The future of the Union is in Michael Gove’s hands

Michael Gove Covid-19 Presser 27/03

Who is the most important figure in government?

Not Boris Johnson. The Prime Minister is the front-of-house manager but those are subject to change every five years. Nor is it Dominic Cummings, central though he is to this administration’s policy and positioning.

No, the answer is Michael Gove. The ceremonial duties of the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster are so quaintly Elizabethan that reading them aloud can double as an audition for Richard II at the Globe. But Gove’s real post is Minister for Getting Things Done, and the thing he has been assigned to get done now is the most significant matter facing this government.

As the Scottish Daily Mail revealed last week, Gove has been appointed to chair a new subcommittee of the Cabinet on Union policy. I understand there is growing alarm in the UK Government about the threat to the Union, and with it an increasing impatience with the Cameron-era policy of appeasement. Theresa May broke with her predecessor on this strategy but she did not take many in government with her. Now, I am led to believe, there is at last the appetite for a fightback.

Downing Street has been convinced by three factors. The first is Brexit. There are no plans to extend the transition period, so ministers are aware that a fresh battle over repatriated powers is looming. The second, and related, concern is the UK single market, something the Nationalists deny exists but also seek to use to their advantage. There is growing recognition that the absence of formal institutions and governance principles is a structural flaw in this market.

The third factor is Covid-19. The pandemic has opened more eyes at Westminster to the scale of what has already been devolved and how this frustrates the centre’s ability to coordinate national responses to national emergencies. The penny has finally dropped with an almighty clatter.

That it has taken the Tories so long to arrive at fairly self-evident conclusions is a testament to their unforgivable neglect of the Union. GK Chesterton observed: ‘The business of progressives is to go on making mistakes. The business of conservatives is to prevent mistakes from being corrected.’ The mistakes of devolution were Labour’s but across a decade in office the Tories have failed to put them right and during the Cameron years actually made them worse.

Still, there is more joy in Heaven and all that, so the fact that Downing Street appreciates the need to go on the counter-offensive is welcome. Gove will coordinate that counter-attack, a development that should be met with relief by those who value the United Kingdom.

Relief, but nothing more. Gove is a fine strategist and has the nerve for a fight, but he assumes the mantle of the Union’s Field Marshal Montgomery. He must reverse losses and recover territory then continue to push the enemy back further. It is not enough to win at El-Alamein; the Union must prevail at Tunis, Sicily, Normandy, and beyond. Years of ignorance, cowardice and complacency have come at great cost and great effort will be required to reassert the Union.

That reassertion will require a recalibration of devolution so that it serves the needs of the Scottish people but can no longer be used as a battering ram against the United Kingdom.

Part of the Prime Minister’s ‘New Deal’ is using the Shared Prosperity Fund to invest directly in Scotland, something I have previously argued for. That is good news but Gove must make it clear to the Prime Minister that money is not enough. Chancellor Rishi Sunak has been single-handedly propping up the Scottish economy for over three months now and public opinion has actually shifted against the Tories.

The SNP is waging a war of attrition using culture, identity and captured institutions as its artillery and Westminster is sending accountants into battle in response. Michael Gove must change this. It is no secret that he has ambitions for higher office but even if he achieves it almost nothing he could do in Number 10 would be of comparable import to the duty that now rests on his shoulders. It is no stretch to say, though it may make him shudder to hear, that the future of the Union is in his hands.

He must articulate a Conservative approach that puts the unity of the UK at the heart of our constitution and reorients devolution back to its original, bread-and-butter functions. The Scottish Parliament exists to run public services in a way that is attuned to distinct Scottish needs and circumstances. It is not a rival seat of sovereign power. Gove should urge an end to the one-way ratchet towards secession by recommending a presumption against further power transfers to Holyrood, with any additional devolution subject to a test of its likely impact on the Union.

If he succeeds in standing athwart devolution and yelling ‘Stop’, Gove will have a creditable achievement to his name. However, this would still leave many of the mistakes uncorrected and, depending on the SNP’s continued progress in exploiting devolution to advance separation, it might be necessary to consider more radical steps.

A principle of our constitution is that Parliament cannot bind future incarnations of itself. The Scotland Acts are therefore not holy writs and are subject to revision as Parliament deems fitting. A future Scotland Act that redraws the devolution settlement to preserve the sovereignty of the Crown-in-Parliament and the political integrity of the UK should not be ruled out.

Whatever he chooses to do, Michael Gove will be vilified by not only the SNP but the commentariat, the academics, the ‘creatives’, the third-sector core-funding-seekers, and the weak-kneed among the pro-Union ranks. He should treat the intensity of their hatred as a barometer of his effectiveness. He has a very short space of time to make himself as reviled as Michael Forsyth once was but I have no doubt he will give it his all.

The Union is the defining issue of our times. I wish it wasn’t. I wish it was reducing poverty or improving education or marshalling technology to improve health outcomes. The nationalists will not allow us to move on to these matters until they get what they want and will continue to use devolution to pursue their constitutional goal.

Those who oppose that goal have a choice: give in and give them what they want, or change devolution so it can no longer deliver what they want.

*****

Kirsty Blackman’s resignation as SNP deputy leader at Westminster is a matter of keen regret, regardless of your politics. The 34-year-old cited quarantine’s impact on her mental health, adding that people ‘must be able to talk openly’ about these issues.

Her resignation raises questions about the support provided by political parties and Parliament and Blackman is right that we ought to talk more openly. There is no shame in being ill, even if that illness is invisible to everyone else. The shame is in the failure to treat mental health with parity to physical health.

In order to practise what I preach, I should say that lockdown has been a struggle for me too. I have written about my own battles with depression and panic attacks before and, though I didn’t go into lockdown in the best state, I am set to come out of it measurably worse.

The mental health fallout of Covid-19 is beginning to hit and we are as poorly prepared for it as we were for the virus itself.

*****

The Scots will thole many indignities and oppressions but do not get between us and a pint. When England’s pubs reopened on Saturday, the Meadow House in Berwick-Upon Tweed was among them. But publican Marc McDonald noticed something different about his clientele. ‘About 70 per cent came from Scotland,’ he told the BBC. Makes you proud.

Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Letters: scotletters@dailymail.co.uk. Contact Stephen at stephen.daisley@dailymail.co.uk. Feature image © Number 10 CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Sturgeon’s media meltdown: Salmondism without Salmond

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Alex Salmond made an unexpected return to St Andrew’s House yesterday.

Nicola Sturgeon delivered the daily coronavirus briefing but the tone was unmistakably that of her predecessor. There was the high indignation and low sarcasm, delivered with the familiar troika of political peevishness: the snark, the snarl and the sneer. Forced attempts at bonhomie were essayed but the reigning tone was blunt aggression.

Like her mentor, the First Minister tends to reserve her hottest contempt for the media and yesterday she radiated boiling wrath. Crouching forward with one elbow on the podium, like a leopard readying itself to pounce, she growled at question after question from reporters.

They wanted to interrogate the idea of quarantining English holidaymakers to Scotland, something she refuses to rule out, but she seemed to resent every fresh query more than the last.

One journalist noted that she had cited Covid-19 restrictions between US states and asked her to explain how those worked in practice. ‘I suggest you go and look yourself at how it operates in other countries,’ she snapped, concluding her answer with the surly coda: ‘I know that doesn’t translate very easily into a dramatic and over hyped headline.’

Another correspondent asked National Clinical Director Jason Leitch what thought had been given to stadium capacity once football and rugby return. ‘I’m just not sure it’s even a reasonable question to ask,’ Sturgeon sighed, before turning over to the professor. 

The Unionist media conspiracy that exists entirely in the minds of Scottish nationalists wasn’t the only cause of her irritation. Boris Johnson — no sentence that begins with those words ever ends well — had just boldly informed Prime Minister’s Questions that ‘there is no such thing as a border between England and Scotland’.

Legally, of course, there is. That’s why you never saw Inspector Morse tracking down MOT fraudsters in Barlanark or DCI Taggart ambling among the spires announcing, ‘There has been an involuntary manslaughter’. It’s why a four-pack of Magners will set you back four quid in Carlisle and a second mortgage in Cumbernauld.

Sturgeon told the briefing it was ‘absurd and ridiculous’ to claim the border doesn’t exist, and added: ‘If the Prime Minister is questioning that now I’m not sure what he’d say if I pitched up in Newcastle and tried to implement Scottish Government policies there.’ It would be more of a surprise if she tried to implement them here.

Personally, I’m up for annexing Newcastle but I have some questions. Will the Scotland squad inherit Shearer’s 30 international goals for England? Who gets the commercial rights to Auf Wiedersehen, Pet? What’s the Gaelic for ‘Whey aye, man’?

But the most pressing question of all is this: are these two really the best we can do? A self-styled defender of the Union cheerily unaware of the absolute basics of centuries-old legal tradition? Wishing Scots law didn’t exist used to make you a second-year LLB student at Strathclyde, now it qualifies you to be Prime Minister. 

The First Minister, on the other hand, is well aware of the constitution. She thinks about little else and, despite being in the middle of a pandemic, her hand is already pawing the starting pistol for next year’s election and her trigger finger has never been itchier.

When she succeeded Alex Salmond, it seemed like there was a cooler mind in charge but steadily the pique and the grievance and the certainty took over again. She wants to be the first minister for all of Scotland but her tribal impulses consistently get the better of her. What she offers is Salmondism without Salmond. 

There they hunched over their respective podiums yesterday, the two most powerful people in Scotland and two more perfect portraits of arrogance and entitlement you could not hope to find. If I lived in Newcastle, I wouldn’t want to be governed by either of them. 

Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Letters: scotletters@dailymail.co.uk. Contact Stephen at stephen.daisley@dailymail.co.uk.

Pragmatism, not sentiment, is what the NHS needs

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We don’t agree on much in these violently divided times but one point of consensus is that the NHS has had a good war. In the battle against coronavirus, the health service has confirmed for many its status as the crown jewel in national public life. 

The weekly doorstep ovations may have ceased — there was something slightly unBritish about them anyway — but the gratitude felt has not faded. 

That sentiment is entirely proper. Every hospital employee knew the risk that they might bring home a killer virus, but still they went to work. Medics pressed ahead despite not having enough PPE. Student nurses rushed to sign up for the wards. 

Healthcare workers in some cases sat with patients in their final moments, in place of the loved ones who could not be allowed to get near them. We owe these hard-working, public-spirited professionals our thanks and admiration. 

We also owe them, and ourselves, honesty. The health service that has done a creditable job on Covid-19 is also the health service with serious structural and performance flaws. It is possible — in fact, it is essential — to acknowledge these problems even as we congratulate the NHS on its handling of coronavirus. 

Nowhere are the problems more evident than in waiting times data. The last set of statistics unaffected by Covid-19 was for the final quarter of 2019, yet even those paint a bracing picture of a health service in crisis. 

The Treatment Time Guarantee entitles 100 per cent of eligible patients to be seen within 12 weeks while the Referral to Treatment National Standard demands that 90 per cent be seen within 18 weeks. As of December, the former target was met for only 72 per cent and the latter for 79 per cent. 

Under the New Outpatients National Standard, 95 per cent of outpatients are meant to be treated in 12 weeks or less. The actual figure is 73 per cent. According to the Diagnostics National Standard, no one should wait more than six weeks for a test result. In fact, one in every five patients waits longer. 

Drill down into specific conditions and the reading is just as grim. Cancer patients are meant to begin treatment within 62 days of referral, but only three health boards in Scotland meet this standard. No more than one-tenth of mental ill-health sufferers should wait longer than 18 weeks to start psychological therapies, yet the real figure is more than one-fifth. 

That’s a lot of numbers and percentages but behind them lie ordinary people. They have been failed by a service they put their trust in and are made to feel like blasphemers for daring to raise their substandard treatment. When you put an institution beyond reproach, you get reproachable outcomes. 

At the outset of the pandemic, there were fears the NHS might collapse and the decision was taken to transfer elderly patients to care homes, in some cases without testing them first. That helped the NHS but it brought severe consequences for some parts of the care sector. Even so, the service’s pre-existing problems mean the road to recovery will be a long one. 

Between March and April, there was an 83 per cent drop in planned operations. When the health service begins its transition out of emergency measures, those procedures will still be waiting and will form a backlog along with conditions that have gone untreated because of the lockdown.  

