This is the text of my Scottish Daily Mail sketch of Nicola Sturgeon’s Covid-19 update to the Scottish Parliament on November 24, 2020.
Christmas used to be such an innocent time. Saviours born in stables. Red-nosed reindeer pulling sleighs. Even if you got taken hostage by terrorists while collecting your estranged wife from the office Christmas party, you could take them all out single-handedly and patch up your marriage within 90 minutes.
This year, the three wise men would get done for travelling between tiers and Rudolph’s red nose would be added to the list of Covid symptoms as a precaution. So, if you were expecting Nicola Sturgeon to announce a great festive lockdown-easing, you might want to put away the eggnog now. Or tip in a couple more snifters of brandy. The message from the First Minister’s statement was: Oh stay home, all ye faithful.
‘Any easing of restrictions will be temporary,’ she told MSPs. ‘It will be limited. It will be accompanied by advice on the precautions that we should all take to minimise risk, and we will continue to ask people to err on the side of caution.’
Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus, but he’s self-isolating this year.
The First Minister continued: ‘Our overall advice will be for people to use any flexibility carefully and only if they believe it right and necessary for their personal circumstances.’
Christ is born, but keep it down.
I felt uneasy about loosening things up for Christmas, anyway. Jews got no special treatment for Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur or Sukkot. Muslims just had to make do through Ramadan and Eid al-Fitr, and even Chancellor Rishi Sunak has spoken about how ‘difficult’ Diwali was for Hindus this year. If everyone else got out of spending time with their extended families, I don’t see why Christians shouldn’t.
One of the most miserable aspects of handing monarchical powers to one woman in Bute House is how it turns the rest of us into little apple-polishers. Yes, Miss. No, Miss. Can I have three households round for Boxing Day, Miss?
Bruce Crawford, ordinarily an/the independent-minded SNP backbencher, even credited Sturgeon for placing his Stirling constituency in Tier 4.
He noted the ‘considerable disappointment’ in his area but, since the seven-day positivity rate had risen by 10 per 100,000, ‘I believe the decision was absolutely correct in order to save lives’. It was like watching that one goody-two-shoes in school who would ask the teacher for extra homework.
Fans of Michael Winner movies may recall his Death Wish series, which saw Charles Bronson stalk the streets of nocturnal New York bumping off bad guys the law was too soft to take on. The Highlands have their own Bronson in the shape of Ian Blackford, who apparently stalks the tweets of nocturnal Scotland seeking English interlopers.
After a photographer posted a breathtaking image of the Northern Lights over Caithness, Blackford rounded on the snapper (‘as you live in the south of England’) and demanded ‘a valid reason as to why you are posting a photo from the north of Scotland’.
Handwringing liberals protested that Blackford couldn’t possibly know where this cameraman lived, but the Lochaber Avenger believes in shooting first and issuing carefully-worded apologies later.
One such do-gooder was Alex Cole-Hamilton, who accused our Highland hero of ‘singling out and bullying a private citizen who had relocated here from England’ and asked Sturgeon: ‘Does she support vigilante action from her MPs like this?’
She doesn’t support her MPs voting without her instructions. Though, between this one and the one who took Covid with her on a cross-country busman’s holiday, who could blame her?
Still, a brave face and all that. ‘I suspect people watching have a myriad of things they want to hear addressed… I’m not sure that would have been at the top of the list,’ Sturgeon jabbed back.
Then came the hard part, when she had to say her man had apologised with ‘the grace and dignity I associate with Ian Blackford’. If I were grace and dignity, I’d instruct solicitors.
This is the text of my Scottish Daily Mail column for week beginning November 23, 2020. Subjects include delivery of the Covid-19 vaccine, Jeremy Corbyn’s future in the Labour Party, and Gillian Anderson’s portrayal of Margaret Thatcher in Netflix’s The Crown.
It has been a glum year but news of impending Covid-19 vaccines brings a glimmer of hope. There is the Pfizer vaccine, BNT162b2, of which the UK Government has purchased 40 million doses, and AZD7442, the antibody treatment which manufacturer AstraZeneca says can keep Covid at bay for 12 months. Whitehall plans to buy one million units of the latter if it passes the next phase of trials. In all, ministers have pre-ordered more than 355 million doses of seven potential vaccines, including 100 million of the Oxford vaccine.
After eight months of lockdowns, travel bans, business closures and job losses, there is a chance that our lives could begin to go back to normal by Summer. I am by temperament a cheerful pessimist but even I have been feeling more of the former than the latter lately.
The rub, however, is that securing a vaccine is one thing, successfully administering it is another. Provided one is approved in time, the Scottish Government intends to start inoculating people from early December, with priority given to medics, care workers, over-80s and those in residential homes. Absent any hiccoughs, all Scots over 18 should be vaccinated by next Summer, which is broadly in line with the timescale set out for England, although there are hopes jabs there can be completed by Spring. These seem decidedly optimistic timescales but they are at least a beginning.
Getting the vaccine to everyone who wants it will require an operation of uncommon scale, precision and speed. There will be no room for error, particularly if the drug is being delivered in the middle of a difficult winter flu season.
That is where my concerns begin. This Scottish government doesn’t have an encouraging track record when it comes to delivering the annual vaccine. The memory of the 2018 enhanced flu jab debacle still lingers, not least how it exposed an underprepared and poorly coordinated health bureaucracy.
Even this year’s flu vaccination programme has not been without its faults. Because of coronavirus, it is being administered by health boards, rather than by GP surgeries, and I know almost no one who has managed to get the jab without some hassle or snafu.
One elderly relative turned up at their appointed time only to find themselves with a long wait in a queue of strangers whose Covid status they couldn’t know. Another was sent back home unvaccinated because of a recently prescribed medication and told to return a week later. Since doing so, she has received two letters from a health board convinced she has not received the jab — the same health board that gave her it weeks ago. Minor inconveniences, perhaps, but hints at the strains even this routine system is under.
A Covid vaccination programme will throw up its own hurdles. The Pfizer drug, for instance, needs to be stored at negative 70 degrees Celsius, plus or minus ten degrees. The Scottish Government has purchased 20 special refrigeration units to house the medicine but once it is removed from the recommended storage climate, it can only be kept at normal refrigeration levels (between two and eight degrees) for five days. That makes transportation a logistical headache.
