Boris Johnson has suggested Scotland should not hold another independence referendum until at least the 2050s, shrugging off claims that Brexit has strengthened the case for a new vote.
Britain’s prime minister has hailed the ending of the Brexit transition period on January 1 as “an amazing moment” for Britain, but the fallout is likely to hang over British politics and business in 2021.
Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s first minister, has vowed to take an independent Scotland back into the EU, issuing a new year’s message which urged Europe to “keep the light on”. Elections to the Scottish parliament take place in May.
But Mr Johnson warned Ms Sturgeon that the Westminster government would not give its necessary approval for a second independence referendum, following the last one in 2014.
“Referendums, in my experience, are not particularly jolly events,” he told the BBC’s Andrew Marr programme on Sunday, adding that they were not “unifying” events in national life.
Mr Johnson said that he shared the view of the Scottish National party leadership ahead of the 2014 vote — when Scots voted 55:45 to stay in the UK — that such referendums were “once in a generation events”.
Asked whether Brexit had changed the calculation, given that Scots voted 62:38 to remain within the EU, Mr Johnson demurred, drawing parallels with the gap between two UK referendums on EU membership.
“We had a referendum in 1975 and another in 2016,” he said. “That seems to me to be [the] right kind of gap.” On that calculation, Mr Johnson implied that Scotland should not vote again on independence until the 2050s.
Ms Sturgeon hopes to use the May elections to Holyrood as a springboard for another push for independence. Brexit and Mr Johnson’s handling of the Covid-19 crisis will be used to make the case for Scottish self-rule.
While Mr Johnson can use his Westminster majority to block a second referendum, the issue is likely to become a dominant factor of political debate if the SNP win another majority.
Brexit has also created other strains in the Union, with Northern Ireland remaining under some EU rules and the EU customs code as part of a deal to retain an open land border with Ireland.
Arlene Foster, Northern Ireland’s first minister, said her pro-Brexit Democratic Unionist party would continue to make the case for the advantages of the region remaining part of the UK.
Meanwhile many UK and EU businesses will on Monday get their first glimpse of the new trade border resulting from Britain leaving the bloc’s customs union and single market, as companies reopen after the festive break.
The imposition of new customs declarations and controls at the border which have now taken effect will be tested as freight flows start to return to normal.
Mr Johnson acknowledged “there are going to be changes” but insisted that small and medium sized companies should see the new trade deal agreed with Brussels on Christmas Eve as “a great opportunity”.
The prime minister repeated his claim that once SMEs became familiar with filling in forms to trade with the EU, they would not be daunted by filling in the same forms to trade with the rest of the world. “Think globally,” he said.
HM Revenue & Customs has estimated that British business will face additional costs of £7.5bn a year in extra bureaucracy, with 215m new customs import and export declarations for trade with the EU.
Government officials admit that perhaps 50 per cent of SMEs are not ready for the new paperwork, raising the prospect of disruption at the Port of Dover and the Eurotunnel terminal at Folkestone in coming days.