Alister Jack has dismissed calls for a second independence referendum, telling MPs the focus for the next five years should be the Covid-19 recovery.
The Scottish Secretary said the public had “far greater concerns at the moment” than the current constitutional settlement, as he called on Nicola Sturgeon to cooperate with Westminster to rebuild Britain following the pandemic.
Mr Jack’s comments come a week after the SNP won a historic fourth term in the Holyrood ballot, which saw pro-independence MSPs take 72 of 129 Scottish parliamentary seats.
The Cabinet minister told the Scottish Affairs Committee the result did not necessarily mean there is an appetite for another referendum.
He said: “Less than a third of the Scottish electorate voted for nationalist parties and I would say that very little has changed since 2016 when you look at the numbers.
“We’ve had Brexit, we’ve had two general elections, we’ve had the Covid pandemic, all of those things have happened since 2016 but when you look at the overall numbers the changes are very, very minor indeed.”
He added: “When people are asked if they think there should be a referendum in the near future there’s a huge majority that think that’s not where the priority should be.
“I think the Scottish Government’s priority is to cooperate and work with us to recover from the pandemic; we’ve saved lives, now we need to focus on saving livelihoods.”
Pressed on when a referendum could take place, he responded: “I maintain that in the next five years Scotland is best served by two governments working together and delivering on the sea of opportunity that exist in front of us, having left the European Union, but also on focusing on recovering from the pandemic that is absolutely critical in what we do.
Everyone agrees tackling covid is the priority but there are different visions for the recovery.
Alister Jack is in a hard-right Tory group lobbying for a smaller state "as soon as possible". Boris Johnson's recovery = Tory cuts, Brexit and a power grab.https://t.co/ujBGtP256Z https://t.co/cBhu3Bxbry
— Tom French (@tomfrench85) May 13, 2021
“There are many other things that needs to be resolved, too, such as education, attainment standards, there are issues around health.
“I would say, don’t take your eye off the ball for the next five years. Let’s build the Scottish economy, let’s create jobs, let’s improve people’s livelihoods.”
Ms Sturgeon has said she intends to press ahead with a referendum bill in the Scottish Parliament after the immediate threat of the pandemic has subsided.
Asked if the UK Government would seek to block such a move, perhaps in the courts, Mr Jack said his party “respected devolution” and said it would ultimately be a matter for Holyrood law officers to “decide whether or not that bill is in scope”.