Ministers believe the answer is central administration of the drug. Yet this poses a quandary for covering rural Scotland. Do you try to provide the vaccine to as many people as possible in the Highlands and Islands while accepting that a certain quantity could be spoiled in the process? Or do you use BNT162b2 in towns and cities and the preventative AZD7442 in more rural parts of the country until another, less temperature-dependent option (such as AstraZeneca’s other trial drug, the ‘Oxford vaccine’) becomes available?
If you’re anything like me, you’ll be having a hard time keeping track of all these strange alphanumerical pile-ups — BNT162b2, AZD7442 — which sound like newly-discovered galaxies on Star Trek. This is another consideration that ministers and health boards will have to bear in mind: securing public buy-in to a vaccine means talking about it in terms the public understands. Last May I wrote about the threat of the ‘anti-vaxxer’ movement, a conspiracy theory typically spread through social media that falsely claims safe and approved vaccines are injurious to health. At the time, NHS England was raising the alarm about the threat these paranoid fantasies posed to public health and I argued that we should be taking the matter just as seriously in Scotland, though I never imagined we would be tested so soon and in such a fashion.
There is an important ethical debate about whether vaccines should be compulsory in certain circumstances but our immediate focus must be on giving the public as much confidence as possible to drive down the number of potential refusers. Politicians and clinicians will have to speak honestly, clearly and simply to allay legitimate fears and ensure they are not preyed upon by internet cranks.
Understanding ordinary people’s concerns doesn’t extend only to the safety of new vaccines. It is also about appreciating all the little potholes of life which can suddenly trip up even the most thoroughly planned vaccination programme. Travelling to a central location at a given time is much easier if you live in a city, own a car and have support structures in place to help you out.
How many MSPs, ministers and civil servants live in remote communities? How many do not own a car and must rely on buses? How many have no access to childcare if they had to take an elderly relative for vaccination? How many work rigid shifts for exacting bosses and would worry about blotting their copybook by asking for an afternoon off to go get a jab? Most politicians and bureaucrats are fortunate enough never to have to worry about transport, babysitter money or unreasonable employers, but they should stop to factor in these realities in their planning.
Remember all that sunny talk about smartphones and how they were vital tools in a modern pandemic? Not only did they give easy access to the Test and Protect app, they allowed us to summon a digital GP appointment with the poke of a button and order a socially distanced food shop with a simple swipe. All useful functions for the 95 per cent of 16-to-24-year-olds who own a smartphone, but what of the 49 per cent of over-55s who do not, or the more than one-third of those on the lowest income levels who are without these gadgets?
We talk about a digital divide in this country but the real divide is often between the decision-makers, drawn from a narrow pool of life experience, and those governed by their decisions, whose live varied lives the complexities of which the decision-makers are unaware. A Covid-19 vaccine programme is too important to be hindered by insular bubble-think.
The First Minister is said to have had a good pandemic, but vaccinating more than four million Scottish adults will be the first real test of her government’s management of coronavirus. She is wholly in charge of what happens next and cannot blame big bad Westminster if she falters, though she will doubtless still try. Nicola Sturgeon talks a good input game. Now she has to deliver results.
Like Mehran Karimi Nasseri, the Iranian exile who lived in Charles de Gaulle Airport for 18 years after no other country would grant him entry, Jeremy Corbyn finds himself politically homeless. His suspension lifted, he is once again a Labour member, but not a Labour MP, because Sir Keir Starmer refuses to reinstate the whip. As such, the lefty loser is both in and out of Labour at the same time — Schrödinger’s prat.
This has dragged on long enough. Corbyn was the worst leader in Labour’s history, led it to its lowest ebb since 1935 and oversaw a shameful breakdown in relations with Britain’s Jewish community. Every day he remains even half-in Labour is another day of weakness and cowardice on Sir Keir’s part. If he wants to be Prime Minister, he is going to have to get much more ruthless. Kick Corbyn out — fully and for good — and start to rebuild the trust with the country that his predecessor frittered away.
Gillian Anderson is magisterial as Margaret Thatcher in Netflix’s The Crown. Critics are hailing her replication of the Iron Lady’s voice, style and mannerisms but I was impressed by the uncanny shuffling gait as she burrowed past generals and palace equerries to give Cabinet ministers and even the Queen a handbagging. There is no alternative: Anderson must win the BAFTA.
Spend long enough flicking through the TV this time of year and you’ll stumble upon entire channels airing nothing but made-for-television movies about saving Christmas.
These feel-good flicks are invariably set in small-town America and involve the local factory/diner/church being on the brink of closure on Christmas Eve thanks to a heartless boss/corporation/bank manager until a suspect outsider/misunderstood local/loveable pet convinces the town to band together and rekindle the festive spirit. Actual titles include: The Man Who Saved Christmas, The Boy Who Saved Christmas, The Dog Who Saved Christmas, and — I kid you not — The Tree That Saved Christmas.
At First Minister’s Questions, we got an even unlikelier tale: The Socialist Who Saved Christmas. Or at least tried to. Plucky picket-line frequenter Richard Leonard was back at the barricades, this time to protest against the transport ban that comes into force on Friday evening. The law will make it a criminal offence to travel between different tiers and motorists caught doing so will face a fine. Leonard objected that this was too harsh on Scots who are doing their best. Of course, the real victim is Chris Rea. He has to write a new verse for ‘Driving Home for Christmas’ and find something that rhymes with ‘Glasgow Sheriff Court’.
The Labour leader called the ban a ‘red herring’, telling Nicola Sturgeon: ‘The overwhelming majority of people are just trying to keep up with the regulations in order to follow them. However, as things stand, the best case scenario is that the travel ban will confuse them; the worst-case scenario is that it will criminalise them.’
The First Minister pointed out that similar travel limits were already in place in Wales, and who among us isn’t well-versed on Welsh motoring regulations? With a dramatic flourish, she produced a statement from Mark Drakeford on the wisdom of a travel ban. Sturgeon quotes the Welsh First Minister more often than the Western Mail. Don’t get me wrong, if she wants Scottish policy to be set by a parliament south of the Border, I’m up for it. I’d just go 150 miles east of the Senedd.
The Grinch of the story, though, was not Sturgeon but her backbencher Christine Grahame. ‘Unlike Richard Leonard,’ she snipped, ‘I and most of my constituents welcome making travel restrictions subject to legal enforcement’. The Midlothian South, Tweeddale and Lauderdale MSP fretted that her constituency’s Level 2 status was at peril from incomers from Level 3 Edinburgh. You’ll have had your test, then.
