is no doubt that Scottish independence would mean far less money for the NHS and public services."
Kenny MacAskill from Alba welcomed the comment from Russell. The former Justice Secretary said: “It has been the First Minister who has insisted that any push for independence be put on hold until after Scotland has recovered from the Covid pandemic so I welcome the sinner repenteth in the form of Mike Russell.
"He quite rightly recognises that independence cannot and must not wait for Covid recovery .
“We need independence so that our health service and economy can fully recover from Covid.
“Scotland’s Parliament and its powers are being trashed by Westminster, while our people suffer under the most right-wing Government since Thatcher. Independence cannot come a day too soon."
At the start of the year former SNP policy chief Chris Hanlon used a column in the independence supporting newspaper, The National, to argue for the third way on a ballot paper.
Hanlon said: “Devo-max isn’t my preference and maybe, given the changed circumstances, it might not be the choice of the majority of the people of Scotland.
“But part of me remains of the opinion that excluding it from the ballot paper is just plain wrong. The people must have the option of choosing the path the largest percentage of them favour.”
The comments sparked a frenzied response from SNP politicians. MSP Gillian Martin dismissed the plan, saying that devo-max “was a con in 2014” – when Scots were promised enhanced devolution if they voted against independence – and “is a con now”.
However, there was support from other politicians and commentators.
Findlay, who has long been a supporter of devo-max, told Politically Speaking that the option was not a “trap” or a “fix.”
He said: “It's my long-held position that it's in the best interests in Scotland, the people of Scotland, that we, in my view, devolve all powers that it makes sense to devolve to the Scottish Parliament. And where there's not an overwhelming reason to devolve those powers, we'll leave them where they are. That's my argument.”
Findlay argued that his party had been “posted missing on the constitutional question” since 1999.
Former Prime Minister Gordon Brown is currently working on a review of the constitution for the Labour party.
Reports over the weekend suggested the blueprint for devolving further powers to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland would see the three governments handed responsibility to set its own policy in most areas apart from defence and foreign affairs.
Earlier, this week, Nicola Sturgeon promised to do "everything that’s within my power” to hold a second independence referendum before the end of 2023.
Speaking to STV, the First Minister said: “We will set out exactly what that means in terms of the date of the introduction of legislation when we’ve taken the detailed decisions around that."
She added: “What I think is much more exciting as we come out, I hope, of the pandemic, and certainly the acute phase of the pandemic, are the opportunities that come with Scotland being independent.”