Theresa May has told Scots she will “never let the UK drift apart” and refused to put any timescale on the current block being lifted on a second independence referendum.
The Prime Minister insisted that strengthening the union will be her “personal priority” if she is re-elected in next month’s general election.
“Across the United Kingdom we may be four nations, but at heart we are one people,” Mrs May said as she attended the Scottish Conservative manifesto launch in Edinburgh.
The Tories are enjoying a revival in Scotland with the recent council elections and opinion polls making it clear they are the main challenger – well ahead of Labour – to the SNP’s dominance.
The party’s revival north of the Border has been spearheaded by its hardline opposition to a second independence referendum. Mrs May insisted only her party has the “strength and credibility” to stand up to the SNP, but pledged to bring about a rebirth of the UK and its institutions of government north of the Border.
“That stronger union is a personal priority for me,” Mrs May said. “As long as I am Prime Minister I will never stand by and let out union drift apart.”
“Too often in the past UK governments have tended to ‘devolve and forget’.
“The government I lead will put that right. We will make the institutions of our United Kingdom a force for good across the whole UK.”
Mrs May was repeatedly asked to define the measure of “public consent” which could prompt her to back a second independence referendum and the timescale for this, but refused to be drawn. Instead, she insisted the focus should be on securing the best possible deal from the Brexit talks.
“Talking about a second independence referendum right now doesn’t strengthen our hand, it weakens it,” Mrs May said. “It is time to come together in the national interest, united in our desire to make a success of Brexit.”
Scots voted by a margin of 62 per cent to 38 per cent to remain in the European Union last June – a result which led Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon to call for a second vote on independence. But control over the constitution lies with Westminster and Mrs May has refused to agree to this.
The last referendum 2014 was only held after Alex Salmond and David Cameron signed the Edinburgh Agreement to make it legally binding.
While the 2015 election saw voters elect just one Scottish Conservative MP, the party is now targeting up to 14 seats north of the Border next month. High-profile SNP politicians including depute leader Angus Robertson in Moray and Scottish affairs select committee convener Pete Wishart are among those who face a tough Tory challenge.
Mrs May used her speech to hit out at the SNP’s “tunnel-vision obsession” with independence, claiming their record of ten years in government in Scotland is in contrast with a “Unionist government at the service of ordinary, working families”.
But Mr Salmond, the former First Minister and SNP leader, accused the Tories of being mired in “complete and utter confusion” over the constitution. “Scotland is a nation and not a region — Scotland’s future must lie in Scotland’s hands,” he said.
“There is already a cast-iron democratic mandate for Scotland to have a choice, based on last year’s Holyrood election and the subsequent vote of the Scottish Parliament.
“The Tories want to deny and to block that mandate, but they haven’t the got the guts or the gumption to say how. That lack of clarity betrays the weakness of their position – they know that their behaviour is antidemocratic and that it will not hold.
“It is only fair that people should have a choice on their future – not now, but once the terms of Brexit are known. And Scotland’s choice will not be denied.”