‘In Midlothian, we have major retail outlets such as Dobbies, Ikea, Costco and Straiton retail park,’ she quibbled. ‘How will travel from Edinburgh to such places be monitored? Purchasing a tray of winter pansies or wine glasses and cushions, while completely understandable, can hardly be considered essential.’ Beleaguered husbands have been making this point every Sunday afternoon for years now.
Ruth Davidson returned to her concerns about loneliness during the festive period and the need to balance virus suppression with some tidings of comfort and joy.
‘I want people to have a degree of normality over Christmas,’ Sturgeon generously allowed, ‘but I do not want to have to announce, or the country to have to live with, numbers on more bereaved families and a death toll that could have been avoided.’
Even Scrooge didn’t guilt-trip Bob Cratchit that bad when he asked for Christmas day off. More to the point, what exactly does the First Minister think the average Scottish family does at Christmas? We’re not ’round the doors carolling without a face mask. We’re on the sofa convincing ourselves that a fifth mince pie couldn’t do any harm and debating whether the Queen decorates her own Christmas tree.
Jackson Carlaw, looking all the jollier for his return to the backbenches, pitched in a question nominally about support for small businesses but which contained this curiosity: ‘Second-guessing the difficult decisions that the First Minister must take is a fool’s game, as we have seen.’ Whoever could he have had in mind?
Like a demented episode of The Price is Right, Nicola Sturgeon surveyed her five-tier, four-level lockdown system at Holyrood yesterday, and, despite the audience at home crying ‘ lower! lower!’, she went higher, losing us our pub rights and any chance at the Mini Metro and weekend break in Skegness.
The First Minister used her statement to outline which council areas would remain at Level 1 and which would be placed in full lockdown at Level 4. Glasgow, Renfrewshire and East Renfrewshire, East and West Dunbartonshire, North and South Lanarkshire, East and South Ayrshire, Stirling and West Lothian would all come under the most stringent restrictions.
Hairdressers and non-essential shops and restaurants will be closed and guidance against travelling between tiers given the force of law. ‘If we see evidence… that people from Glasgow are going to Inverclyde,’ she warned, ‘we would have no choice but to consider Level 4.’
Pretty harsh. Isn’t being Inverclyde punishment enough?
The talk of ‘evidence’ didn’t mean any was produced, not least the grounds for thinking that this lockdown would succeed where previous ones had failed. The answer seems to be: because science. I’m all for science, though I prefer it to look and sound less like a government-funded horoscope.
‘For all areas in Level 1,’ Sturgeon went on, ‘it will be permissible from Thursday to meet outdoors with up to eight people from a maximum of three households.’ Unless the winter solstice falls on a blood moon, in which case it’s only four people and each has to throw a chicken over their shoulder before entering.
‘I am aware that some people will argue that schools should also be closed at Level 4,’ she continued. No doubt representations have been made by people with painted-on moustaches, cloaked in trench coats and looking suspiciously like one primary seven standing on another’s shoulders.
This was another part of the ‘science’ in need of explanation: why were pubs super-spreaders but not overcrowded classrooms full of coughing teenagers?
Sturgeon was more concerned with sounding upbeat. She said the measures would ‘not be in place for most of the Chanukah period’ and would also ‘create the prospect of seeing some loved ones at Christmas’.
There goes your excuse for dodging the in-laws this year.
Diplomatically, she said we were ‘in the midst of a global pandemic that is nobody’s fault’. I don’t know, I reckon the Chinese Communist Party should be keeping its head down a while longer.
Restrictions, she laboured, were part of a journey in which we ‘steer a path through the next few months towards brighter times’. Does the AA provide metaphor breakdown cover?
Eventually, though, Sturgeon the wound-poker couldn’t help herself. She boasted that ‘prevalence in Scotland’ was ‘ lower than in other UK nations’. That’s why half the population is being placed under house arrest.
My suspicion grows that the First Minister’s speechwriter is a frustrated lyricist yearning to start their own Billy Bragg tribute act. ‘Love and solidarity… will get us through this,’ Sturgeon closed her statement. ‘Soon we will be looking back on it/ not living through it/ so please try to stay strong/ please stick with it and stick together.’
Her most dogged tormentor was not Ruth Davidson but Lib Dem Mike Rumbles. He barracked the First Minister throughout the session until she protested to the Presiding Officer: ‘He is shouting repeatedly at me from a sedentary position.’ Clype.
It takes a lot to get a Lib Dem to raise their voice, though I did once witness a furious discussion of proportional representation in the bar at a party conference.
In these times we need someone to make a full-throated defence of liberty. That right there might be the worst aspect of Sturgeon’s handling of this crisis. She’s made the Liberal Democrats relevant again.
The challenge this weekend was to find anyone in government or the Tory Party with a good thing to say about Dominic Cummings. A box of Milk Tray to whoever managed, but it wasn’t me. You might expect that his internal opponents would be glad to see the back of him but even Leave-minded insiders I spoke to were relieved. Sad, of course, because they respected his abilities, and worried that this could mean a watering down of Brexit, but frustrated that his talent was not matched by the discipline required by government.
Boris Johnson may be feeling a mix of emotions. For one, he has followed and practised politics long enough to know that the importance of a single adviser can be greatly inflated. Tony Blair’s premiership outlasted Alastair Campbell’s service by almost four years, including a historic third consecutive election victory. David Cameron similarly managed another four years plus an election win following the departure of Steve Hilton, the green guru who helped him rebrand the Tory Party before decamping to California and a career as a Trump-boosting host on Fox News.
However, he knows too that Cummings has an uncommon strategic mind that helped guide Vote Leave and the 2019 Conservative election campaign to stunning victories. Tory MPs may not have liked him, but without him there wouldn’t have been as many of them around to disapprove. He certainly rubbed true blue Tories the wrong way but he understood how to talk to non-Tories and convince some of them to vote Tory for the first time. Not only must the Prime Minister face the most capable Labour leader since Tony Blair, now he must do so without his surrogate brain.
