Scotland is in decline because of SNP’s independence obsession, says Gove

<span>Michael Gove’s speech came as polling evidence emerged about the significant electoral challenge the Scottish Tories face at the general election.</span><span>Photograph: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty</span>
Michael Gove’s speech came as polling evidence emerged about the significant electoral challenge the Scottish Tories face at the general election.Photograph: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty

Michael Gove has accused the Scottish National party government of running down Scotland because of its “devastating” obsession with independence, as he tried to rally Conservative activists in Aberdeen.

Gove, an Aberdonian who is now the most prominent Scot in the UK government, said Scotland’s institutions had been neglected by the SNP because it had focused so heavily on the constitution at the expense of public services.

“We have to look at their record, their stewardship of the essential elements of Scottish civic and public life. And it is a devastatingly depressing story,” he told delegates at a Scottish Conservative party fringe meeting.

“Every single one of the institutions that makes Scotland great and makes us proud to be Scots has been run down under the SNP Scottish government and it’s been run down because of their relentless unilateral focus on division, separatism and re-asking a constitutional question which was supposed to have been settled for a generation in 2014.”

His speech, which delighted delegates, came as fresh polling evidence emerged about the significant electoral challenge the Scottish Tories face at the general election when they defend seven Westminster seats.

The latest poll for the Scottish Electoral Study found that 58% of former Tory voters in Scotland now expected to vote for other parties, with a significant number switching to Labour. In October 2023, the same study put that defection rate at 42%.

Last week, a Survation poll found Scottish Tory support in a Westminster vote had slumped to 15%, nearly half the support for the Conservatives in early 2020.

Gove, the secretary of state for levelling up, housing and communities, said the Scottish Tories needed to focus on the UK government’s record of investing in Scotland in the runup to the election. It had spent several hundred million pounds through the levelling-up fund in towns such as Dumfries, Elgin and Aberdeen, which had been “overlooked and undervalued” by the SNP.

The nationalists, he said, frequently focused on ill-considered policies designed to divide the UK, such as on a botched bottle-and-can return scheme, on a gender recognition bill thrown out by the courts and on refusing initially to follow England and Wales by banning XL bully dogs, before reversing that decision.

Gove said: “We believe in partnership, we believe that we are better together, we believe in a better future for everyone in Scotland and the United Kingdom.

“And that was the contrast between us and the Scottish government. We believe in the power of the union. They believe in separation, division and denigration.”

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The Scottish Election Study’s data shows Tory switchers are deserting the party because they are angry about the UK government’s performance and competence at Westminster, a theme one MSP said was being picked up by frustrated Tory canvassers.

Critics of the Tories point to cuts in social security benefits fuelling an increase in poverty and the cost of living crisis, and argue that Scotland was entitled to stage a second independence referendum because the Brexit vote dramatically changed the case for remaining in the UK.

Douglas Ross, the Scottish Tory leader, said there was, however, strong evidence the Conservative vote was holding up in its core areas. It had won two recent council byelections, in Dunblane and Bridge of Allan, and in Jedburgh, with substantial increases in vote share.

Ross believes the Scottish Tories can capitalise on rising discontent with the SNP government in Edinburgh by making the general election a referendum on SNP competence, rather than focusing on Labour’s rise under Keir Starmer.

He told delegates that disgruntled voters should use the Tories “as your vehicle to make the SNP pay for years of distraction and neglect”.