LONDON (AP) — British Prime Minister Boris Johnson claimed Thursday that the United Kingdom’s response to the coronavirus pandemic has shown the country’s “sheer might,” seeking to underline the bonds that tie the nations of the U.K. together as polls indicate rising support for Scottish independence.
Johnson’s visit does not include a meeting with Scottish leader Nicola Sturgeon, who countered his upbeat tone with a frosty tweet saying the prime minister’s visit “highlights” the arguments for Scotland breaking away from the U.K.
Johnson’s office emphasized ahead of his visit that being part of the U.K. and its economic recovery policies meant Scotland saw 900,000 jobs protected during the pandemic, with the U.K. Treasury granting loans to thousands of Scottish businesses.
But Sturgeon rebuffed that argument, telling reporters Thursday that “none of us should be crowing about this pandemic in a political sense.” She added that while she welcomed financial support from London, it is “not some kind of favor” to Scots.
“Let’s be clear, this is borrowed money and the reason it is coming to the Scottish government from the U.K. government is the U.K. government holds the borrowing powers that Scotland doesn’t hold,” she said.
She also wrote on Twitter: “One of the key arguments for independence is the ability of Scotland to take our own decisions, rather than having our future decided by politicians we didn’t vote for, taking us down a path we haven’t chosen. His presence highlights that.”
The trip, Johnson’s first to Scotland since the general election in December, was meant to mark his first year in office and reiterate Johnson’s pledge last year to be a “prime minister for every corner of the United Kingdom.”
“The last six months have shown exactly why the historic and heartfelt bond that ties the four nations of our country together is so important and the sheer might of our union has been proven once again,” he said in a statement.
Two recent polls have suggested that 54% of those surveyed would like to see Scotland split from the U.K., and predicted that Sturgeon’s Scottish National Party would win a majority of seats in the Scottish Parliament next year.
The party almost succeeded in making Scotland independent of the U.K. in 2014, when the “remain” side narrowly won a referendum 55% to 45%. It wants a new independence referendum, but Johnson has said he will not approve one at least until 2024.
The Scottish National Party also opposes Britain’s exit from the European Union, and argues that Scotland should not be dragged out of the EU against its will. Scotland did not vote to leave the bloc during Britain’s 2016 referendum on EU membership.
Johnson and Sturgeon have often been at odds over their approach to tackling the coronavirus. Scotland, along with Wales and Northern Ireland, took a more cautious approach to easing lockdown restrictions than Johnson’s government has done in England and recommended nationwide.
Johnson didn’t mention those differences ahead of his visit, which has him scheduled to visit businesses that took a financial hit from the pandemic and to thank military personnel for participating in the U.K.’s efforts to cope with the virus.
His first stop was Copland Dock, in the northeast town of Stromness. Johnson strode out to meet fishermen and picked up a massive crab in each of his gloved hands. The fishermen told Johnson about their struggles and concerns as British and EU negotiators try to strike a post-Brexit trade deal.
As if to underscore the thorny issue, negotiators in London closed the latest round of trade talks Thursday without any progress – and fishing rights were cited as a stumbling block.
Fishing rights have been complicated and problematic ever since the United Kingdom became an EU member in 1973. While the fishing industry is a fairly small part of the British economy, resentment in the island nation runs deep against EU fishing policies that allow vessels from other member nations to catch stocks in British waters.
With fish stocks in decline, and U.K. fishermen increasingly suffering, the promise of “taking back control’’ with Brexit offered hope of a way forward. Fishermen are still waiting for results.
The issue is further complicated by the fact that much of the fish caught in British waters is sold in the EU, which is not budging on the question of water access.