That is not a concern weighing heavy on Scottish Tories, who run the gamut from fair chipper to positively ecstatic over Cummings’ resignation. The impact of his lockdown-breaking journey to Barnard Castle was repeatedly cited to me but so too was the conviction that he was unreliable on the Union. One party insider described the svengali’s removal as ‘a welcome move by the Prime Minister that can only help efforts to stop the SNP’, noting that Cummings’ Durham trip ‘enraged traditional Tory voters and handed the Nats a big stick with nails in it to beat the party and the Union’. An MSP, meanwhile, feared Cummings ‘would have seen independence as the ultimate experiment in disruption’ and ‘had no instinct for the Union and never even seemed to care’.
However, both these insiders sounded the same note of caution: Cummings’ going would not heal what ails either the Tory Party in Scotland or the United Kingdom itself. The brimming ranks of prime ministerial excuse-makers deem this yet another thing that is not Boris Johnson’s fault. He’s as Unionist as they come, you see, but that crazy Dom cared more about Brexit and maybe even saw the SNP as a useful foil come the next election. It’s a curious line of defence: the Prime Minister has principles but he had to wait for his aide to resign to assert them. We are governed by weak men surrounded by people who will swear blind that weakness is a form of strength.
We can be weak too, of course — too keen to wish away the challenges of our times. Dominic Cummings did not bring the Union to the brink and his leaving will not pull it back. Unionists need to stop telling themselves that every minor change in the political weather means a fair wind for the Union. It is a passive and pitiful way to go about advancing a cause. If you want the Union to endure, you have to elect leaders who believe in it and for whom it is a basic tenet of their political worldview. Nationalists may be increasingly frustrated with Nicola Sturgeon over the pace of travel towards a second referendum, but they do not doubt that she believes in one and that independence is the central animating principle of her politics. They do not settle for a juddering mass of indecision and cynicism and laziness.
The Prime Minister needs to show that he cares about the Union and Unionists need to show him the consequences if he doesn’t. The rise of Ukip was a rebuke to the Tories for ignoring core vote concerns like Europe and immigration and eventually the Cameron-era party had to compromise with its own supporters. There are a clutch of no-hoper parties running on an anti-independence ticket in next May’s Holyrood election, but while they are implausible the idea behind them is not. There is a core Unionist vote in Scotland that crosses all other political divides and doesn’t ask for much — just no more referendums, no more powers, no more caving in to the SNP. For now, they mostly vote Tory and some Labour but a few more years, a Nationalist majority at Holyrood and talk of a second referendum at Westminster could provide fertile ground for a single-issue pro-Union party looking to elbow its way in on the Holyrood list.
The electoral fortunes of the Scottish Conservatives are unlikely to trouble the Prime Minister’s thoughts. The only consequences that will motivate him are those that touch on his personal and political standing. If the Union is lost on his watch, that is what the history books will recount him for. His only other achievement, Brexit, will be cast as historic folly, not the stepping out into the world of a global Britain but a retraction into a Little England with which the Scots (and, perhaps, the Welsh and Northern Irish) wanted nothing to do. He would have broken Britain.
Johnson does not want to be remembered in the same breath as Eden and Chamberlain, so Unionists would be wise to appeal to the twin impulses that govern so many victims of public schooling: fear and vanity. The Prime Minister fears the Scottish constitutional question clogging up his domestic agenda and puts it off as a child puts off his homework. The task for Unionists is to make clear that the constitutional question is one for the whole UK, not just Scotland, and that avoiding it will only make matters worse.
Just as the SNP makes its case to the rest of the country through the London media, Scottish Unionists should do the same and communicate a blunt message: independence would mean as much chaos for England as it would for Scotland. The future of the UK’s nuclear deterrent would be in Nicola Sturgeon’s hands. The British position in international trade talks would be severely undermined. The EU would have a new border along the Tweed and the upper hand in fresh border negotiations. Instead of hoping the Prime Minister will eventually swing in behind the Union, force his hand by making independence a headache for him in England as well as Scotland.
Once his attention has been gained, give him the opportunity to remedy the problem. This will require him to become much more involved in constitutional matters than at present, when a prime minister’s time is already scant and jealously fought over, not least in the middle of a pandemic. He will have to be tough, creative, open-minded but determined. The effort will be exacting, the hours gruelling and the brickbats plenty and fast-flying. The prize, however, is to be known as the saviour of the Union, the leader who saw off the separatist threat and redeemed Brexit along the way. The man who kept the kingdom united.
The Prime Minister’s diary is bulging and it will not be obvious to him or those around him how to begin. There is someone who has already shown the start of a way forward, someone who, incidentally, warned six months ago that Dominic Cummings had become a liability, and even resigned his own government post to make the point. Since then, Douglas Ross has found himself a new job and is settling into it well. The Scottish Tory leader has so far given two strong speeches about the Union and how to repair it. The Prime Minister should begin by reading them.
The First Minister’s latest Covid update to parliament was an uncanny affair. MSPs heard that, although ‘we do still face tough times ahead’, there were ‘also grounds for optimism now’.
Reports of the Pfizer vaccine were ‘really good news’ and ‘extremely encouraging’ — ‘and that of course is not the only vaccine undergoing trials just now!’ It was ‘the most positive indication yet that science will get us out of this.’
This was not Nicola Sturgeon. It looked like her, moved like her, even did that weird little chuckle she does, but there was no way this was the First Minister. Maybe it was one of those Blade Runner deals where Harrison Ford got replaced by an android. This replicant was a good effort but altogether too upbeat to pass as our First Minister.
‘We are not at the end of the tunnel yet,’ she waxed, ‘but a glimmer of light has appeared. Yes, there will still be dips in the road, and that means the light might be obscured at times. But it is very much there and we are heading towards it.’
We hadn’t quite arrived at the broad, sunlit uplands but we were pulling into the motorway services two miles down the road.
The cod Churchillian language felt alien to Sturgeon’s natural speaking rhythms, which are more pedestrian and precise than Winnie’s rousing booms, and sounded like it had been written to satisfy a speechwriter’s vanity rather than enhance the speechmaker’s message.
(This is not to unduly single out Nicola Sturgeon. There is a dearth of good rhetoric in Scottish politics, where most ministers orate like the beleaguered complaints manager of a provincial leisure centre and most opposition MSPs like the complainers.)
Nevertheless, it’s hard to knock the artifice of her wording when the words themselves were such a lung-clearing relief to hear: ‘The sacrifices everyone is making are hard — and they feel never-ending — but they are helping. They have made a difference, and they are saving lives. I have no doubt about that, and no one should be in doubt about that.’