A return to muddling on is not the answer. We should be using this time to rethink how the NHS operates, how it delivers services and how outcomes can be improved. That involves confronting the NHS we have rather than the imagined NHS we idealise. Technology is still not fully put to use, patients wait too long to be seen, there is a postcode lottery for some of the most serious conditions, and despite all the talk mental health continues to be a second-order priority. 

When it comes to the NHS, often the most dangerous thing you can do is ask simple questions. Why in 2020 can I still not book a GP appointment via an app on my phone and why did it take a government lockdown to give me the option of consultations via Skype? Why must patients wait longer for treatment simply because ministers have an ideological aversion to the private sector? Why can’t voluntary organisations with expertise in areas like mental health be contracted in to provide some services? 

Lockdown has shown how technology can make everything from shopping to business meetings more efficient and there is no reason similar use can’t be made by the NHS. Skype consultations should stay but advantage should also be taken of the latest developments in artificial intelligence, such as the option of an approved chatbot for everyday conditions that currently take up GPs’ valuable time. 

Increased cooperation with the independent and voluntary sectors could ease the strain on NHS waiting lists by getting patients seen faster. Often these organisations, particular in the third sector, have more intimate and extensive understanding of their specialist conditions than general medics. This is not something to be scared of, but embraced and put to good use. It doesn’t threaten the NHS or its unpinning principles, it offers to strengthen them. 

Of course, political dogmatism should not lead us to the other extreme. Just as the status quo is deeply flawed, a headlong rush to tear everything up and start again would create entirely new problems. The state might not have all the answers, but neither do the private or voluntary sectors. 

Yet structural reforms have the potential to bring greater efficiency and value for money. Above all, though, they would mean better results for patients. There is no virtue in maintaining a status quo that causes pain and anguish for those whose needs it fails to meet. The NHS is not a jewel to be taken down and polished occasionally but otherwise gazed at reverently. It is a system and if systems don’t work properly, they have to be fixed for the sake of those who rely on them. A little less sentimentality and a little more pragmatism would do the health service the world of good. 

The question is whether we have political leaders capable of acknowledging the problems and willing to expend the political capital required to fix them. The current crop do not fill me with optimism. Jeane Freeman is a manager, not a reformer, but in fairness to the Health Secretary there is no evident appetite for reform from the First Minister. Until that changes, the NHS will not see the improvements it needs and patients will continue to pay the price.

*****

Tory rebels in the House of Lords are plotting with the opposition to lock Chinese telecoms giant Huawei out of the UK, a Sunday newspaper reports. 

Peers are this week expected to try attaching a human rights test to an obscure Bill regulating broadband installation in rented flats. The hope is that the amendment will fatally undermine plans to allow Huawei to help build Britain’s 5G network, a sore point for Conservative backbenchers over which they have already demonstrated their willingness to vote against the government. 

If this legislative chicanery sounds too clever by half, that’s because it is. The government must confront the security implications of the Huawei deal head on; it cannot be shunted out the back door by some sly parliamentary device. 

The Shenzhen-headquartered firm should never have been given the green light in the first place. Now, after China’s secrecy, dishonesty and bad faith over its coronavirus, there can be no doubt: the deal must be cancelled. No tricks, no dodges — it’s leadership that’s needed.

*****

The £900,000 paint job on Boris Johnson’s official plane has finally been complete, you’ll no doubt be relieved to learn. Now the RAF Voyager comes complete with a Union Jack on the tail, much to the consternation of some Scottish nationalists. No wonder: imagine living in a country where the leader flies around in a vanity aircraft.  

Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Letters: scotletters@dailymail.co.uk. Contact Stephen at stephen.daisley@dailymail.co.uk. Image by Darko Stojanovic from Pixabay.

Lockdown dust-up

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When they come to write about these times, historians will call it the Glorious Fifteenth.

July 15 was unveiled by Nicola Sturgeon as the date on which both childcare providers and pubs will reopen. People accuse this government of being out of touch but making it possible to drop your kids off then head straight for your local displays an uncanny grasp of the current parental psyche. 

To cross-party applause, the First Minister announced that hairdressers and barbers would open from the same date. Few will have been as elated as Richard Leonard, currently sporting the moody centre parting of a man about to drop a highly ill-advised skater punk album.

The Glorious Fifteenth will throw open the doors of cinemas and museums, as well as art galleries and libraries. Monuments will also reopen. Please check with Sky News to see if yours is still standing before beginning your journey. 

The lifestyle sections say this will be the year of the staycation and there was some news on that front. The five-mile travel limit will be lifted on July 5 and, ten days later, holiday accommodation will resume. If you’ve ever fancied spending two weeks on the M8 amid a sea of caravans bound for Seton Sands, now is your chance. 

Sturgeon’s statement teed up another round of First Minister’s Questions, where the performances and dialogue are so ropy it’s a wonder BBC Scotland hasn’t commissioned it yet. Jackson Carlaw urged a relaxing of the two-metre social distancing rule to get the tourism industry back on its feet. He wanted Sturgeon to ‘bring forward’ the review into the rules. 

‘If I were to put pressure on an independent advisory group to give me advice earlier than it was ready to do so, Jackson Carlaw would probably be the first to get to his feet to criticise me,’ the First Minister replied, not without justification. Besides, since when has this government ever put pressure on independent organisations or experts? 

The Scottish Tory leader circled back for another go, accusing the First Minister of doing ‘too little, too late’ and pressed her to ‘at least consider acting more proactively’. 

Despite his baiting, Sturgeon held her cool well. Suspiciously well. She was not prepared to engage in ‘some kind of reckless race with other parts of the UK,’ which will have come as a surprise to regular followers of her Meanwhile In Wales updates. 

‘I have tried — and I will continue to try — not to criticise other leaders who are taking very difficult decisions, because I do not think that that is fair or justified,’ she proudly informed the chamber.

Two answers later, and with no less pride, she stuck in a dig at the UK Government and ‘untested technology that never transpires, regardless of the promise’. 

Carlaw was holding his own until he strayed off topic and onto the subject of reopening schools. This was when we saw why Sturgeon had pulled her punches earlier.

