Starmer vows to 'work constructively' with Scottish government

Scottish First Minister John Swinney heads the devolved administration in Edinburgh (ANDY BUCHANAN)
Scottish First Minister John Swinney heads the devolved administration in Edinburgh (ANDY BUCHANAN)

Britain's new Prime Minister Keir Starmer vowed Sunday to "work constructively" with Scotland's nationalist government as he kicked off a trip aimed at improving ties between London and the UK's devolved nations.

Starmer met with Scotland's First Minister and leader of the pro-separatist Scottish National Party (SNP) John Swinney in Edinburgh, promising to "reset" a relationship that has at times turned sour in recent years.

While Starmer noted that "there are clearly differences of opinion between us on some of the constitutional issues" regarding Scottish independence, he told journalists there was a "joint view that we can work constructively together".

"We discussed the economy, we discussed energy", Starmer said, adding that "delivery for Scotland is the number one priority" of both governments.

The centre-left Labour premier's visit to Edinburgh was his first stopover on a whistlestop tour of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, with Starmer expected to travel to Cardiff and Belfast on Monday.

For his part, Swinney said he was "confident we have established the foundation for a productive relationship", which he said would be based on "renewed respect for the devolution settlement".

The meeting came after his SNP was almost wiped out at last week's election that put Starmer's Labour Party in power by a landslide.

Labour, which crushed Rishi Sunak's ruling Conservatives at the polls, also overturned more than a decade of SNP domination in Scotland by capturing the majority of its 57 seats.

Swinney lamented a "very, very difficult and damaging" election result for his party.

He had set the party's sights on winning at least 29 seats for reopening negotiations with the British government for another independence referendum, but it returned only nine MPs.

- 'Seat at the table' -

Under ex-premier Tony Blair, Labour was the architect of devolving power to the regions in the late 1990s with the setting up of parliaments or national assemblies in Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast.

But under the Conservatives, leaders in the three capitals had complained that they were increasingly sidelined.

Starmer said disagreement could be turned into cooperation "and a genuine seat at the table" to deliver the UK-wide change he has promised.

"That begins today with an immediate reset of my government's approach to working with the first and deputy first ministers, because meaningful cooperation centred on respect will be key to delivering change across our United Kingdom," he said.

The devolved administrations have the power to set policy in a range of areas such as education and housing.

Responsibility for policy on matters such as national defence, international relations and the monarchy, however, are the sole preserve of the UK-wide Westminster parliament in London.

- SNP in turmoil -

Swinney said he was looking forward to discussions on shared priorities "that can make a difference to people's lives".

Those included "eradicating child poverty, growing the economy, prioritising net zero, and ensuring effective public services", he said in a statement.

The SNP has dominated in Scotland in the last three UK elections, peaking with the 2015 vote when it won 56 of 59 seats.

But the party has been in turmoil for months as voters tire of its 17 years in charge of the devolved Scottish parliament in Edinburgh.

Critics accuse it of focusing on independence at the expense of key issues such as the cost-of-living crisis, education and health.

Support for the SNP has also slumped amid the party finances scandal that saw former SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon's husband, Peter Murrell, charged with embezzlement. Murrell is the party's former chief executive.

Sturgeon herself was arrested, but released without charge.

- 'Control immigration' -

Starmer will make his debut on the international stage as leader when he flies to Washington this week for a NATO summit.

His new defence minister, John Healey, on Sunday paid a visit to the Ukrainian port city of Odesa, where he met Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky and pledged to deliver more artillery guns, ammunition and missiles to Kyiv.

"There may have been a change in government, but the UK is united for Ukraine," Healey said.

Foreign Minister David Lammy meanwhile travelled to Berlin to meet his German counterpart Annalena Baerbock, in his first in-post trip.

The ministers discussed issues from boosting NATO's support for Ukraine to the situation in the Middle East, the German foreign ministry wrote on X.

"The United Kingdom is an indispensable part of Europe," the ministry wrote, adding that Germany was "working with the new UK government to see how the UK can move closer to the EU".

With immigration a major campaign issue -- and a perceived Labour weakness -- the new government has also moved to try to tackle the divisive subject.

On Sunday, Home Secretary Yvette Cooper took the first steps towards the creation of a promised elite Border Security Command to combat gangs smuggling people in boats across the English Channel.