If it means I can order a pint at some point in the next year without having to provide the barman my name, address, credit score and grandmother’s first school report card, then the First Minister can try to pass herself off as Churchill, Gandhi and the Dalai Lama for all I care.
She can even give us her best Vera Lynn — ‘At some point, this will all be over; at some point, we will be looking back on it rather than living through it’ — but it would be more jolly all round if she got into the spirit of things and delivered such lines with a piano solo.
Of course, it couldn’t all be cheerful song and Sturgeon treated us to the old Covid songbook standards: ‘This is not the time to let down our guard’ and ‘We can look forward to brighter days in the spring’. For now, the sacrifice would endure.
Three council areas — Fife, Angus and Perth and Kinross — would be bumped up to tier three and with that their pubs would be forbidden to sell booze. This would be particularly grievous for residents of Perthshire, who will continue to have Pete Wishart as their MP but lose the necessary fortifications required to endure such tribulations.
Fortune was more favourable to residents of Orkney, Shetland and Na h-Eileanan an Iar, who would now ‘be able to meet one other household inside their homes, up to a strict maximum of six people’. Don’t all rush to organise a cèilidh at once.
North East Fife MSP Willie Rennie was none too pleased about his region being put on the lockdown naughty step. ‘Fife will want to know what we’ve got wrong,’ he complained to the First Minister.
So many potential answers. Wisely, she avoided all of them.
There is nothing Nicola Sturgeon loves more than posing as an international stateswoman. She may struggle to get Jacinda Ardern to reply to her tweets but Donald Trump’s post-election tantrum gave her an opportunity to share her wisdom with the world.
Asked last Wednesday about the US presidential election, which Trump has yet to concede, the First Minister declared: ‘What is most important right now is the integrity of American democracy… I won’t be the only one who listened to the President’s speech earlier with a sense of discomfort and foreboding and I hope sensible voices in America come to the fore in terms of the protection of the integrity of democracy.’
All very laudable and I don’t disagree with her. My problem is where I saw her make her remarks: on BBC Scotland’s live broadcast of the daily Covid-19 update. As I understood it, the Corporation was giving the First Minister a regular slot to keep the public informed about the pandemic and the Scottish Government’s response to it.
Donald Trump may be doing nothing good for everyone’s blood pressure, but what does his futile foot-stomping have to do with a health crisis in Scotland?
Few will want to risk being accused of defending Trump, but Sturgeon’s use of her BBC platform to offer commentary on his political conduct should trouble those who care about democratic norms and the independence of the BBC.
If this was an isolated incident, it wouldn’t matter all that much, but there is a clear pattern of the First Minister taking advantage of her broadcast slot to make political statements and promote her government’s wider agenda.
This is not about pedantry and not even about politics, really. It is about the judgment of senior editorial staff and executives at BBC Scotland. They know this themselves, for they attempted to curtail these broadcasts then retreated under pressure from Nationalists.
I don’t blame Nicola Sturgeon. Like any politician, she is going to exploit whatever platform she gets and answer whatever questions she wants. The people at fault are the Pacific Quay management who would rather jeopardise the BBC’s reputation than get on the wrong side of the SNP.
BBC Scotland is home to some fine and hard-working journalists. The actions of their higher-ups should not be allowed to reflect poorly on reporters and other editorial staff who take the Corporation’s charter seriously.
It is those higher-ups who took fright at the campaign of intimidation waged against BBC Scotland during the 2014 referendum and, instead of defending its journalists and their output, decided to appease their detractors. As such, BBC Scotland has spent the past six years trying to ingratiate itself with the Scottish establishment, whose ranks were already well represented at Pacific Quay.
The effect can be seen on air in some of the programming of the BBC Scotland channel and positively bursts from BBC The Social, but nothing is quite as blatant as giving the First Minister, in effect, her own daily TV show.
In the early days of the pandemic, when everything was new and it was essential to reassure the public, this was a sensible decision. Since then, red flags have shot up repeatedly and each time they have been ignored by BBC Scotland.
On July 1, Sturgeon used the broadcast to assail remarks by the Prime Minister on the England-Scotland border as ‘absurd and ridiculous political comments’ and added that for ‘a prime minister or secretary of state… to try to politicise these things is shameful’.
Again identifying the Prime Minister, Secretary of State and also the Scottish Tory leader, she said: ‘If you find yourselves trying to turn any of this into a political or a constitutional argument, go and take a long, hard look at yourself in a mirror and, if you’re being honest with yourself, you will admit that you’re failing people – or risking failing people.’
During that same briefing, Sturgeon singled out three newspapers (all centre-right, all pro-Union) and attacked their coverage: ‘The front page of the Express or the Mail or the Telegraph tomorrow… I could probably write them right now myself. They can say what they like…’
On October 20, Social Security Secretary Shirley-Anne Somerville was brought in to announce money for local authorities to address financial insecurity and fund free school meals over the holidays.
These transfers were addressing the knock- on effects of the pandemic but they were not a public health matter in themselves. How do I know this? Because Shirley-Anne Somerville said so, prefacing her announcement with the words: ‘Whilst the pandemic remains first and foremost a public health emergency, we know that it is causing increasing financial pressure for many people.’
On November 3, Somerville again joined the First Minister on the broadcast to unveil her decision to ‘prioritise the introduction of the Scottish Child Payment’. This new benefit was a ‘key element of our Tackling Child Poverty Delivery Plan’, the Cabinet Secretary said. There is no reference to Covid-19 in that plan and no wonder – it was published in 2018.
Somerville added that stakeholders had branded the policy a ‘game-changer’. It may well be but the game it intends to change has nothing to do with coronavirus, even if the payment is being expedited under its auspices.
The First Minister is at liberty to take as many digs as she likes at the Prime Minister or the opposition. But the BBC is under no obligation to participate in – indeed, it is under a charter obligation not to participate in – what amounts to early campaigning for the 2021 Scottish parliament election.
The regulated period for that poll kicks in 58 days from now, the timeframe in which broadcasters must adhere to more stringent than usual rules on balance. That the BBC continues to afford a live daily platform to the leader of one political party, even as she uses that platform to made partisan statements, is difficult to justify even in the context of a pandemic. Elections do not take place only on polling day. Policies are weighed up, performances judged and opinions formed over the preceding months.