With vindictive solemnity, she read from a May 26 policy paper on ‘blended learning’ that did not advocate a full return to classrooms in August and in fact told ministers to ‘commit to flexibility on what happens’.

Earlier this week the opposition strong-armed John Swinney into reopening schools on August 11, but this document had called for monthly updates on future schools plans to begin on that date. Indeed, so sceptical were the authors of this analysis that they recommended: ‘Only if evidence emerges that it would be safe to move faster to a full re-opening should we do so.’

The authors of the analysis? The Scottish Conservative Party. 

Carlaw deflated, but Sturgeon wasn’t done. 

‘What the Tories are criticising us for now is exactly what they called on us to do,’ she hammered away. ‘I think that sums up Jackson Carlaw’s approach. It is not leadership… It is, frankly, grubby political opportunism.’

It wasn’t an answer, it was an annihilation. It was like watching a baby seal being clubbed but wondering if maybe the seal had it coming. 

Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Letters: scotletters@dailymail.co.uk. Contact Stephen at stephen.daisley@dailymail.co.uk

Blackboard bungle

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John Swinney has spent much of the past few weeks in TV studios foretelling the blood-curdling horrors to come if schools returned full-time in August.

Yesterday, he bobbed up at Holyrood to inform us that schools would be returning full-time in August. Imagine if Roy Scheider had announced halfway through Jaws that there had never been a shark then popped in the ocean for a quick dip. You would’ve demanded your money back.

Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the debating chamber, the Education Secretary pounced with a hastily arranged statement, and there was no chance of a refund here.

The Deputy First Minister had assured the country that the future was ‘blended learning’, which sounds like a hipster coffee brand favoured by student unions but is educationalist-speak for ‘one day a week in the classroom, four days a week on the PS4’.

But, in a dramatic twist, Swinney decided to redraw his policy, coincidentally after half the nation’s parents had vented their fury on social media. The parliamentary schedule was rejigged to allow him to explain this abrupt deus ex Mumsnet.

What was the best excuse he could muster? Shoulders hunched, tie slanted, eyes fixed to the script, a schoolboy called before the headmaster mumbled something about having expected the virus to be much worse. ‘Now, thankfully, the picture looks more positive,’ he strained.

On the opposition benches, they were doing some muttering of their own.

This was it? An entire civil service, special adviser and party spin operation at his disposal and he was going with ‘I didnae ken’? The dog hadn’t eaten his homework. From the sounds of it, the dog had written his homework.

There were some encouraging advances, such as the news that ministers would work with councils to find posts for qualified teachers, but the rest was disingenuous dreck. ‘The sharpness of the decline [of Covid-19] that has taken place… has surprised us,’ he burbled, standing on the very spot where his boss had been touting said decline for weeks.

Jamie Greene, the toothy Tory education chap, sunk his gnashers into this slop as though into an underdone slab of beef.

‘Parents have been scunnered by all this,’ he rasped. ‘Why did it take so much anger from parents’ to prompt this shameless volte-face? There was, he tore away, ‘a complete vacuum of leadership’.

When he’s been caught out, Swinney adopts the tone of a Victorian matron who has been falsely accused of dipping the collection plate. It was ‘a disgraceful slur’ to imply he was lax in his duty to appear before parliament, something no one had actually implied.

His dudgeon only grew higher as he seethed at the ‘fallacy’ that this statement was ‘a surprise appearance from me’. It had been announced by email exactly four hours earlier.

Labour’s Iain Gray proclaimed ‘the mother and father of all ministerial climbdowns’, adding for good measure: ‘We asked for a route map to schools reopening. It turns out we’ve been on a mystery tour.’

From the former teacher, it was the equivalent of one thousand lines and an afternoon in the dunce cap.

A succession of opposition spokespeople tried and failed to pin the minister down on the scientific advice supporting his new approach.

Where Greene and Gray had failed, ginger persevered. Ross Greer, appearing via video link from home and threatening the faintest hint of stubble, pushed the Deputy First Minister further to share with the parliament the expert advice that had informed this blackboard backtrack. Swinney undertook to continue publishing expert input, before pivoting back to our galloping advancements on coronavirus.

Oh, and in case you’re worried all that planning for ‘blended learning’ was for naught, it was in fact ‘essential preparation’ in case our lightning progress went into reverse at similarly short notice. I suppose that’s always a risk with a virus so eerily attuned to the demands of a government message grid.

Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Letters: scotletters@dailymail.co.uk. Contact Stephen at stephen.daisley@dailymail.co.uk.

Lockdown must apply to everyone or it must be lifted

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What connects George Square, St Andrew Square and the Paisley Cenotaph?

The answer is that all three attracted crowds over the weekend. In Glasgow’s most famous gathering place, more than 500 demonstrators assembled to protest against racism and in favour of refugees’ rights, alongside a smaller contingent of Right-wing activists.

In Edinburgh, 1,000 gathered to hear author Irvine Welsh denounce a statue to Henry Dundas, an opponent of slavery abolition. At Paisley’s war memorial, an outfit calling itself the Loyalist Defence League turned up to ‘protect’ the structure from threats unknown.

These three events have something else in common. To the best of my knowledge, not one person at any of them was arrested for breaking the Health Protection (Coronavirus) (Restrictions) (Scotland) Regulations 2020, better known as the lockdown rules.

The only arrests were one for alleged obstruction and another for alleged threatening and abusive behaviour.

There is a slightly surreal quality to the open disregard of the Covid-19 control measures. I am certain I remember them being announced, debated, made law then drummed in to the public with the zeal of a Jesuit instilling the Catechism. Yet the authorities allow them to be trampled on without a hint of disquiet.

Those rules explicitly forbid mass gatherings. That includes the two rallies that graced George Square last Wednesday evening. Police had told far-Right rabblerousers (again purporting to defend statues) and campaigners against asylum seeker evictions not to congregate.

Officers were duly ignored amid reports of ugly scenes and six arrests under public order legislation.

Nicola Sturgeon called that unrest ‘disgraceful’ and declaimed ‘racist thugs’ who ‘shame Scotland’. She added: ‘If they break the law, they should face the full force of it.’ The conditional tense tells you just how bad things have got. The First Minister doesn’t seem aware that, in gathering en masse, every attendee violated one of her government’s laws.

