During her daily briefings on the effect of the coronavirus pandemic on Scotland’s NHS and people, the First Minister and SNP leader, Nicola Sturgeon, has been articulate, transparent, comprehensible and compassionate. And she hasn’t mentioned the word independence once, except to say that the desired “indyref 2” would not take place this year.
But does this rather unusual cooperation between the Scottish Government and Westminster mean that we Jocks are now all happy Unionists, as some (mainly the newly elected leader of the Scottish Conservative Party, Jackson Carlaw, a former car salesman) have claimed?
Au contraire, mes amis, au contraire. Even the English press has commented on the difference in competence between the plain-talking Scottish daily briefing and the jingoistic rhetoric of Boris Johnson and other Cabinet members, who show them as uninformed and generally lacking in empathy. Matt Hancock, the UK Health Secretary, inferred at one briefing recently that NHS staff were not using the ‘precious resource’ of gloves and masks well enough, much to the ire of NHS staff who have been dying at horrific rates, partly because of the lack of suitable protective equipment.
There so far has only been one blip concerning the Scottish Government – that the Chief Medical Officer, Dr Catherine Calderwood, who stood beside the First Minister giving the medical side of the briefing, was caught by The Sun newspaper travelling to her holiday home in the countryside twice with her husband and children, going against her own advice to stay at home. She was vilified and resigned, despite being praised for her clarity in explaining complex issues and her compassion at the briefings. A while later, a member of Johnson’s Cabinet, Robert Jenrick, did exactly the same, going against his own advice given at a UK press briefing – but he still has a job in the Cabinet and still often heads up the UK (read ‘English’) briefings. Prince Charles, who had tested positive for Covid-19, flew from Windsor to his house on the Balmoral Estate in the north-east of Scotland, using local doctors to monitor him in an area with limited medical facilities. He only received a slap on the wrist from the Scottish media. “Do what I say not what I do”, cry the elite.
While Nicola Sturgeon has emphasised cooperation with the currently leaderless UK, saying her focus is entirely on dealing with the pandemic, there are now voices saying that the UK has made a mess of the approach to the pandemic and it is now time for the Scottish First Minister to divert from what the UK does, especially given the fact that the Scottish NHS is independent.
Let’s look a little of the history of the UK Government’s approach to the coronavirus since it appeared. Johnson boasted in early March of shaking hands with people in hospitals, saying how the UK was well prepared to take on the virus. Using his adjective of choice, he said, “We already have a fantastic NHS, fantastic testing systems and fantastic surveillance of the disease”. However, in the autumn of 2019, the Government held a practice run at dealing with a pandemic, and the (unpublished) report showed huge gaps in preparedness. Nothing was done.
The same laissez-faire attitude was taken when a senior advisor to Government warned about the virus from Wuhan in mid-January, adding to the voices of experts such as Professor Devi Sridhar who holds the Chair of Global Public Health at the University of Edinburgh. When the EU started conference calls in February among Health and Government ministers, the UK refused to take part despite still being a member of the EU until the end of 2020. More recently, Sir Simon McDonald, head honcho at the Foreign Office, said that the refusal to participate in an EU program to buy protective equipment and ventilators was ‘political’, which his boss, Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab, rebutted, adding to the long list of lies issued by the serially mendacious Johnson Government.
Earlier, in February, Johnson promoted the ‘herd immunity’ theory through his Rasputin-like factotum, Dominic Cummings, supported by the Chief Medical Officer for England which would have meant tolerating about 400,000 fatalities! This basically is a return to the survival of the fittest, allowing thousands of elderly people especially, including my great-aunt, to die before their time. Following the logic of herd immunity, large events such as the Cheltenham Racing Festival in March were allowed to take place, resulting in 125 deaths from among the people attending. It wasn’t until 20th March that Johnson announced the closure of large gatherings, restaurants and bars and, by that time, it was too late.
The large list of chaotic decisions around the virus show serious mismanagement at the top of the UK Government, which has led to the loss of thousands of lives. The time for recrimination by voters will come. Meanwhile, the Scottish First Minister has had to defend a four-nation approach to combating the virus, stating that it does not respect boundaries. Nevertheless, before Westminster creaked into action, mass gatherings were banned in Scotland, schools were closed and there was an earlier lock-down put in place. At the very least, the Scottish NHS did not go into the kind of crisis seen south of the Border because of this and, at best, perhaps some lives have been saved. We still have, at time of writing, 985 people killed by the virus though the numbers being admitted to intensive hospital care are declining.
I predict that Scotland will now take a more divergent course and that the First Minister will have the full backing of the majority of Scots, many of whom are full aware of how Iceland, Denmark and Ireland, all small independent states, have been managing the crisis in a way which, by head of population, has resulted in fewer cases and fewer deaths. Scots have largely conformed to the social distancing rules, self-isolation when necessary and going for a walk or shopping once a day, despite an unusually sunny April, because they trust what the SNP Government in Holyrood says. Scots, except the most rabid Unionist, have no trust in the Government of Boris Johnson.
We Scots also do not put forward the false boast that adhering to the new distancing rules is part of the national character when millions of people worldwide are doing the same thing. Yet Johnson, when he issued the lock-down allied it to British (read ‘English’, as The Sun newspaper did) exceptionalism, saying “We’re taking away the ancient, inalienable right of free-born people of the United Kingdom to go to the pub […] and I understand how people feel about that.” As the perspicacious Fintan O’Toole noted, “what Johnson was really evoking was a very specific English sense of exceptionalism, a fantasy of personal freedom as a marker of ethnic and national identity.” Put all that together, plus the fact that Johnson has refused to consider an extension to leaving the EU despite the significant damage to the UK economy from the effects of the pandemic (and reducing Scotland’s GDP by 33per cent), and you have multiple reasons why the issue of Scottish independence has not been killed off by the coronavirus whereas the same cannot be said for the Union.
Dr Duncan MacLaren is an Adjunct Professor of Australian Catholic University where he lectured on International Development Studies and Catholic Social Ethics. He is a former Secretary General of Caritas Internationalis. He writes in a personal capacity from Glasgow.