The SNP grasps this, which is why Nicola Sturgeon is the face of these briefings and not Health Secretary Jeane Freeman. Sturgeon’s sympathisers may say such electoral considerations should be set aside during a pandemic, but that should only be the case if the election is being set aside too.
Even if the First Minister restricted herself to Covid-19 matters, the provision of this daily platform would be dubious six months out from polling day. The Scottish Government’s handling of coronavirus – from its dumping of infected elderly patients into care homes to its withholding information on the Edinburgh Nike conference – is sure to be a major issue.
Yet BBC Scotland is permitting the SNP leader to retail her policies and performance to voters without questioning from MSPs, let alone other party leaders. BBC Scotland has allowed itself to be corralled into Nicola Sturgeon’s re-election campaign. No wonder some pro-Union voters brand it ‘BBC Sturgeon’.
The Corporation has done some fine work during this pandemic but its journalists’ efforts are being undermined by a management so bent on pandering to one side of politics it appears oblivious to the growing discontent on the other.
If that management does not withdraw or refashion Nicola Sturgeon’s political platform, the opposition parties and their supporters will have no alternative but to enter the complaints process.
For those of us who support the BBC, it was heartbreaking to witness it under assault in 2014 and would be even more painful to see a second front open up from the other direction. But the decisions being taken by the Corporation’s executives are making such an outcome ever more likely. If BBC Scotland is going to play politics, it will get politics in return.
There was something mildly Calvinist about Nicola Sturgeon, as she stood there dividing the Elect and the reprobate into their respective tiers, pronouncing judgement on their drinking establishments as she went.
Much of the central belt was slung in Tier 3, which means pubs have to close at 6pm and are forbidden to sell booze. It turns out there is something more lonesome, morbid and drear: standing in the bar of a pub full of beer but being required by law to order a soda and lime.
Lanarkshire narrowly escaped Tier 4 after what Sturgeon called ‘a borderline decision’. For the home of Albion Rovers and Airdrieonians, having a borderline decision go in their favour will have been an exciting new experience.
However, the First Minister pleaded with locals to ‘help ensure that the rise in cases continues to slow’. Not that there’s anything still open in Lanarkshire. At this point, a pub lock-in involves breaking out the dandelion and burdock at half-six while someone keeps watch on the door for a passing constable.
To help us resist temptation, she warned: ‘I cannot rule out a move back to nationwide restrictions in the next few weeks, including at level 4’. That was for really serious incidents, like ICU wards being overwhelmed or SNP MPs buying cross-country rail tickets.
Richard Leonard thought it was ‘clear that some local communities are at a lower tier than was predicted but some are at a higher tier than was predicted’. He wanted to know what economic measures would be put in place to protect jobs and businesses, especially in Tier 3.
There would be a bigger impact on jobs and the economy if the virus went unchecked, she responded, pointing to the situation in France and Germany. The gist was that there would be no extra money, though Sturgeon took the opportunity to have a dig at the Chancellor’s job support scheme: ‘I think that Richard Leonard and I agree that it should go further, but it is there for businesses to take advantage of.’
All was forgiven and forgotten a few questions later when Labour’s Colin Smyth raised the plight of pubs in his region that, lacking beer gardens and kitchen facilities, would be forced to close even when their tier designation didn’t require it.
Suddenly, Rishi Sunak wasn’t a monster after all. Sturgeon said: ‘I agree that we have to support all businesses, not just those that are legally required to close. The job support scheme does that by having different strands for businesses that are required to close and those that are not.’
Cold comfort for landlords, though she sounded pretty impassive. She’s shut more pubs than the temperance movement.
There was a telling moment with Willie Rennie. The Lib Dem leader interrogated the decision to transfer Covid-infected patients from hospitals to care homes, noting Sturgeon’s ‘carefully chosen words’ on the matter.
She offered a rote apology, then added: ‘The one thing I will always, not through carefully chosen words but through emotion probably more than anything else, rail against is the idea that we were somehow not caring about what happened in care homes.’
Did you catch it? Rennie did: ‘I didn’t challenge on the motives. It’s the facts and the decisions that we all want to get to.’
Asked a question about something tangible (government actions and their consequences), Sturgeon had pivoted to something intangible: her feelings. She would not allow anyone to suggest she didn’t care and it didn’t matter that no one had suggested anything of the sort.
She deftly moved the conversation from her performance to her character and by implication critics of the former were impugning the latter. The audience for this sleight of hand was not in the chamber but in living rooms across the country. She governs like a politician but talks like a regular person. That’s how she gets away with it.
Sometimes you can’t beat a Left-wing firebrand. Elaine Smith is an old-school socialist who speaks her mind where others might tread more delicately. There was nothing delicate about the Labour MSP’s broadside against the Scottish Government ahead of yesterday’s sham debate on Covid restrictions.
MSPs were meant to get a proper debate and a vote but ministers pulled a fast one. Smith used a procedural gambit to hold up parliamentary business and, although she knew her efforts would be in vain, she took her chance to tell the First Minister exactly what she thought about her performance of late.
She inveighed against the ‘completely unacceptable’ decision to keep parliament in the dark about ‘draconian’ new rules while briefing them to journalists. It was vital that MSPs could ‘scrutinise the effectiveness of the strict 16-day restrictions Scotland had been subjected to’ and said she had even tried to have parliament recalled last week to discuss the matter.
Smith was calm but unrelenting, rebuking ministers for their failure to consult while pouring scorn on the results of lockdown so far: ‘It’s not short and sharp because it doesn’t seem to have worked’.
Noting the impact on the hospitality sector, she ended with a plea to the rest of the chamber to take a stand, railing against the U-turn that denied MSPs a say. ‘We are merely observers,’ she decried. ‘What is the point in voting on the motion when we are being asked simply to note the government’s decisions?’
Finally, with a despairing sigh: ‘Why are other parties going along with that?’
It’s difficult to gauge the mood in the chamber these days but Smith was swiftly voted down, so her cri de coeur evidently failed to impress. Still, it was a tonic to see someone stick their head above the parapet and remind forelock-tugging MSPs how real parliaments are meant to behave.