We live in uncanny times, but dangerous ones, too. The police stand by while large groups from countless households gather, mingle, cough and sneeze in sardine-tight proximity in public places. Yet, anyone else breaking lockdown has faced a warning, dispersal, fine or arrest. Even former chief medical officer Dr Catherine Calderwood got a visit from the boys in blue.

This disparity reeks of fear, of a top brass who suspect that, were their officers to apply the law evenly, they may not enjoy the support of ministers.

From their statements, it is clear that a number of senior politicians have more affinity for some of the unlawful crowds than for the laws they are infringing. After damning the far-Right demagogues, Sturgeon added: ‘All of us should unite to say that welcoming refugees and asylum seekers is part of who we are.’ Hardly a stinging rebuke to the rival protesters.

David Hamilton, chairman of the Scottish Police Federation, warned: ‘When our politicians fail to condemn the actions of those who defy the law, we cannot be surprised that it is increasingly difficult for police officers to enforce the law.

‘The public cannot expect the police service to turn a blind eye to those who break the law in the name of a particular cause whilst demanding different treatment for opponents.’

This is the peril in having laws that apply to some and not others and leaders who can only bring themselves to criticise one set of wrong-doers. The bad reflection falls not on the laws or the leaders but on the police stuck between the two.

The danger is that the general public comes to see the police as part-time upholders of the law, selectively targeting those lockdown-breakers whose run-in with the bobbies is unlikely to make the evening news. When we are governed by caprice rather than law equal administration of justice becomes impossible.

Of course, some will be more sympathetic to one genre of demonstration than the other. Justice Secretary Humza Yousaf insists there is no ‘moral equivalence’ between refugee campaigners and loyalist rabble-rousers. That may be but his job is to uphold our laws, not our morals. The actions of the two groups in defying the lockdown to gather in a public place were legally equivalent, and that is what is at issue.

If the rule of law is applied contingently, it is no longer law. Uniform officers use their discretion every day and we are better policed for it, but they cannot be asked to enforce the law subject to the ethical justifications of those who break it. They are police, not moral philosophers with a Taser X2.

The indulgence of any of these rallies makes a mockery of the lockdown regulations but it is also demoralising for the police. Knowing you must look the other way when you see an offence committed by hundreds or thousands of people because those who make the laws can’t even pretend to believe in them must feel belittling.

Those protesting against racism, police brutality and statues to slaveowners are impatient for change and believe the need is too pressing to wait until lockdown is over. They consider racial prejudice a pandemic of sorts and don’t want to lose this opportunity to challenge prevailing attitudes.

I have some sympathy with this view. Last year, I wrote in this newspaper about Scotland’s ‘Empire of denial’, our collective amnesia about how prominent our role was in colonialism and slavery. I argued Scotland had to confront not only its historical actions but also racist and xenophobic attitudes that persist today. My frustration with the protesters is at least as much about tactics as politics.

Their cause is appealing. Their cause appears just. It is a cause for marching, for raising your voice, and for demanding reform. But it is not a cause that justifies putting the country at risk of a second wave of a killer virus. Covid-19 does not take a knee while you sort out the rest of the world’s problems.

The idealists disdain such thinking, just as they disdain the notion their rallies are no less unlawful than those of their political opposites. They are righteous and angry and convinced their virtue and the virtue of their cause are paramount. Idealism is like binge-drinking. It’s intoxicating but the hangover always comes.

Equal justice demands that the law be applied against all gatherings, regardless of their ideological tenor or our affinity for their objectives. The public also demands this and if ministers think their transient commitment to the law has gone unnoticed, they are very wrong.

The people I speak to want to know why protests are allowed but their churches are shut, why hundreds can flock to George Square but not one customer can set foot in their pub, why there are more political rallies to choose from in Scotland than dentists.

Too many of our leaders live in pristine silos of liberal enlightenment. In their working lives, leisure pursuits, consumption habits and social media use, they echo and are echoed by people who think as they do and think those who don’t are beyond the pale. Only in the occasional trespassing of democracy into professional politics do they catch a glimpse of the country and realise most of it lies far outwith their narrow consensus.

The country is not fretting about how to make refugees welcome (noble though that is). It is watching in an amalgam of bewilderment, horror and resentment as the rules they have stuck to are waived for those who believe their ideals trump considerations of public safety.

Three months of radical restrictions on personal liberty were predicated on the ‘serious and imminent threat to public health which is posed by the incidence and spread of coronavirus’.

If the threat is no longer serious or imminent, why are we still in lockdown? If the threat remains, why isn’t everyone in lockdown?

Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Letters: scotletters@dailymail.co.uk. Contact Stephen at stephen.daisley@dailymail.co.uk. Image by UnratedStudio from Pixabay (cropped). 

Wanted: a worthy opponent to Nicola Sturgeon

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At risk of spoiling the ending, Nicola Sturgeon is going to win next year’s Holyrood election.

Barring some unforeseen scandal or government catastrophe, Scotland is likely to hand the Nationalist leader another term in Bute House. It is not impossible that she secures an outright majority in the Scottish Parliament. Election 2021 is hers to lose. 

The SNP’s gravity-defying poll numbers are a source of consternation for that half of the country that hotly disdains the separatists and their leader. They resent the failure of their compatriots to see through the sham and spin and realise they are being governed by a cynical clique of incompetents and grievance-mongers. 

These frustrations are understandable. Three terms of Nationalist rule have produced little of substance and on education and health we have seen progress stall and even go into reverse. Meanwhile, sizeable reserves of political capital, parliamentary time and government resources have gone into a constitutional war of attrition. What exactly about the past 13 years would make anyone want another five?

Angry people want someone to blame and Unionists are no different. They blame the media for giving Nicola Sturgeon an easier ride than Boris Johnson gets from network news. There is some truth to this: Scottish broadcasters are generally less adversarial and one outlet in particular is positively chummy with the ruling party.

Next they blame the First Minister herself, for her Machiavellian political skills and for casting her mind-bending spell over the electorate. Castigating a politician for winning elections is like castigating the CEO of Coca-Cola for shifting too many bottles of fizzy pop. 

