The former Tory Prime Minister has told his successor that blocking Nicola Sturgeon’s request for a Section 30 order will “help the separatist case”.
His comments come just days after Secretary of State for Scotland Alister Jack ruled out a referendum for another 25 to 40 years.
In a speech to Middle Temple in London, Major said “the combination of Brexit – and the unpopularity of our present Westminster Government in Scotland” had increased the likelihood of independence.
He said: “I remain a convinced Unionist. Every part of the UK is richer – and of more weight in the world – if they stay together.
“The most likely to leave is Scotland. If she does, it will not only weaken Scotland but also undermine the rump of the UK.
“It will be a step into the unknown for us both. The problem is politics.The raison d’être of the SNP is an independent Scotland while for many Conservatives Unionism is at the heart of their philosophy. It is a challenge to see whether that chasm can be bridged.”
He called on the Johnson government to “engage, coax, encourage, and examine every possible route to find an arrangement that will obtain a majority for union.”
The former Tory leader recommended that Johnson allow indyref2, but only on the condition of a confirmatory vote after negotiations – similar to the calls for a People’s Vote after Brexit.
He – wrongly – added: “In law, the Scots require the approval of the Westminster Government before they can legally hold a new independence referendum.
“But refusing one might help the separatist case, by adding to the list of grievances the Scottish National Party exploit with such skill.
“The choice for the UK Government is either to agree the referendum can take place – or to refuse to permit it. Both options come with great risk. But the lessons of Brexit may offer a way ahead.
“The Westminster Government could agree for an independence referendum to take place, on the basis of two referenda. The first to vote upon the principle of negotiations, and the second upon the outcome of them.
“The purpose of the second referendum would be that Scottish electors would know what they were voting for, and be able to compare it to what they now have.
“This did not happen with Brexit: had it done so, there may have been no Brexit. Many Scottish voices – and especially business – may support the logic of this: it may focus minds away from a short-term reflex opposition to a perceived English Government, and back to the mutual and long-term virtues of the Union”.
Major was wrong to say that it’s legally up to the UK government to decide whether or not there should be another referendum. This is a contested issue which has not yet been legally settled.
Last week Alister Jack made clear the UK Government would refuse any request for a Section 30 order “for a generation”.
When asked if ministers were ruling out a referendum for the full term of the next Scottish Parliament, even if a pro-independence majority was returned, Jack said “it’s no for a generation”.
Asked to define a generation, he said: “Is it 25 years or is it 40 years? You tell me.
“But it’s certainly not six years, nor 10.”
Jack added: “It’s very clear that it’s no because a generation hasn’t passed.
“We’ve had two referenda in the last six years and they’ve been quite divisive for our society. They create quite a lot of uncertainty for business. What we need to do now is refocus on building our economy and give business certainty.
“That creates more jobs. That improves people’s livelihoods.”
Asked later if the comments were government policy, Boris Johnson’s spokesman said: “The PM has said on countless occasions that the issue of independence was settled when the Scottish people voted decisively to remain part of the UK.
“It was billed at the time as a once-in-a-generation vote and the Prime Minister has been clear that he believes that must be respected.”
Asked if Johnson would agree that a “generation” would be between 25 and 40 years, the spokesman said: “The fact is that people voted to keep our United Kingdom together. It was billed at the time as a once-in-a-generation vote.”
Responding to Major’s comments, Kirsten Oswald, the SNP’s Westminster deputy leader, said: “The remarks from the former Tory Prime Minister must serve as a wake-up call for the current Prime Minister over his undemocratic stance – straight out of the Trump playbook – to attempt to deny the results of a democratic election by trying to block the people of Scotland from having the right to choose their own future in a referendum.”
A Scottish Tory spokesman said: “The last thing that Scotland needs right now, especially in the middle of a global pandemic, is another divisive independence referendum.”