When the debate proper got under way, Ruth Davidson told the First Minister she objected to the SNP motion ‘taking a swipe at the UK Government’ — but the Tories would be voting for it anyway. That’ll show ’em. Davidson at least brought along some practical ideas: a Covid business advisory council, improvements to data collection and a festive loneliness strategy.
Mind you, the latter is redundant. The First Minister has no intention of being depicted as the Grinch who stole Christmas. Whatever ministers say today, a way will be found to allow the masses to guzzle down their overcooked turkey and cremated roasties while raising a grateful glass to the founder of the feast, Ebenezer Sturgeon.
Not that she needs any more adulation. The self-congratulation is nearing Trumpian levels. ‘I’ve probably answered more questions than any leader of any government anywhere else in the world,’ she told Richard Leonard. She’s a great question-answerer — the greatest. Anyone saying otherwise is fake news.
When UK ministers dodged parliamentary scrutiny, Commons Speaker Sir Lindsay Hoyle read them the riot act. Yesterday, Ken Macintosh read out a statement with all the passion of a printer instructions manual. He is resigning at the next election, becoming the first presiding officer to vacate the chair before anyone noticed he was in it.
One after another the dead-eyed Yesbots got up to ‘fully welcome this strategic framework’ — the same pre-programmed turn of phrase was buzzed out each time. Fulton MacGregor, one of the newer-model automatons, cited a conversation with a worried medic and prated: ‘We must listen to people on the frontline’.
Neil Findlay, another stalwart of the Old Labour awkward squad, intervened to ask if he agreed that, as well as listening to frontline workers, we should also be regularly testing them. ‘Test and Protect is working well in Scotland,’ droned Dalek MacGregor.
Richard Leonard spoke of the plight of the hospitality sector and insisted that ‘some parts of the night time economy can be kept open’. It’s come to a pretty pass when the doughtiest defenders of Scottish business are all members of the Campaign for Socialism.
There is a crisis in Unionism. It did not begin with polls showing a majority for independence, or the arrival of Boris Johnson, or even Brexit, though the latter has sprayed accelerant on the flames. The unravelling of the United Kingdom began with legislative devolution in 1999.
Devolution was not a bad policy; in principle, local control is often more desirable than the remote diktats of centralised bureaucracy. The fault lay in the design of the settlement, which lacked safeguards against the misuse of devolved institutions to undermine devolution and replace it with independence. Devolution was a grand palace with the keys left under the plant pot.
When the SNP took control of the Scottish Executive and immediately renamed it ‘the Scottish Government’, the direction of travel was clear. Instead of confronting the problem, successive UK governments adopted the time-honoured stance of the ostrich. And that was when they were being resolute; at other times, they favoured the composure of the headless chicken, fleeing this way and that, before clucking triumphantly about their latest transfer of powers to a demonstrably broken system.
Churchill said appeasement was feeding the crocodile in hope of being eaten last, but the Tories’ approach (and Labour’s is identical) is to plate up the Union limb-by-limb in hope the crocodile will eventually get indigestion and leave something behind.
David Cameron served the crocodile a referendum on its chosen terms and two tranches of new powers either side of it. In doing so, he tacitly endorsed the proposition that, although the constitution is reserved, the SNP can override this by sticking reserved matters in its Holyrood manifestos. Cameron effectively devolved devolution to its adversaries, putting the SNP in charge of the parameters of the settlement and withdrawing the UK Government from the enforcement of its terms.
At the same time, he attempted to sate the Tory Right with English Votes for English Laws and an EU referendum. Politics is so fractured and tribal on the pro-Union side that there are Unionists adamant Cameron was wrong to cave in to Scottish nationalism and Unionists adamant he was wrong to cave into English nationalism but precious few who say he was wrong to cave into either. Concessions are statesmanship when you approve of them and appeasement when you don’t.
A memo leaked earlier this week suggests Downing Street wants to chuck immigration and additional financial competencies into the crocodile’s jaws. All that will do is what it has done before: energise the separatists to go further. Come next May’s Holyrood election, the SNP manifesto will include a provision on another referendum and if (or rather when) the Nationalists win they will claim another mandate.
One prime minister’s frail resolve and strategic myopia should not bind his successors. Boris Johnson ought to take the Theresa May approach and reject out of hand demands for another plebiscite. As he does, he should explicitly repudiate Cameron’s foolish stance and reassert both the original terms of the devolution settlement and the sovereignty of the UK Parliament.
‘No’ is necessary but it is no longer sufficient. Unionism has to be about more than preventing independence. A life spent on the defensive is no life at all. Unionists need a vision for Scotland’s future as part of the United Kingdom. Why is the Union important? How can it be strengthened? Where does it go from here?
I have long maintained that Scottish nationalism is philosophically barren, a spasm passing for an ideal. It is a theology of division with one hymn and one note: the Union is the original sin that created all of Scotland’s ills and national redemption requires that it be cast out. But Unionism, too, has grown empty and directionless, its doctrines loosed from conviction and hewing to whichever passing principle seems most likely to hold the nationalists at bay a while longer.
Part of the problem is the calibre of political party representing the cause. One of them even bills itself the Conservative and Unionist Party, a description that should have given rise to a Trading Standards investigation years ago. The Tories lost the argument on devolution in 1997 and have yet to come up with another since. There is no Conservative theory of devolution, no wrestling with the constitutional consequences of Labour’s blueprint.
This is not helped by ineffective and unassertive policy advisors. Number 10 has its own ‘Union unit’, though I can’t discern whether it’s meant to be pro- or anti-. Given some of the decisions to come out of Downing Street of late, it is doing a better job recruiting Yes voters than Nicola Sturgeon ever has.
South of the Border, Conservatives have come to see the Union as a matter for Scotland alone, conveniently enough at the very point when their policy agenda is brimming with schemes organised around ideological self-indulgence rather than the interests of national unity. These Tories may rail against Sturgeon from the green benches but they are doing her work for her.
Worse, there are some — including figures close to the Prime Minister — who do not want to defeat the SNP. They see Sturgeon as a convenient bogeywoman to scare Middle England out of voting Labour in 2024; a revival of the poster of Ed Miliband in the SNP leader’s pocket, with Sir Keir Starmer photoshopped over his predecessor.
It is a cynical and short-termist calculation and betrays a disregard for the future of the United Kingdom that ought to be incompatible with service in a Tory government. No Conservative should ever gamble with the Union to win an election, but then there are any number of characters in Downing Street who are not Conservatives.