Finally, they turn their ire on the voters. They must be fools or rubes or fanatics for being so readily taken in. No doubt some are but the political party has yet to be created that could scold the voters into electing it. 

More difficult for Unionists to confront is the lacklustre quality of their opposition to the SNP. Never has such a mediocre government been blessed with an opposition that daren’t aspire to the dizzying heights of mediocrity.

Eight years of Ruth Davidson spoiled us and now Sturgeon is without a match on the opposition benches. Davidson kept the First Minister on her toes in a way the current Scottish Tory leader and the Scottish Labour leader cannot. 

As a parliamentary sketch-writer, I see it with my own eyes. Peering down from the press gallery at Holyrood, you can pick up even the slightest tic or twitch. I know when the First Minister is furious (she draws back a little, ready to pounce), when she is wounded (her shoulders spike) and when she is bored (eyes down, pretending to read a briefing book she already knows by heart), but I don’t think I have seen her fearful of a question from Jackson Carlaw or Richard Leonard.

Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair both spoke of their apprehension at stepping into the Commons chamber for Prime Minister’s Questions. Sturgeon strides to her place with the confidence of a woman who had the full measure of her opponents early on and has had no cause to change her mind.

Jackson Carlaw has only been leader in his own right for four months and there is still time and scope to fix the problems with his leadership, most of which lie outwith the debating chamber.

Richard Leonard gives no similar cause for optimism. The Scottish Labour leader has been in post for two-and-a-half years and has made almost no impression on his party or the public consciousness in that time. Carlaw may be no Ruth Davidson but Leonard is no Wendy Alexander.

His time in charge of Scottish Labour has been a ghost leadership. There is no speech that sticks in the mind, no policy or campaign that bears his name, no political victory of any significance. A Labour leader must be an activist yet Leonard’s captaincy has been marked by torpor and drift. He is the worst Scottish Labour leader not to have the words ‘Henry’ or ‘McLeish’ in his name. If he left tomorrow, he would leave no trace of ever having been there.

Under his tenure, Labour’s general election performance, upon which previous Scottish leaders were judged, has been mesmerically bad. The 18.6 per cent it racked up last December was its lowest share of the vote in 109 years. The last Holyrood election saw Labour’s vote collapse and Leonard’s top priority should be rebuilding it, but the last time the party was polling above the 2016 results was 17 months ago. 

This isn’t personal or factional. By all accounts, Leonard is a decent sort with sincere principles and a commitment to public service. He has always been friendly and courteous in his encounters with me. He is a good man but a terrible leader. 

Despite this, he has been in the job longer than Kezia Dugdale and Jim Murphy combined. Should he lead his party into next May’s Holyrood poll, he will do so as devolution’s longest-serving Labour leader after Jack McConnell. Yet his only qualification for the job seems to be the absence of anyone else willing to do it.

Whenever I ask the question of Labourites, they suggest one of three names as a potential replacement. Monica Lennon swung in too hard behind Corbyn and some on the Labour right still haven’t forgiven her for it, but she has proved in the health brief that she can make life difficult for the Scottish Government. 

Jenny Marra is very capable, has a forensic policy mind and sees in how the SNP has failed Dundee a microcosm of its misgovernance of Scotland. She has a young family and, like it or not, women are still the primary caregivers in most households. It would not be impossible (just look at New Zealand prime minister Jacinda Ardern) but it would be trying.

The name that comes up most often is the man who stood against Leonard in 2017. Anas Sarwar is a confident parliamentary performer with a populist grasp of the issues and the most dangerous place in Scotland is between him and a TV camera.

Sarwar Labour could recover Unionist voters lost to the Tories over Indyref2 but, more importantly, eat into the SNP’s support by putting forth a dynamic agenda that moves Scotland beyond constitutional limbo onto what matters: generating prosperity, creating opportunities and lifting people out of poverty. He could even reach soft independence voters with a simple message: you don’t have to wait for a referendum, we can start making Scotland a better country today.

Unfortunately for Scotland, and particularly for Scottish Labour, I am reliably informed that Sarwar is not interested in the job at this stage. This is most unfortunate of all for Sir Keir Starmer. He’s had a strong start as Labour leader but, absent a Blair-esque landslide, it is hard to see a path to Number 10 that doesn’t run through Scotland. Sir Keir needs double figures of Scottish seats and while Ian Murray is worth a dozen MPs, numerically he still only counts as one. 

The want of a capable Scottish Labour leader is undermining that party’s electoral fortunes and may ultimately frustrate the political ambitions of its UK leader, but that is not where the real harm is being done. Political parties come and go but we have only one country. The damage being done to Scotland’s economy, public services and civil discourse by an arrogant, tribal and unaccountable government will take years to repair.

Nicola Sturgeon and her party deserve a good deal of the blame but by no means all of it. A government is only as good as the risk is real that it could be replaced at the next election. That risk does not exist for the SNP and that is the fault of those whose task it is to provide opposition and supply the country with a viable alternative. 

Not being interested in the job is not good enough. It is not just a ‘job’. It is a duty and it’s long past time someone stepped up to it. 

Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Letters: scotletters@dailymail.co.uk. Contact Stephen at stephen.daisley@dailymail.co.uk.

Alison through the looking-glass

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Alison Johnstone knows how to handle herself.

The Greens’ co-leader turned in another assured performance at First Minister’s Questions on the issue of testing in care homes and hospitals.

Burnishing her reputation for sharp interrogation, she pressed the First Minister over scientific advice on testing. This isn’t the most thrilling subject for FMQs but the Lothian MSP had a clear target: the Scottish Government’s ever-shifting attitude to expert advice.

Ministers had ‘initially resisted the principle of testing individuals without symptoms’ but were now expanding testing.

What changed?

And what about the all-singing, all-dancing, all-importantly Scottish expert panel she had made such a fuss over in the early days of the crisis?

Johnstone was stony: ‘Does the First Minister have advice that the science, which supports regular testing in care homes, is not relevant to our hospitals? The testing capacity is already in place to do it. Is the First Minister waiting until the UK Government advises her to do it?’

Nicola Sturgeon mugged for the cameras. ‘I am not sure whether I followed the thread of that question,’ she replied, not terribly convincingly. ‘I was not sure whether Alison Johnstone was criticising us for following advice that comes from SAGE [Scientific Advisory Group on Emergencies].’

