It would be "naive" not to expect politicians who support Scottish independence to "make political points" out of a crisis such as the Covid pandemic, Michael Gove has said.

Giving evidence to the UK Covid inquiry in Edinburgh, Mr Gove said it was "necessary" for SNP ministers to "prove that the UK government is a dysfunctional entity".

However, he denied that the UK Government had also tried to score political points in favour of the unionist cause during the pandemic.


Mr Gove - who was described as a "conduit" for discussions between the UK and devolved governments in relation to the Covid response - insisted that relations were not clouded by constitutional disagreements "in the practical day-to-day business of responding to the pandemic" and were "mostly constructive". 

He insisted that "differences of opinion" on the "day-to-day management" of the pandemic were no different than between Germany's central government and the different regional administrations within Germany's federal structure.

Mr Gove rejected the suggestion by Jamie Dawson KC, lead counsel to the inquiry in Scotland, that Scottish ministers attending four nations' meetings "felt very much that decisions had already been made by the UK Government and that they were simply being invited to be told what those decisions were".

He said: "I don't think the actual evidence would justify was the case at different points that the Scottish Government and indeed other devolved administrations chose a different path.

"My view was - and I think to be fair this was the view of most of those working in the devolved nations - was that effective coordination and a unified approach wherever possible was desirable."

Mr Gove said it was inevitable that ministers within the SNP-led government in Scotland would be "looking at political as well as policy consequences", but stressed that their "overwhelming motivation" was to protect Scotland from the virus.

The Herald: Michael Gove at the UK Covid inquiry in Edinburgh on Monday January 29Michael Gove at the UK Covid inquiry in Edinburgh on Monday January 29 (Image: PA)

He said: "While I have great respect for the integrity and professionalism of Scottish ministers when it came to the handling of individual pandemic choices, we have to bear in mind that the political aim of the SNP is to destroy the United Kingdom and from time to time they will make political points to that end."

Scottish independence is the "political mission" of the SNP, added Mr Gove.

"It would be naive not to be aware that skilled politicians including those at the top of government might well see what they perceived to be political advantage at certain points," he said.

It comes after the inquiry was shown WhatsApp evidence and diary entries from former First Minister Nicola Sturgeon's chief of staff, Liz Lloyd, discussing the benefits of having a "good old fashioned rammy" or a "political spat" with the UK Government in public.

Ms Lloyd said these were occasions where the Scottish Government's ability to put in place the public health measures it wanted were being blocked by UK level policymaking, such as in relation to furlough, rather than having any constitutional objective. 

However, Mr Gove said these communications revealed that there was an impetus for a "political conflict" rather than simply a divergence in policy.

Ms Sturgeon was also seen to refer to then-Prime Minister Boris Johnson as a "f***ing clown" in messages sent to Ms Lloyd, one of her closest confidantes. 

Mr Gove said there were times when a "divergence in policy" on Covid were perceived by Scottish ministers as a way of demonstrating the "benefits of separating" from the UK.

He said: "Most of the time - almost all of the time - decisions were made in the public health interest of the people of Scotland, but I think that temptation existed. 

"It was also the case to be fair that the Scottish Government believed that its handling of these matters was somehow superior to that of the UK Government, that people would appreciate and recognise that, and therefore people would be prompted to think 'how much better might life be if we gave the Scottish Government more powers and we moved further down the path to independence?'"

However, he added that by the end of the pandemic, "the tragic number of deaths" was not radically different in Scotland to the rest of the UK.

In his written statement to the inquiry, Mr Gove insisted that while Ms Sturgeon and Mr Johnson were "not soulmates" they were "able to secure effective co-ordination on substantive policy".

Mr Dawson asked whether the description that Mr Johnson and Ms Sturgeon were "not soulmates" was "something of an understatement".

Mr Gove said: "Understatement is sometimes the most effective means of communication."

Mr Dawson asked: "Is it fair to say they just simply did not get on at all?"

Mr Gove said: "No, I think on one level they are very different figures.

"On another level, they are both skilled politicians fired by passion but they are also people who knew at a moment of crisis the importance of respecting insofar as possible and working together insofar as possible, respecting each other's positions and working together."