The UK Tories have to decide if they are still a Unionist party. Some already see Scotland as a fiscal millstone around England’s neck, rather than an integral part of the United Kingdom, and this tendency is gaining momentum. The canniest minds in the SNP have always understood that independence is as much about turning England against Scotland as Scotland against England. They are succeeding on both fronts.
If the Conservatives’ problems lie mostly at Westminster and Number 10, the inverse is true for Labour.
Sir Keir has inherited a Scottish party going through an institutional nervous breakdown for a decade now. Scottish Labour’s problems began shortly after its greatest triumph: the formalisation of its fiefdom via a parliament and an executive. The man who helped convince Tony Blair that this was wise, Donald Dewar, died one year into the experiment. His untimely passing robbed devolution of its architect before the scaffolding was even down.
Since then, the building has been squatted in by its foes, who present as the guardians of a settlement they daily work to undermine. Labour’s response has mostly broken off in two directions. The first are those motivated by tribal hatred of the SNP rather than a substantive argument against its goal. Their ‘No’ is a dead No, lacking ideas, or even curiosity, for reforming devolution or making the Union work better for Scotland.
The second group are those who cringe before the SNP’s frown and accept that independence is inevitable, or even a welcome development that would allow Scottish Labour to escape the constitution and become once more a viable party of government.
Unfortunately, for the pro-Union movement to return to strength, these two parties will have to get their houses in order.
The UK Tories have to reacquaint themselves with the Union they claim to revere. The appearance of the word ‘Unionist’ in the party’s name is a reference to Irish home rule, not Scottish, but it is also an admonition that this party is not an English nationalist party. It is meant to stand for broader values and a greater number of people than the population of the Home Counties. The Prime Minister, let us not forget, styles himself ‘Minister for the Union’ and occasionally even visits the parts that lie outwith SW1.
To rediscover their Unionism, Conservatives must become conservatives again. A populist or nationalist party cannot hope to govern the UK because its appeal will always be to the values and instincts of the largest population. A narrow and insular politics of English identity is as incompatible with Unionism as the mean-spirited parochialism of the SNP.
The changes Scottish Labour needs to undergo will be a more personal grief. Two decades after his death, Donald Dewar enjoys a sainthood of sorts within this party, a deference that holds Labour back from taking a more open-minded — and more politically useful — assessment of his legacy. Instead of standing him on a pedestal, Scottish Labour should critically examine his legacy to learn from both his qualities and his flaws.
Dewar was a patriot, a hard worker, a canny strategist, and someone who knew how to keep the Nationalists at bay. But he was also arrogant, aloof, and made fundamental errors in the structuring of devolution. Because his motivation was as much the forging of a power base for himself as it was the founding of a new way of governing Scotland, Dewar was the framer of a settlement heavy on executive power and light on checks and balances, a system that drastically empowered Holyrood at the expense of Westminster under the assumption that the former would always be run by parties sympathetic towards, or willing to tolerate, the latter.
These arrangements were the practical outgrowth of Dewar’s theory that the United Kingdom would be strengthened (or at least not fatally undermined) by giving institutional structure to its regional political differences. With hindsight, this was historic folly but it was not Dewar’s alone. His theory was shared by almost every Labour and Liberal Democrat politician as well as academia, the civil service and the mainstream media. In the 1980s and 1990s, there was scarcely a more widely held shibboleth.
Yet, respect for Dewar’s memory cannot occlude the fact that his grand project, in the form it took, is why we are where we are today. His devolution is why the SNP has been in power for 13 years and may well be for 13 years more and another 13 after that. It is why Nicola Sturgeon can dominate a minority parliament in a way that Boris Johnson could only dream of with his landslide majority. It is why the SNP has been able to weaponise a faultily drafted settlement against the very letter and purpose of that settlement.
Donald Dewar was a fine politician but a terrible founding father, one whose founding did not survive his death by even a decade. There are Labour veterans involved in the Holyrood project who concede behind closed doors that they failed to take seriously the threat of the SNP capturing the institutions of devolution. Private admissions are all well and good but integrity demands these grandees make their remorse public and help to right their wrongs.
If Scottish Labour wants to become relevant again, it need not abandon the Union on the wishful assumption that the voters will be waiting with open arms on the other side of independence. Instead, it should learn from the best of Donald Dewar while unlearning the worst of his legacy. Scottish Labour should be a party that expresses patriotism through values and vision, not constitutional policy. Labour ought to be the champion of a return to hard work and excellence in Scottish public life, to integrity in government, to the accountability of the powerful.
It should confront the full-time independence campaign and occasional government in St Andrew’s House and tell it to get its finger out or get out of office. Scottish Labour cannot be more Scottish than the SNP but it can be more Labour. That does not mean a lurch to the fringe left but rather a revival of the sensible, social democratic Scottish Labour that, though drab and managerial, actually got things done.
Even with these two parties back on sounder footing, Unionists would have to think hard about what they believe, why and how they hope to achieve it. A great deal of laziness has crept into how opponents of independence talk about the Union. On this side of the Border, we must stop framing the case as a financial transaction by hymning the glories of the unfair and outdated Barnett formula. Subsidy unionism irritates the English and is more likely to push Scots in the direction of nationalism. Pride is a pittance in the pocket but a bounty in the soul.
Down south, believers in the Union will have to do more than believe and start to practically support it. The Union is a shared endeavour and it cannot be maintained by one side alone. The UK Government must think as such — a government for all of the UK, not just the south-east and the more affluent parts of London.
A fundamental question underlies all this: what exactly is the Union? We know it cannot be constitutional structures and fiscal subvention alone, but what else is there that unites the people of our four nations? The first order of business is forging a shared sense of identity, a passport of the head and the heart that draws on history but appeals to the future and reflects our evolution into a multi-racial society.
We need a common culture of belonging, shared reference points that remind us who we are and how we are connected to one another. The SNP has been effective at enlarging its version of Scottishness at the expense of a more fluid identity and so the Union requires a broad and easy UK identity that is more appealing than mono-nationalism.
There is a crisis in Unionism and it is a crisis of confidence. Voters like confidence and nationalists have it because they know what they believe. There must be an end to defensive unionism, the hand-wringing angst and compulsive concession-making that has only emboldened the separatists. Unionists must believe in the Union and give the people a Union they can believe in too.