The patronising response was a telling deflection. Her government had adopted a stance on testing at odds with the World Health Organisation while boasting of its reliance on science. The truth, which we certainly didn’t get from Sturgeon in the chamber, is likely that ministers knew they lacked the capacity to adopt routine testing early on.

Since then, Sturgeon has got into the routine of adopting Downing Street policy two weeks after it is announced. Boris Johnson should try announcing his opposition to Scottish independence.

Alison Johnstone knows how to needle the SNP leader while appearing eminently reasonable. As she put it, candidly: ‘There seems to be a worrying lack of urgency in testing for this potentially life-threatening disease.’

This bluntness, particularly because it comes from the left and not those wicked Unionists, is politically useful in setting Johnstone apart. It makes clear she’s her own woman and just because they see eye to eye on the constitution, doesn’t mean she will kowtow to big sister. Other Green MSPs could learn from this approach. Those whose names begin with ‘Patrick’ and end with ‘Of Course, Nicola’.

Johnstone’s adversarial style is especially virtuous at the present time. A government intractably secretive and hostile to accountability now has all our lives in its hands, deciding our movements, work patterns, even whether we can attend loved ones’ funerals.

Tory leader Jackson Carlaw gave it his best shot, too. He was also prodding the emoter-in-chief about what her warm words meant in practice for care homes.

‘Ministers need to get a grip of the situation and they need to do it now,’ he sizzled. ‘The time for promising is over – it is long past time to fully deliver.’

Would the First Minister commit to ‘a hard deadline’ for the promised 50,000 tests for care home residents and staff? Sturgeon said she would consider it but defended the current regime as ‘robust and sustainable’.

Carlaw’s comeback was certainly robust: ‘Why is the story that we hear in the daily press conferences in Edinburgh so different to what we are picking up on the ground, where it matters?’

That went down well. Carlaw, his sparring partner swung back, was making ‘unsubstantiated claims about the handling of the Covid-19 outbreak’ and ‘engaging simply in party politicking’. Something you’d never have caught Sturgeon doing in opposition.

The First Minister expects a deference from political parties in Holyrood that her MPs wouldn’t dream of showing in Westminster. She’s all for government being held to account as long as it’s not her own.

Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Letters: scotletters@dailymail.co.uk. Contact Stephen at stephen.daisley@dailymail.co.uk.

Tyranny of certainty stands in the way of change

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Martin Shipton is used to writing the news but now he has become the news.

The Western Mail’s chief reporter has been dropped from the judging panel of Wales Book of the Year for a series of tweets about a Black Lives Matter protest in Cardiff.

Shipton, a staple of Welsh journalism for decades, pointed out that this gathering broke the lockdown introduced to control a virus that had cost ‘many more lives than the Minneapolis police’.

He was certainly not defending the actions of officers in the death of George Floyd; indeed, he described them as ‘murder’. Rather, Shipton was arguing that ‘holding a demo in front of Cardiff Castle’ about something that happened half way around the world was ‘politically naive and virtue signalling’. The Twitter Inquisition, which everyone expects at this point, gathered their torches and out a-heretic-burning they went. Shipton, for his part, defended himself in decidedly robust terms, prompting Literature Wales to axe him for ‘aggressive language’.

I have met Shipton and briefly worked alongside him. He struck me as a staunch liberal who took the progressive position on all the big issues of the day. Ironically, I recall him being especially acidic about the uptick of racism occasioned, as he saw it, by the rise of populist politics in Britain and the United States. For voicing the wrong opinion on protest tactics he is now beyond the pale.

He is not the only one. Manx Radio host Stu Peters has been suspended after questioning the doctrine of ‘white privilege’ on-air. When a black caller referred to ‘white people’s privilege’, Peters responded: ‘I’ve had no more privilege in my life than you have.’ His radio station referred itself to the communications watchdog and issued a statement declaring it ‘does not condone racism in any form amongst its staff ’.

That tension is in the air is hardly surprising after the killing of Mr Floyd. From the two post-mortems performed and the video of his arrest, it is clear that his final minutes were filled with terror and suffering. His death was a tragedy but it was more than that: it was an outrage. Thousands have filled the streets to protest peacefully against what they see as police racism but others have rioted, looted and attacked the police.

The potential for turning the peaceful protests into meaningful change is being undermined by a refusal to engage in dialogue. Minneapolis mayor Jacob Frey, who is sympathetic to the protests, was booed and heckled out of one rally because he would not agree to abolish the city’s entire police department.

The stoutly liberal New York Times also backs the demonstrators but, among its reams of supportive columns, it published one op-ed by a Republican senator calling for the military to quell the riots. Inflammatory, no doubt, but a stance supported by 58 per cent of US voters. Not 800 New York Times staff members, though, who signed an open letter condemning their own newspaper for running the op-ed, with many insisting that ‘running this puts black New York Times writers, editors and other staff in danger’.

There is a lot of raw, quite justifiable anger over these events, but that is not the root cause of this intense hostility towards different ideas. It has been roiling away for some time now. Entire swathes of opinion that run contrary to progressive thinking are being designated ‘problematic’, then ‘inappropriate’, before those who espouse them are finally ‘cancelled’.

In public debates about mainstream policy and ideas, the object is no longer to beat the other side but to prevent the other side from speaking.

Not all that long ago the Left was the champion of free speech against conservatives who believed it was the state’s place to censor ideas, art and literature the community considered morally harmful. Liberals and radicals said they should be free to say and write and create whatever they wanted.

But in toppling the old moral standards and the establishment that guarded them, progressives have imposed their own standards. Unsurprisingly, the new establishment is just as enthusiastic about suppressing ideas that scandalise its morality as the old establishment was.

This orthodox liberalism, which bears only a passing resemblance to actual liberalism, is rigid, doctrinaire and angrily intolerant of dissent.

It displays a religious, near fanatical, conviction that its opponents are not merely wrong but wicked, sinful, in need of wrathful destruction. Once you convince yourself that those who disagree are evil, you no longer feel the need to listen to them and eventually you decide no one else should listen to them either.

