British prime minister Boris Johnson has said the coronavirus crisis has shown the benefits of the union working together as he arrived in Orkney.
He said the strength of the UK has been critical in the response to Covid-19 and spoke about his desire to “build back better” after the pandemic.
Ahead of his arrival in Stromness, a small group of masked protesters gathered, waving signs that said “Hands off Scotland” and “Our Scotland, our future”, while an “Indy Ref Now” placard was seen on the side of a van.
Around Orkney they could supply 25% of the UK's energy needs if they had the infrastructure to go with itBoris Johnson
Mr Johnson told the BBC: “What you have seen throughout this crisis is the union working together with money for supporting people through furlough, the Army working on the testing, moving people around.
“But now what you want to do is build back better together with a green recovery and here in Orkney they are streets ahead on hydrogen technology, on green technology.”
The UK and Scottish Governments are both contributing £50 million to a £100 million growth deal for the Northern and Western Isles.
Mr Johnson hailed this as a “real opportunity for people here to get some funding to increase what they are already doing, amazing new green technology”.
He added: “Around Orkney they could supply 25% of the UK’s energy needs if they had the infrastructure to go with it so we’re looking at ways to support the council here, to support local leaders in their ambitions.”
Speaking before the trip – which comes ahead of Friday’s one-year anniversary of him entering Downing Street, Mr Johnson said the coronavirus crisis had shown the “sheer might” of the UK, with almost 900,000 workers in Scotland benefiting from UK Government assistance.
I welcome the PM to Scotland today. One of the key arguments for independence is the ability of Scotland to take our own decisions, rather than having our future decided by politicians we didn’t vote for, taking us down a path we haven’t chosen. His presence highlights that.— Nicola Sturgeon (@NicolaSturgeon) July 23, 2020
Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon claimed his presence north of the border highlights one of the “key arguments” for independence.
She tweeted: “I welcome the PM to Scotland today. One of the key arguments for independence is the ability of Scotland to take our own decisions, rather than having our future decided by politicians we didn’t vote for, taking us down a path we haven’t chosen. His presence highlights that.”
Mr Johnson will not meet the First Minister during the visit to Scotland – which is his first since December’s general election.
Instead, Downing Street said the Prime Minister will visit businesses hit by the pandemic, those working in green energy and military personnel to thank them for their efforts in the response to coronavirus.
The Prime Minister said before the trip: “When I stood on the steps of Downing Street one year ago, I pledged to be a Prime Minister for every corner of the United Kingdom.
“Whether you are from East Kilbride or Dumfries, Motherwell or Paisley, I promised to level up across Britain and close the opportunity gap.
“The last six months have shown exactly why the historic and heartfelt bond that ties the four nations of our country together is so important and the sheer might of our Union has been proven once again.”
Mr Johnson’s visit comes after a surge in support for Scottish independence in recent months, according to polls, with two Panelbase surveys reporting 54% of respondents would like to see Scotland split from the UK.
The same polls predicted the SNP will win a majority of seats in the Scottish Parliament at next year’s election.
Then-prime minister David Cameron agreed to stage the independence vote in 2014 after the SNP won a majority at Holyrood in the 2011 election but Mr Johnson has repeatedly ruled out another referendum.
Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard urged the Prime Minister to “use his visit to Scotland to listen and not to lecture”, adding Mr Johnson should “concentrate on jobs, the economy, public health, rather than getting involved in constitutional jibes”.
Mr Leonard said: “Now more than ever, Scotland needs both governments to co-operate to tackle the crises which we face.
“We need a massive fiscal stimulus at a UK level and we need an extension of the job retention scheme.”
Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie criticised both the First Minister and the Prime Minister.
Mr Rennie said: “It is a disgrace that instead of co-operation they are using this week as an excuse to bang the drums for their supporters on the constitution.
“We need a common strategy on economic recovery, on preparing for a second wave, on supporting our social care sector, on finding a vaccine and treatments, and so much more.
“Yet instead of getting round the table to find those solutions we get insults. They both need to grow up.”