UK Government did not use pandemic to strengthen union, Gove tells inquiry
The UK Government did not use the Covid-19 pandemic to strengthen support for the union, Michael Gove has said, as he argued Scottish ministers diverged on policy to advance their “political agenda”.
The Levelling Up Secretary told the UK Covid-19 Inquiry as it sits in Edinburgh that language used in WhatsApp messages between former first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, and her then chief of staff, Liz Lloyd, about starting a “good old-fashioned rammy” with the UK Government showed clear “temptation” to use the pandemic for political gain.
He said: “Some of the language used, the desire to have a ‘good old-fashioned rammy with the UK Government’ and some of the other language used … does lead me to believe that at that point, there was a desire to pursue differentiation for the sake of advancing a political agenda.”
He added: “There are, and were, occasions when the Scottish Government was thinking politically, as we can see, and, of course, it is the case the SNP has a political mission to achieve Scotland’s independence, i.e. destroy the United Kingdom and it would be naïve not to be aware that highly skilled politicians, including those at the top of the Scottish Government, might well see what they perceive to be political advantage at certain points.
“But, I think, it’s important to note that while that did happen at certain points, the day-to-day management of the pandemic preoccupied them as it did other ministers.”
Mr Gove, who served as a Cabinet Office minister during the pandemic, with a focus on intergovernmental relations, told the inquiry the relationship between the UK and the devolved administrations was for the “most part constructive” in relation to the day-to-day management of the pandemic.
However, counsel to the inquiry Jamie Dawson KC later showed Mr Gove a Government document produced by him entitled “state of the union”.
It showed the 70% of the survey’s respondents believed the Scottish Government were implementing the right pandemic procedures, compared to 27% for the UK Government.
Mr Gove wrote of changing “the perception” in the report, adding: “There’s a real opportunity to outline how being part of the union has significantly reduced the hardship faced by individuals and businesses.”
Asked by Mr Dawson if he was “setting out a strategy to use the Covid-19 pandemic to strengthen the union, Mr Gove said: “I think it’s the case that I’m seeking to make sure that people appreciate the way in which the existence of the United Kingdom and its institutions has enabled us to deal effectively with the Covid pandemic.”
He added that the UK Government had to address the appearance it was “hiding its light under a bushel”.
Later, Mr Gove said the Scottish Government “did not want intergovernmental relations to work”.
Mr Gove also told the inquiry: “I think, almost all of the time decisions were made in the public health benefit of the people of Scotland.
“But I think the Scottish Government believed that its handling of these matters was somehow superior to that of the UK Government and that people would appreciate that and be prompted to think how much better might life be if we gave the Scottish Government more powers and moved further down the path to independence.”
He also told the inquiry that former finance secretary Kate Forbes had been one of the “most constructive” ministers in the Scottish Government, but former first minister Nicola Sturgeon was “sometimes political” in her correspondence with UK counterparts.
He also said former prime minister Boris Johnson was “irritated” by Ms Sturgeon’s “divergent” decision to ban large gatherings shortly after a UK Cobra meeting had concluded.
The inquiry, chaired by Baroness Hallett, continues.
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