The tyranny of certainty runs through all sectors, from the arts and the media to academia and business. More than 300 Guardian staff penned a letter to their editor condemning Left-wing columnist Suzanne Moore for her views on gender. The Right-wing actor Laurence Fox was denounced by his own actors’ union for expressing his contempt for the concept of ‘white privilege’ on Question Time.

On the university campuses, no-platforming – a tactic designed to counter fascists – is being deployed against radical feminists who assert that sex is a biological fact. Former Home Secretary Amber Rudd was disinvited to an Oxford University society over her handling of the Windrush scandal. The university’s student union council has called for the removal from the curriculum of teaching materials perceived as ‘hateful’.

Even the impeccably liberal JK Rowling is reviled for saying terms like ‘woman’ should not be erased lest it becomes harder for women to speak up for their rights. If you think the Harry Potter author, who has given away much of her fortune to progressive causes, is a reactionary, God help you when you get off social media and encounter the rest of humanity.

The Scottish Government is particularly guilty of this behaviour. Its ‘Dear Bigots’ advertising campaign was justly criticised for trying to place great lengths of the political and religious spectrum beyond legitimate debate. Justice Secretary Humza Yousaf’s Hate Crime Bill does much the same in seeking to regulate speech and even plays deemed ‘abusive’ or ‘insulting’ to certain groups.

Underlying all this is the conviction that views outwith a narrow progressive consensus are more than just wrong, or even wicked, but actively dangerous. There is a theory in international relations called securitisation and it goes something like this: if you want to take an issue out of the realm of politics, you frame it as a matter of national security.

Once a subject has been ‘securitised’ it is not a topic for public debate and must be dealt with urgently by prime ministers, Army chiefs and experts. A commonly cited example is the UK’s involvement in the Iraq War, which went from a national conversation about the merits of joining US forces to a security situation in which Saddam Hussein’s ‘weapons of mass destruction’ posed an immediate threat to British lives and interests.

Progressive censors are trying to apply this technique to speech and ideas of which they disapprove. In making alternative opinions a threat to the security or well-being of particular groups or society at large, they are essentially declaring politics to be finished. People who behave like this do not want a conversation, they are in the business of issuing orders.

This mindset is much more dangerous than the unpopular, obnoxious or reactionary views it seeks to squelch. Once you decide only your side may participate in the public discourse, and those who disagree must be shunned, shamed, kicked off a panel, or fired from their job, there no longer is a public discourse.

There is just you and those who think like you radiating virtue from an ever-narrowing circle of certainty that may one day become too small for you.

Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Letters: scotletters@dailymail.co.uk. Contact Stephen at stephen.daisley@dailymail.co.uk. Image by Steve Buissinne from Pixabay.

Nicola Sturgeon doesn’t like your tone

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Sometimes it’s not what you ask, it’s how you ask it.

First Minister’s Questions was all about tone. Jackson Carlaw’s line of inquiry – Covid-19 testing in care homes – was not new but his timbre was. Sharper, drier. The bonhomie was gone from his voice, and the twinkle from his eye.

This was no bad thing. The Tory leader’s impersonation of the maître d’ of a fading provincial restaurant is uncanny but not entirely appropriate for times such as these.

At turns forbidding and florid but always slightly pompous, Carlaw’s performance had grown grating of late but yesterday was another matter. It was a forensic, almost lawyerly picking apart of the Scottish Government’s record. Someone’s been watching Keir Starmer for tips.

Two weeks ago, ministers had promised all care home staff would be tested regularly. There were 50,000 care workers in Scotland. How many had been tested?

Sturgeon’s reply was ultimately a non-answer: ‘Eh… the programme of regularly and routine… eh… care home staff… eh… testing is under way and… eh… when we have the robust and reliable figures to report from that we will report that regularly.’

Carlaw retorted it was ‘difficult to believe’ widespread testing was under way. He pared at the First Minister’s answer: ‘If they were being routinely tested every week, there would be a minimum of 7,000 tests a day. Yesterday, the total number of tests done for all of Scotland was fewer than 5,000.’

She pivoted to talk about the decline in care home deaths. Again, not an answer and the dodge made her look shifty. As Carlaw put it, while the World Health Organisation called for a ‘test, test, test’ approach, Sturgeon opted for ‘dither, delay, distract’.

Labour’s Richard Leonard twisted the screw. How many elderly hospital patients dumped in care homes were tested first?

‘As I’ve said before,’ the First Minister came back, ‘we don’t yet have the data that will tell us how many older people who were discharged were tested.’

Leonard raised the case of a care worker rejected for testing despite the assurances of the Scottish Government. ‘There is a consistent disconnect,’ he added, ‘between parliamentary pronouncements and the reality facing workers in Scotland’s care homes.’

Willie Rennie put his shoulder to the wheel, too. Officials estimate that 19,000 Scots are infected with coronavirus. The Test and Protect scheme had been up and running for almost a week now. How many of those 19,000 had been tested and how many of their contacts had been traced?

Rennie lucked out, too. ‘We don’t yet have initial data from Test and Protect,’ Sturgeon replied, assuring the Lib Dem leader that the numbers would be available next week.

There was a theme emerging here. Without publication of the data, it is impossible to test the statements of the First Minister and Health Secretary against the facts and thus impossible to hold their government to account. ‘Trust us’ is a big ask for most politicians, let alone the pair blamed for the Nike conference cover-up.

Tory Peter Chapman is ordinarily a gentleman but he had lost patience with Jeane Freeman. He claimed she had ignored emails about a blind constituent trying to get an optometrist appointment. ‘Will she tell her Health Secretary to reply to her emails?’ he growled.

Sturgeon said the ‘tone of his question’ would ‘jar with the majority of people across the country’, before charging the Tories with ‘attempts to party-politicise this issue’.

Secretive, shifty, and now rattled.

MSPs welcomed Ken Macintosh back to the chair yesterday. I’m not saying First Minister’s Questions is excruciating but last week he arranged to have an appendectomy just to avoid it.

The Presiding Officer took ill last Monday and was taken to hospital where he was diagnosed with appendicitis and underwent keyhole surgery. Still, more pleasant than a Corporate Body meeting. 

Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Letters: scotletters@dailymail.co.uk. Contact Stephen at stephen.daisley@dailymail.co.uk.